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Long-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas)

Status | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution | Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview | Taxonomy | Key Documents | More Info


MMPA - Long-finned pilot whales, like all marine mammals, are protected under the MMPA.
CITES Appendix II - throughout its range

Species Description

males: up to 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg)
females: up to 2,900 pounds (1,300 kg)
males: up to 25 feet (7.6 m)
females: up to 19 feet (5.8 m)
dark black, but sometimes can appear gray or brownish, with gray or white marks;
they have a pair of long pectoral flippers that give them their common name
males: 35-45 years
females: 60 years
fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans
commonly seen in tight, sociable, maternally-based pods and sub-groups of about 10-20 individuals

Long-finned pilot whales are one of the largest members of the dolphin family. Males can reach lengths of about 25 feet (7.6 m) and weigh as much as 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg), while females are generally smaller, reaching lengths of up to 19 feet (5.8 m) and weighing as much as 2,900 pounds (1,300 kg).

Long-finned pilot whales are wide-ranging, medium-sized animals that have a stocky, sturdy body. Their head has a large bulbous or squarish "melon". This melon varies with age and sex, and in some animals it can develop a prominent crease. The broad-base low-profile "dorsal" fin is thick, heavily falcate, lobed, and is located about a third of the body length behind the head. As the animals mature, their dorsal fin becomes broader and rounder. These whales have a pair of long, tapered, sickle-shaped "pectoral flippers" that give this species its common name. Long-finned pilot whales are dark black in coloration, but sometimes can appear dark gray or brownish. This species has pale grayish or whitish marks, such as a diagonal eye-stripe, or blaze, that extends from behind the eye and up towards the dorsal fin, a large "saddle" behind the dorsal fin, and an anchor-shaped patch that starts at the throat and extends to the uro-genital region on its ventral side.

Long-finned pilot whales are commonly seen in tight, sociable pods and sub-groups (usually containing more females than males) of usually 10-20 (less than 50) individuals, but have been reported in loose aggregations of several hundred or even up to a thousand animals. Studies have shown that these established pods are maternally-based. The strong social structure of these animals has been implicated in mass strandings on beaches. When at the surface, these gregarious whales will often display various active behaviors such as "breaching", "fluking", "lobtailing", and "spyhopping". They are also regularly seen resting or logging at the surface in a "chorus-line" or "stacked" formation, and sometimes approach vessels moving at slow speeds. This species has a small, strong, low bushy blow that is often visible. They also frequently arch their bodies exposing their dorsal fin and "tailstock" when rolling at the surface, as well as lift their "flukes" before diving.

Long-finned pilot whales are sometimes referred to as "blackfish," a group of cetaceans of the subfamily Globicephalinae, that also includes false killer whales, pygmy killer whales, melon-headed whales, Risso's dolphins, and short-finned pilot whales. They are known to associate with a variety of other dolphin and whale species, and sometimes even sharks.

The short-finned pilot whale is another species of pilot whale that appears similar to the long-finned pilot whale. The two species differ slightly in physical size, morphology, features, coloration, and pattern. In the field and at sea, it is very difficult to distinguish between the two species. The geographic distribution and range for these species may overlap in some areas.

Long-finned pilot whales are capable of diving to depths of about 2,000 feet (600 m) for 10-16 minutes to feed on fish (e.g., cod, dogfish, hake, herring, mackerel and turbot), cephalopods (e.g. squid and octopus) and crustaceans (e.g., shrimp). Most feeding occurs at night in deep water between depths of 656-1,640 feet (200-500 m). Similar to other members of the delphinid family, long-finned pilot whales echolocate when foraging for prey. In comparison to other delphinids, pilot whales have very few teeth (16-26 peg-like teeth in each jaw), which may be an evolutionary adaptation to consuming large amounts of soft squid.

Males become sexually mature at 12-13 years and females at 8 years. Breeding and mating usually takes place between the months of April and September in the North Atlantic, and October and April in the Southern Hemisphere. Every 3-6 years a single calf is born after a gestation period of 12-16 months. This is one of the longest known birth intervals of all cetaceans. At birth, calves measure about 5-6.5 feet (1.6-2 m) and weigh about 165 pounds (75 kg). After 18-44 months, the calf stops nursing and is weaned by the cow. Older and/or unreproductive females will assist in caring for calves in the social group. The lifespan for males is 35-45 years, and for females is at least 60 years.


Long-finned pilot whales prefer deep pelagic temperate to subpolar oceanic waters, but have been known to occur in coastal waters in some areas. Larger aggregations of animals have been documented on the continental edge and slope, depending on seasonality. This species has been described as "anti-tropical."
long-finned pilot whale
Long-finned Pilot Whales
(Globicephala melas)
Photo: Howard Goldstein, courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography/ UCSD and R/V Roger Revelle


Three distinct populations or subspecies of long-finned pilot whales are recognized: Southern Hemisphere (Globicephala melas edwardii), North Atlantic (Globicephala melas melas), and an unnamed extinct form in the western North Pacific. In the Southern Hemisphere, their range extends from 19°-60° S, but they have been regularly sighted in the Antarctic Convergence Zone (47°-62° S) and in the Central and South Pacific as far south as 68° S. Their distribution is considered circumpolar, and they have been documented near the Antarctic sea ice. They have been associated with the colder Benguela and Humboldt Currents, which may extend their normal range, as well as the Falklands. The southern subspecies range includes Cape Province (South Africa), Chile, southern Australia, New Zealand, and Sao Pablo (Brazil). In the Northern Hemisphere, their range includes the U.S. east coast, Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Azores, Madeira, North Africa, western Mediterranean Sea, North Sea, Greenland and the Barents Sea. In the winter and spring, they are more likely to occur in offshore oceanic waters or on the continental slope. In the summer and autumn, long-finned pilot whales generally follow their favorite foods farther inshore and on to the continental shelf.

Population Trends

Stock Assessment Reports for pilot whales found in U.S. waters. are available on our website. In the Antarctic, there are an estimated 200,000 long-finned pilot whales.


Conservation Efforts

In 2005, we convened the Atlantic Pelagic Longline Take Reduction Team to address bycatch of both short-finned and long-finned pilot whales in the mid-Atlantic region of the Atlantic pelagic longline fishery. The team submitted their recommendations to us in 2006. A proposed rule to implement the pelagic longline take reduction plan was published on June 24, 2008. we published a final rule to implement the PLTRP (74 FR 23349) on May 19, 2009.

Regulatory Overview

This species is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 as amended.


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Delphinidae
Genus: Globicephala
Species: melas

The short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) is another species of pilot whale.

Key Documents

(All documents are in PDF format.)
Title Federal Register Date
Pelagic Longline Take Reduction Plan 74 FR 23349 05/19/2009
Stock Assessment Reports n/a various

More Information


Updated: January 15, 2015