Temperate to sub-polar latitudes of the north Atlantic Ocean and the southern hemisphere
Coastal to open ocean (pelagic)
Suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales), Family Delphinidae (dolphins)
The long-finned pilot whale is one of two species of pilot whales that form relatively large pods in the open ocean. These species get their common name from their behavior of following a leader or “pilot” when transiting long distances. The two species of pilot whales are actually dolphins, not whales, and they are two of the largest species of dolphin, with only the killer whale growing larger.
Long-finned pilot whales are active predators that eat mostly squid, including relatively large-bodied species. They will also eat bony fishes when they are common. In some areas, the long-finned pilot whale can be observed forming mixed species groups with sperm whales (another toothed whale that feeds preferentially on squid) and also with smaller dolphins.
Like all mammals, long-finned pilot whales reproduce via internal fertilization and give birth to live young, which they nurse for more than two years. Mating can be somewhat rough, involving biting, head butting, and other aggressive behaviors. This species lives to an old age, and females are known to give birth well into their 50s.
The long-finned pilot whale has a curious distribution. It lives in temperate and colder latitudes of the north Atlantic Ocean and throughout the entire Southern Ocean. Though it does not commonly live in the tropics, its bipolar distribution implies that at least some individuals must transit through the tropics from time to time to connect the populations. It is also possible that these two populations actually represent separate species. Another population formerly existed in the temperate and colder latitudes of the north Pacific Ocean, but that population is now regionally extinct. Scientists believe overhunting to be partly to blame.
While the long-finned pilot whale is offered some or complete legal protection throughout much of its range, this dolphin is one of few cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) that is still hunted in some places around the world. It is likely that this hunting occurs at a sustainable level, but this species is also accidentally captured in fisheries targeting other species in other areas. The population trends are not well known, however, and scientists do not believe that they have sufficient data to determine the long-finned pilot whale’s conservation status.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.