Observing this gentle seemingly lazy water giant basking in the sun you would assume it to be a small species of whale. However Pilot whales despite what their name suggests are not in fact whales but rather Cetaceans that belong to the family delphinidae. They are the 2nd largest species of dolphin only being exceed by Killer whale also known as Orca (Orcinus orca).

They received their name from 17th and 18th century sailors who would use them as a guiding mechanism to steer away from storms and to calmer waters. As the pilot whales would actively move and swim to calm water to float and log about at the surface during the day. Also due to the belief that they followed a single leader, which is believed to be the cause of numerous mass beaching and stranding’s.

Figure 1- species diagram showing the slight differences between the two species of Pilot whale. Credit: Ida Eriksson. (source)

Pilot whales are separated into 2 different species: the Short finned Pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and the Long finned Pilot whale (Globicephala melas). 


Both species the short finned Pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus)  and the long finned Pilot whale (Globicephala melas) are found worldwide in offshore tropical, subtropical and warm temperate waters, populations can be found off the coasts of  Mexico, East Europe, Africa and North Atlantic. There are some resident populations of Globicephala macrorhynchus such as those found off the coast of South Tenerife and the Azores. The waters they inhabit are deep shelf seas as the prey they hunt during the night are squid and other cephalopods found at depths ranging from 300m to 500m. Pilot whales will actively search out calm still waters, so they can log and bask in the sun conserving energy for the night hunting. During this time throughout the day it is estimated they will shut down about 80% of their brain activity.


Some general Facts

The short finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) can grow up to 7.2m for males and 5.5m for females, the males can also weight up to 3600 kilograms. G.macrorhynchus also are very long lived marine mammals with males having an average life span of 45 years and the females living up to or exceeding 60 years of age.In a pod of Globicephala macrorhynchus there is usually one dominant male who is the largest and strongest of the males in that pod. He will during the day keep a slight distance away from the main pod of females, calves and juveniles so as to keep a vigilant watch for predators or threats. I

It is difficult to tell the two separate species apart from one another when viewing them in the water as they have very similar features. out of the water the two species can be easily identified due to size difference the long finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) is both shorter at 6.5m in length and weighs far less than, reaching weights of 2300 kilograms in males.


Foraging for food

Pilot whales will dive down as deep as 500 meters when hunting for food but usually remain within the first 100m of the water so as not to expel too much energy. This behaviour of remaining with the first 100m happens through out the day and the high energy foraging occurs at night, their diet primarily consists of squid, along with fish,  and octopus. When hunting squid they will ambush from underneath and grasp the squid in their jaws which contain anywhere between 30-40 individual teeth and rush to the surface causing the sudden pressure change to kill the squid quickly without a fight. This ambush tactic removes any chance of the squid causing damage.


Whale watching and volunteer opportunities

A fast and upcoming industry in locations such as the Azores, Tenerife and the Gulf of Mexico is whale watching tours. Which sees licensed boats and captains providing tourists the opportunity to pay a certain price to spend an afternoon or the day aboard their ship,  in an attempt to witness and see Pilot whales, Bottlenose Dolphins, and if luck has taken a shine to you, the passengers may even be able to see species of Whale such as the Fin whale, Brydes whale and Orca’s. This opportunity provided by the upcoming industry of whale watching, provides a unique insight into how the wild species of whale live and interact with one another, giving the passengers on board I believe a sense of clarity that seeing them in the wild is far more rewarding and satisfying than having to see them shut up in an enclosed tank too small for their movement requirements. Also there is something special and mesmorising about seeing a small short finned pilot whale calf porpoise and breach alongside a boat that can not be achieved by seeing them in an aquarium.

Voluteering oppotunities and working alongside the Whale watching boats in locations such as Tenerife provides key data on migration patterns for select species such as Orca, Blue whales, and Sperm whales. Whilst data collected on G.macrorhynchus and Bottlenose dolphins is used to see the how of boat interaction effects the species. This is done by a charitable organisation as Atlantic Whale Foundation (AWF), the foundation works along side the whale touring boats, allowing the AWF volunteers to collect their data and also raise awareness to passengers about the whales, and also answer any questions that the passengers may have about the tour or a particular species they may or may not see on the whale tour.

Overall the volunteering and whale watching industry, I believe is a positive step in showing people who are enthusiastic about nature, the benefits of seeing and witnessing animals in their natural habitat.


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