Long finned pilot whale

Globicephala melas
Other names: 
  • Atlantic pilot whale
  • Pothead whale
  • Caa'ing whale
Maximum length: 
  • Male: 6.7m
  • Female: 5.7m
  • Calf: 1.6m
Maximum weight: 
  • Male: 2,300 kg's
  • Female: 1,300 kg's
  • Calf: 100 kg's
  • Small-medium sized fish (mackerel, turbot etc.)
  • Squid
Estimated population: 
IUCN Listing: 
CITES Appendix: 
CMS Appendix: 
II (North and Baltic Sea subpopulations)

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 at sea. Their ranges however rarely overlap. The short-finned species prefers warm temperate and tropical waters and the long-finned species favours colder temperate conditions. In some classifications three subspecies of long-finned pilot whales are recognised; G. m. melas in the North Atlantic; G. m. edwardii in the Southern hemisphere; and an unnamed and now extinct, subspecies in Japanese waters.


Pilot whales are large, robust animals with a bulbous head and no discernable beak. The flippers are long with a pointed tip and the dorsal fin is falcate and backswept, larger in males than in females and juveniles. As indicated by the name, the flippers are longer than those of the short-finned pilot whale and they have a more defined sickle-shaped elbow. The flukes often develop upturned tips. Colouration is more defined in the long-finned species as well. The body is black with brown or grey tones when seen up close with several distinct markings. There is a white stripe diagonally behind the eye, a white saddle patch behind the dorsal fin, and an anchor-shaped patch on the belly and chest. Young long-finned pilot whales are paler than adults and sometimes spotted, with a more pointed dorsal fin. As expected, they are most often confused with short-finned pilot whales but can also be confused with killer and false killer whales. They are easily distinguished from these last two species by the distinct white markings and fin shapes as well as their behaviour.


Long-finned pilot whales are highly sociable and also often associate with other cetaceans. They are leisurely swimmers, often inactive at the surface, logging or floating motionless while allowing slow-moving boats to approach. They can be seen bow-riding, lobtailing, and spyhopping and whilst breaching is rare in adults it is more common in young. animals. They usually travel in stable pods of 10-20 animals with more females than males, but can sometimes be seen forming pods of hundreds of individuals. Perhaps because of their strong group cohesion, they are one of the most common species to mass strand. One extreme mass-stranding incident included more than 800 pilot whales and sadly stranding events with ~ 100 individuals are not uncommon. Pilot whales are often observed in mixed species groups with common or bottlenose dolphins, but also with many other species, including minke whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins.


Long-finned pilot whales are found in sub-polar and temperate zones. In the North Atlantic they are found mostly in oceanic waters although they can be found closer to shore. In the southern hemisphere they can be found as far south as the Antarctic convergence. Long-finned pilot whales are still hunted in the Faroe Islands and elsewhere, not only for their meat but also, it is claimed, to reduce competition for fisheries. Other threats to this species include bycatch, prey depletion, noise pollution, and climate change. The IUCN Red List has classified the species as Least Concern.

Distribution map: