The pilot whale is found in regions all over the world and has two species: the long-finned pilot whale lives in temperate or colder waters whilst the short-finned pilot whale can be found in tropical and subtropical waters. 

Like the orca whale, the pilot whale is a toothed whale belonging to the dolphin family (Delphinidae). It’s the second largest cetacean in this group, after the orca, and it also has the nickname of ‘blackfish’.    

It’s thought that pilot whales got their name because pods were/are believed to be ‘piloted’ by a leader. They are sometimes called ‘pothead whales’, particularly by people in Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. It’s no surprise that this nickname comes from the fact that they have a globular head, including a bulbous melon. 

This mass of fatty tissue, located at the front of the head, focuses and modulates the cetacean’s vocalisations. It’s also key for its echolocation ability. The pilot whale’s head was thought by whalers to resemble black pots or cauldrons, hence the name ‘pothead whales’.   

The species is black or dark grey in colour except for a light saddle behind the dorsal fin, and its white belly. It has a very slight beak and sharp teeth.  

The long-finned and short-finned species of pilot whale look similar to each other while moving through the water as the difference in their fins isn’t obvious. The long-finned species is usually a larger weight than the short-finned one and their skulls are different too, so skull analysis is a good way to tell them apart. 

Pilot whales are usually between 4-6 metres long, the males of both species being larger than the females. They usually travel in large matrilineal pods (often ranging from 20 to 100 whales in each pod), are highly intelligent and social, and may remain in their birth pod throughout their lifetime.  

The average life span for males of both species is 45 years. Female long-finned pilot whales live to 50, on average, and their short-finned counterparts make it to an average of 63 years of age.  

Pilot whales are known to be one of most docile whale species, which is explains why it’s a species that marine parks have sought to keep in captivity and on display.  

Speedy species 

Pilot whales are often called “the cheetahs of the deep sea”, on account of their high-speed dives to catch their prey.  A study in the Canary Islands in 2008 showed that they make up to 15 minute long dives to a depth 1,000 metres to chase and catch squid, before swimming back to the surface to catch their breath.  

The study’s lead author, Natacha Aguila de Soto, said, “They make colossal dives and must come back exhausted. They have to spend time at the surface catching their breath before undertaking a new sprint to catch prey.” 

Pilot whales can reach a speed of up to 32 kilometres an hour while chasing prey.  


Pilot whales are prolific stranders and the reason why is not fully understood. Individual whales strand usually because they are ill or injured and mass strandings are harder to figure out. 

One theory is that pilot whales’ echolocation skills are not suited to shallow, gentle sloping waters (they prefer deeper areas further out into the ocean) and that they may inadvertently beach themselves while following food sources inshore, particularly in the summer.  

As they tend to travel in large pods, it may be that one whale loses its way and strands itself, others follow to aid it and end up getting stranded too.  

The biggest recorded pilot whale stranding was an estimated 1,000 whales at New Zealand’s remote Chatham Islands back in 1918. The islands has been the location of many more strandings since, making it a hotspot for pilot whale strandings.  

Where do they live? 

Pilot whales can be found in both coastal and pelagic (open sea) areas.

The long-finned pilot whale lives in colder waters, such as the North Atlantic Ocean (e.g. off Greenland, Iceland), North Pacific Ocean and the Southern Ocean (also known as Antarctic Ocean). They are occasionally seen off the west and south west coasts of Ireland and are found in the Strait of Gibraltar.

They are regularly sighted in waters off southern Australia and New Zealand and are found off coastal South America.

While it doesn’t live in the tropics, it’s believed long-finned pilot whales transit through the tropics from time to time, connecting populations.  

Short-finned pilot whale lives in warmer (tropical and sub-tropical) waters, in both hemispheres. They are the most commonly found cetacean in the Canary Islands, for instance, with an estimated population of 2,000.  

Pilot whales are generally nomadic but there is a stable and resident short-finned population in the southwest of Tenerife, and there are also sizeable resident groups in California, Japan and Hawaii. They’re also found seasonally in areas including the Caribbean, Bahamas, parts of the African coast, Central and South America coasts, the Middle East, Asia and off the coast of European countries including Spain and Portugal.

Short-finned whales are also found in the southern Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Generally, the species occupies the outer edges of the continental shelf, though they can also be seen closer to the shore.  

What do they eat? 

The primary food of pilot whales is squid. Both species have about half the number of teeth compared to other dolphins, as a special adaptation for eating squid. They eat relatively large-bodied species of squid, along with octopus and cuttlefish, and fish such as herring, cod and turbot, on occasion.  

Adult pilot whales can eat up 30kg of food per day and usually hunt in groups, deep diving down to much lower levels of the ocean to find squid.  


The global population for both species of pilot whale is unknown though estimates suggest that there could be in excess of 1 million whales in total (thought to be c.700,000 – 1 million long-finned pilot whales and c. 200,000 to 300,000 short-finned pilot whales).  

Both species of pilot whale are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. However, they do face many threats and risks (see below) which gives weight and credence to protecting and conserving the species.  

Threats to pilot whales


Sadly, in some areas of the world, pilot whales are still hunted.  

The Faroe Islands in Denmark has a whaling season every year during the summer months, which is referred to as the “grind”.

Primarily pilot whales are rounded up by boats and herded into a semi-circle in shallow waters. They’re forced to beach, where they are killed with a deep cut through the dorsal area, which severs the spinal cord.  

Photos every year show horrific bloodied waters around the dead pilot whales and other dolphins. The hunters justify the action saying it is a traditional hunt that has taken place for centuries but animal welfare groups have long campaigned that it is archaic, cruel and unnecessary.  Usually around 800 pilot whales are killed this way every year – for more check out this informative Newsweek article from June 2022.  

Long-finned pilot whales are also hunted in Greenland, on an opportunistic basis, mostly in the southwest of the island and hunted from small boats using rifles and hand harpoons.  

Short-finned pilot whales are also hunted in drive fisheries in some regions around the world, including Japan. The species is amongst the many dolphin species that are herded into Taji (well-known through the documentary The Cove) and slaughtered for meat.  

The species is also permitted to be hunted in St Vincent and the Grenadines (check out this Frontiers in Marine Science paper from 2021 for more info).  

Ship strikes

Vessel strikes present a risk to pilot whales, especially in areas where their movement overlaps with busy shipping lanes and/or or leisure boat and ferry activity.

Entanglement/fishing bycatch

Like other species of whales and dolphins, pilot whales can become entangled in fishing gear and either swim off with the gear attached or become anchored (both of which can lead to fatigue, compromised feeding ability and ultimately cause death).  

Pilot whales are also at risk of becoming bycatch in fisheries.  

Reduced food sources 

Fishing pressure, especially due to commercial fishing, can reduce the food source available to all whales, including pilot whales.  

Noise, pollution and environmental change 

As with other whale species, increasing underwater noise from vessels can negatively affect pilot whales, changing their normal behaviour and prompting them to move away from important breeding or feeding areas.  

Climate change is leading to increased ocean acidification, which has a detrimental knock on effect on the animals living in our oceans. Pollution is also a great threat to the health of our marine mammals.