Pilot Whale

Marine Creature:  Short-finned and Long-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus and Globicephala melas)

Kindly compiled by Planet Whale


General Description

These large “blackfish” are two separate species but we’ve included them here as one as often they are very difficult to tell apart at sea, although they have quite distinctive ranges. Pilot Whales are usually seen in family groups travelling slowly at the surface or logging, often allowing a close approach by boats. Spyhopping, flipper slapping and lobtailing are regularly observed, although breaching and bow riding are rare. Having sighted a pod of Pilot Whales, it is generally worth scanning nearby areas of sea as small sub-groups may be spread out over a few kilometers. Each sub-group may be segregated, containing only adult males, females with young, or sub-adults.

© Dylan Walker at Planet Whale

© Dylan Walker at Planet Whale


The Short-finned Pilot Whale is commonly distributed in the tropical and subtropical oceans of the world. Although they may occur in nearshore waters, they are generally considered to be nomadic in deep offshore waters. The Long-finned Pilot Whale however is very common in all cold temperate to sub-polar waters, with the exception of the North Pacific.

Interesting Facts

It is often possible to tell the difference between adult male and female Pilot whales by the shape of their dorsal fin – the male tends to have a much more falcate fin with a very wide base.

  • Lifespan: Up to 63 years
  • Size: Max 7.2m in length and 4 tons in weight
  • Food: Mostly squid, but also fish, frequently taken in deep water and often at night
© Ian Rowlands, Dylan Walker & Sarah Jackson at Planet Whale

© Ian Rowlands, Dylan Walker & Sarah Jackson at Planet Whale

Feeding & Hunting

Pilot whales hunt a mixture of squid and fish, typically foraging at depths of between 200 m and 500 m. They often hunt with short bursts of speed, gaining the nickname the “cheetahs of the deep sea”. They are thought to hunt mostly at night.


Unfortunately Pilot whales are still hunted in drive fisheries in Japan and the Faroe Islands.  Pilot whales have an distinctively anchor-shaped ventral patch on their undersides.

Conservation Status & International Protection

IUCN “data deficient” for both species

Best places in the world to see these creatures:

Islands in the Atlantic such as the Canaries, Madeira, the Azores, but also many more locations worldwide – search online at www.planetwhale.com plus see ethical reviews and rating system for whale watching trips to see Pilot Whales

Organisation Profile:  Planet Whale

Orca7Description/Background of work

At the heart of Planet Whale is a belief that an encounter with a wild whale or dolphin reconnects us with the natural world in an amazing and powerful way. For one humbling moment we can be moved to tears or celebrating wildly as we stare through the thin veil of water that separates us from these magnificent animals.

Planet Whale understands that we all need such encounters to reawaken our sense of responsibility to the natural world; energising ourselves to act for the greater good. That is our first step – only when we have been inspired will we feel compelled to act. For this reason we promote responsible whale watching and have the largest online searchable database of whale and dolphin watch operators in the world – the public can review trips they’ve been on with regard to their sustainability, educational value and impact on the marine environment, amongst other things.

It is this global community that will change the way we view whales and dolphins forever. By harnessing the passion and ideas of individuals, we will achieve more to protect and defend our oceans than ever before.

Together we will: 

  • Give the people control so they can use it to help whales and dolphins.
  • Inspire change through a new global partnership.
  • Make whale watching more sustainable – and successful – than ever before!
  • Reach out to the world with colossal festivals for whales and dolphins.
  • Create innovative campaigns that harness the power of the web’s global community.

Websites:  www.planetwhale.com / www.whale-fest.com

Volunteer/Paid Work Opportunities

We are always looking for passionate and hard-working volunteers to help achieve our Planet Whale mission. In particular we welcome applications for the upcoming Whalefest. You don’t need to be a whale expert but a lot of enthusiasm for marine conservation and a fun attitude are essential. We’re based in Brighton and Hove (UK) but our volunteer network stretches across the globe, so feel free to get in touch wherever you are! Contact us at info@planetwhale.com.


Return to Toothed Whales or learn more about the Cuvier´s Beaked Whale