Pilot Whale | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Pilot Whale

Globicephala macrohynchus (short-finned), G. melas (long-finned)

Also known as

Blackfish, Caa’ing whale, pothead whale

Distribution

Short-finned: tropical/sub-tropical; long-finned: temperate/subarctic

Ecosystem/Habitat

Coastal and offshore waters

Feeding Habits

Active predator

Conservation Status

Not at Risk

Taxonomy

Suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales); Family Delphinidae (dolphins)

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Pilot whales are the second largest species of dolphin, after the killer whale. They are incredibly social, living communally in matriarchal pods. These pods usually include 10 to 20 individuals, but some “super pods” can have hundreds of individuals. Their name is derived from the idea that the pod follows a leader or “pilot” when travelling. There are two species that continue to thrive throughout much of the world’s ocean today: short- and long-finned pilot whales.

Short- and long-finned pilot whales look similar, but as their name suggests, their fins are not the same sizes and their skulls are also shaped differently. Pilot whales are odontocetes, or toothed whales. This means that unlike baleen whales, which are filter feeders, pilot whales use their teeth for hunting. Both species of pilot whales only have about half the number of teeth compared to other dolphins as a special adaption for eating squid, their primary food. Their bodies are long and narrow toward the tail with a curved, wide dorsal fin. They are generally black with white markings on their underbelly, a distinct anchor-shape patch near their jaw and white behind their eye. Short-finned pilot whales also tend to have a white saddle patch behind their dorsal fin. Similar to many cetaceans, pilot whales are sexually dimorphic; males are larger than females, growing up to 6.7 metres (22 feet) in length and weighing up to three tonnes.

Behavior and Culture

Pilot whales are distributed broadly throughout the world’s ocean, with long-finned pilot whales tending to live only in colder (temperate and sub-arctic). Their short-finned cousins live in warmer (tropical and sub-tropical) waters with only some overlap in their habitats. Both species of pilot whales are capable of incredible hunting behaviour, including holding their breath for 15 minutes and reaching depths of 1,000 metres at speeds of up to 90 kilometres per hour. They accomplish these feats while tracking down their food source: small squid that live in the abyssal zone, a layer of the ocean that stays in total darkness. Pilot whales are known to have very strong social connections among their own matriarchal pod and rarely interact with other pods. The pod is led by a female who is often the grandmother of the individuals in the group. Research has shown that vocal traditions are passed down through these family units and that specific call types and dialects within a pod are not shared. These strong social connections and the way in which they communicate are known to be important factors in the evolution of their culture. Curiously, pilot whales are known for beaching in large groups of up to several hundred individuals, attributed to their persistence to remain together even in a crisis.

On average, pilot whales live for 45 – 60 years. Females generally become sexually mature at six years of age, while males reach maturity closer to 12. Pilot whales have one of the longest birth intervals of all the cetaceans, with females only calving every three to five years following a 12-15 month gestation. Birthing can occur year-round, but most commonly in the warm season. Calves are approximately two metres long at birth and nurse for 22 months before weaning. Both males and females remain within their matriarchal pod for their entire lives. It is speculated that the mating ritual of pilot whales can be quite aggressive, given the evidence of biting and head butting on both males and females. Short-finned pilot whales are one of the few cetaceans that experience menopause. Once a female can no longer reproduce she will help care for other pod members’ newborn and young.

Pilot whales continue to experience hunting pressures that easily exploit their social behaviour. Drive fisheries force entire pods into shallow waters for easy harvest by encircling them, especially effective since the whales will follow a “pilot” or leader during travel. Hunted for their meat, bones, and oil, inshore fishermen from Newfoundland hunted pilot whales for decades reaching a maximum of 10,000 whales harvested in 1956 alone. In the North Pacific Ocean, long-finned pilot whales are regionally extinct, likely a result of exploitation. Despite heavy hunting, pilot whales were never exploited to the same extent as baleen whales like humpback, bowhead or fin whales. There is no fishery targeting pilot whales in Canada today, but they are caught as bycatch in fishing gear such as gillnets, trawls, driftnets and purse seines. 

Find out more about bycatch and how you can help protect species like pilot whales here.

Neither the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) or the Species at Risk Act (SARA) consider the long-finned and short-finned pilot whales at-risk of extinction. There are an estimated one million long-finned and 200,000 short-finned whales worldwide. Otherwise, there is very little information on their global abundance or population trends. As such, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers them data deficient. Below are the conservation statuses of each population:

• Short-Finned Pilot Whale. COSEWIC listing: Not at Risk – 1993, SARA listing: No Schedule, No Status 

• Long-Finned Pilot Whale. COSEWIC listing: Not at Risk – 1994, SARA listing: No Schedule, No Status

Species at Risk Public Registry. (2017). Short-finned Pilot Whale. Retrieved from: http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=361

Species at Risk Public Registry. (2017). Long-finned Pilot Whale. Retrieved from: http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=358

DFO. (1962). The biology of the pilot of pothead whale Globicephala melaena (Traill) in Newfoundland waters. Retrieved from: http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Library/10012.pdf

American Cetacean Society. Pilot Whale. Retrieved from: http://acsonline.org/fact-sheets/pilot-whale/ 

IUCN. (2008). Globicephala melas. Retrieved from: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/9250/0 

IUCN. (2011). Globicephala macrorhynchus. Retrieved from: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/9249/0 

Oceana. Long-finned Pilot Whale. Retrieved from: http://oceana.org/marine-life/marine-mammals/long-finned-pilot-whale 

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2010). Pilot Whale. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/animal/pilot-whale