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Marine Animal Encyclopedia

Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicephala melas

There are two species of pilot whales, distinguished primarily by the length of their flippers—a feature that is difficult to observe at sea. The long-finned pilot whale lives mainly in cold-water regions. It has glossy, jet black coloration, with an anchor-shaped pale patch on the throat and chest.

This species has a bulbous head and short jaws. Its long dorsal fin has a hooked shape in males. Its flippers have a sharp backward bend, or “elbow,” and are up to a fifth of its body length. Long-finned pilot whales feed mainly on deep-water squid and octopus.

They are highly gregarious, living in groups that can be hundreds strong, and often associate with other cetaceans. They easily become disoriented in shallow coastal waters, often becoming stranded in large numbers. This tendency to herd together has been exploited for centuries by whale hunters, who were able to drive them into shallow water for slaughter. In some locations—such as the Faroe Islands—pilot whales are still hunted today.


Pilot whales often become stranded on beaches. If one whale strands, others frequently follow, leading to a mass stranding. Theories to explain stranding involve factors that disrupt the whales’ navigational systems, such as temporary anomalies in Earth’s magnetic field, ships’ sonar, sickness, and storms.

Oceana works to protect marine mammals such as the pilot whale from becoming bycatch in commercial fisheries.

Long-finned Pilot Whalezoom image
Long-finned Pilot Whalezoom image
Long-finned Pilot Whalezoom image
Long-finned Pilot Whalezoom image
Long-finned Pilot Whalezoom image
  • Order Cetacea
  • Length 11–23 ft (3.5–7 m)
  • Weight Up to 3.8 tons (3.5 metric tons)
  • Habitat Cold coastal waters, open oceans
  • Distribution Temperate and subpolar waters worldwide, except north Pacific
Long-finned Pilot Whale habitat mapzoom image