There are actually two different species of the Pilot Whale – the Long-Finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas) and the Short-Finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus). It can be hard to distinguish them from each other in the water and that is why getting a good count of each one proves to be difficult. These are some of the largest dolphins in the world, second only to the Killer Whale. Sometimes, they are referred to as blackfish due to their coloration.
The Long-Finned Pilot Whales can be up to 25 feet long for the males and 19 feet for the females. The males can tip the scales around 5,000 pounds and the females weigh around 2,900 pounds. They are very stocky and they are either dark gray or black in color. They have a white stripe that runs behind the eye diagonally. The belly is a light gray color and they also have a gray patch on the chin. They have very long pectoral fins called flippers and the dorsal fin is forward on their body.
The Short-Finned Pilot Whales can be up to 18 feet long for the mature males and up to 12 feet in length for the mature females. They vary significantly in weight from 2,200 pound to around 6,600 pounds depending on their location. They have a melon head and they feature a dorsal fin that is far back on the body with a long base.
They are dark brown or black in color with a gray colored saddle located behind the dorsal fin. The pectoral fins are curved but also tapered and narrow. This is the primary difference between them and the Long-Finned Pilot Whale. Still, it can be very hard to tell them apart if you don’t have something to compare them to. Seeing side by side photos of the two species can be a good starting point.
The distribution for the Pilot Whale varies based on which of the species you are referencing. They live in bodies of water found around the world, but the Long-Finned Pilot Whale lives in colder waters. The Short-Finned Pilot Whales live in bodies of subtropical and tropical waters. They have quite a diverse habitat, and they seem to be able to adapt well to movement in order to find enough food for survival.
The level of social activity is very high for the Pilot Whales. The males and the females will remain in the same pod as their mother for life. This is very unusual with any mammals and they will also find mates outside of their own pod for this very reason. As a result, they are able to form very deep bonds with their family members. The number of members in a pod can range from 10 to 100. Sometimes, the males will leave the pod when they are mature and create a new pod close by the one they were born into.
They have to come to the surface of the water for air at least once every 10 to 16 minutes. They are able to dive up to 1,950 feet. Even though they are very large in size, these dolphins are quite active. They use a wide variety of sounds to help them communicate with each other. Such sounds include whistles, clicks, squeals, whining, snores, and echolocation.
Squid is the main food source for the Pilot Whale but they also consume various types of fish. They are also known to consume crustaceans, octopus, and cephalopods. The majority of their feeding activities take place at night. They tend to feed in water ranging from 656 feet to 1,640 feet. They rely on echolocation to help them be able to successfully find food sources. What is very surprising is just how fast the Pilot Whale can move in the water. They are able to travel quickly to get squid and other prey. This has earned them the nickname Cheetahs of the Deep!
Females are mature for mating around 8 years of age. For the males, it occurs later around 12 to 13 years of age. The males tend to mate with several females, and there are generally about 1 mature male for every 8 mature females. Mating times vary based on the location, and it takes from 12 to 16 months for the young calf to be born. They can be anywhere from 5 to 6 ½ feet long at birth and they can weigh as much as 165 pounds. They may drink the milk from their mother from 18 months to 44 months.
The females will have one offspring every 3 to 6 years. Males typically can live in the wild to the age of 35 to 45 years. For the females, it may be up to 60 years.Studies indicate that the older females go through menopause. Once they can no longer mate themselves, they take on the role of additional caregivers for the young in their pod.
Conservation Status and Threats
Due to the large size of their bodies, it is common for them to get stranded on the beach. One of the efforts in place involves being able to successfully get rescue teams in motion to get the Pilot Whale back in the water before stress and other factors take a toll on their ability to survive. When one gets stranded though others in the pod may follow due to the bonds they have and that can spell disaster.
Sometimes, they get injured or killed due to the efforts of commercial fishing. In some areas it is illegal to use various types of nets and equipment to the risk of Pilot Whales and even to other dolphin species that may reside in the same proximity. Illegal hunting continues to occur even though it is banned in many countries. Enforcing such laws can be very difficult and there are those that will pay lots of money for the thrill of such an exotic hunting expedition. In some areas, the meat from these dolphins are consumed and that has accounted for quite a loss in their numbers over time.
There is the risk of lice and other serious problems for them. They are susceptible to forms of viruses and bacteria that can cause them to develop fatal problems such as upper respiratory tract infections. The risk of pollution in the water increases those chances, so plenty of the conservation efforts in place are focused on keeping the water clean. Problems with contact with boats can be an issue in some locations. Bans on where boats can go has helped to some degree. Noise problems continue to be a big factor as they can increase stress levels which reduce mating. The noise can also offset the use of echolocation and navigational abilities for these dolphins.
In the UK, the Pilot Whale is protected under the Biodiversity Action Plan and under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. This makes it illegal to intentionally harm them in any way in the UK waters. It is unknown what the population in the wild is for either species of the Pilot Whale. However, they are both believed to be at risk and to be able to benefit from such conservation efforts in place.