Short finned pilot whale

Globicephala macrorhynchus
Other names: 
  • Pothead whale
  • Pacific pilot whale
Maximum length: 
  • Male: 7.2m
  • Female: 5.5m
  • Calf: 1.5m
Maximum weight: 
  • Male: 3,600 kg
  • Female: Unknown
  • Calf: 60 kg
Diet: 
  • Squid
  • Fish
Estimated population: 
650,000
IUCN Listing: 
DD
CITES Appendix: 
II
CMS Appendix: 
Not Listed
Classification: 

There are currently two recognised species of pilot whale, the short-finned and long-finned, although it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish the two species from one another whilst at sea. Their distributional range rarely overlaps however with the short-finned species preferring warm temperate and tropical waters and the long-finned species favouring colder temperate conditions. In Japan, there are two morphologically and geographically distinct populations of short-finned pilot whales, one northern and one southern. It is believed that they are in fact separate subspecies however further examination is required.

Appearance: 

Pilot whales are large, robust animals with a bulbous head and no discernible beak. The flippers are long with a pointed tip, though in the short-finned form they are more curved, slightly shorter and the ‘elbow' is less defined than in the long-finned form. The dorsal fin is set forward on the body and varies in shape depending on age and sex. The tail flukes also have sharply pointed tips plus a distinct notch in the middle and concave edges. The short-finned pilot whale is jet black or dark grey with a grey or white 'saddle-patch' over its back behind the dorsal fin. It has a grey or almost white anchor shaped patch on its chest and a grey or white stripe which goes diagonally upwards behind each eye.

Behaviour: 

Short-finned pilot whales are highly sociable and are rarely seen alone. They are found in groups of between 15-50 animals, though some pods are as large as 60 individuals. Super-pods of hundreds of individuals are not uncommon and may swim abreast in a line several miles across with adults occasionally porpoising when swimming fast. They are sometimes seen logging and will allow boats to get quite close. They rarely breach, but may be seen lobtailing, spyhopping and surfing in the wake of large waves. Short-finned pilot whales have a preference for water about 1000m deep and are often found on continental slopes where their main prey item, squid is abundant. Their highly social nature and strong familial bonds could explain why this species is amongst those cetaceans that most frequently mass-strand. Males are thought to live to be about 45 years of age whilst females are thought to survive into their 60's.

Distribution: 

Short-finned pilot whales have been found as far north as the coast of France, but more common places to see this species include the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and offshore islands off Northwest Africa. Populations of short-finned pilot whales are present in some waters all year round, for example in Hawaii and Tenerife, but most groups seem to range widely. The species tends to stay offshore, unless their main prey of squid are spawning, in which case they may move closer inshore. The worldwide population of short-finned pilot whales is unknown and although they are not thought to be threatened on a global scale, several populations are hunted. Targeted in Japanese drive fisheries and other hunts elsewhere, the short-finned pilot whale is also favoured as a display species in dolphinaria around the world. Other threats to the species include entanglement in fishing nets and noise pollution. The IUCN lists the species as Data Deficient.

Distribution map: