Long-finned Pilot Whale

Long-finned Pilot Whale: Globicephala melas

IUCN status: Data Deficient

Status and distribution summary:

Occurs in the northern Atlantic from the Arctic Circle south to the Canary Islands, and at similar latitudes across the southern oceans, but not in the northern Pacific Ocean. Replaced in tropical and subtropical latitudes by Short-finned Pilot Whale.

There is some contention about the specific status of Long-finned Pilot Whale; some scientists propose two or three separate species. Certainly the north Atlantic population is ecologically isolated from southern populations (so cannot mix).


Long-finned Pilot Whales are hunted in various parts of their range, including infamously in the Faroe Islands where each year hundreds are driven ashore and massacred in what is claimed to be a traditional harvest for their meat, although much of the meat is is not used in a country with one of the highest standards of living on earth!

Where it is seen:

Both inshore and over deep water. Most sightings come from the continental shelf slopes, and adjacent shelf waters, but is regularly recorded in deeper waters as well as in the shallow western English Channel.

Frequency of sightings:

Most frequently seen in summer months when large groups can be encountered of sometimes in excess of 100, though much more usually 10, and only rarely alone. Recorded throughout the year, though in winter is less frequent.


Up to 6 metres long and heavily built

Black upper parts, with a grey saddle behind the dorsal fin, though this is not always apparent.

Bulbous forehead, without a protruding beak.

Dorsal fin is set well forward (compare other species); about 1/3 distance from beak. Males have a large, bulbous dorsal fin, with a squashed appearance, female dorsal fins are more upright and falcate though generally blunt tipped.


Social animal, rarely seen in groups less than 4, sometimes gatherings of over 100 are seen on good feeding grounds.

Usually breathes frequently at the surface before diving for a few minutes, when they often show a domed forehead when surfacing.

Frequently spy hops, and tail slaps, breaches less often.

Does occur together with other species of cetacean particularly dolphins, though has been known to predate on dolphins and the calves of larger cetaceans.

Confusion species:

  • Short-finned Pilot Whale; which is almost identical but with slightly shorter pectoral fins and fewer teeth, hence is not reliably separable at sea. Ranges of the two species overlap in the mid latitudes of the northern Atlantic Ocean. A number of strandings along the northern Spanish coast have been of this species, suggesting that there is some overlap in the southern Bay.
  • False Killer Whale; is similar in size, also black and is usually seen in pods. Often shows its whole head on surfacing, offering possible confusion at distance. Prominent strongly falcate dorsal fin and less bulbous head should allow separation. When traveling quickly pods almost appear to surface in synch.
  • Female Killer Whale; has a much taller, upright dorsal fin and white patch on side of the head which is often visible.