Short-finned pilot whales have been nicknamed as the “cheetahs of the deep sea” for their deep, high-speed, sprint-dives to chase and capture large squid.
Pilot whales are extraordinarily social; their strong bonds motivate them to stick together through thick and thin, even when that means putting themselves at risk.
Other names: pothead whale, blackfish
IUCN conservation status: Least Concern
What do short-finned pilot whales look like?
Short-finned pilot whales look very similar to their colder-water relatives the long-finned pilot whales. The differences between them are subtle. Short-finned pilot whales are a bit smaller and their flippers are not quite as long (they are a sixth of the body length rather than a fifth). Short-finned pilot whales also have fewer teeth. Adults are black or dark grey, they have a lighter grey saddle patch on the back behind the dorsal fin, and an anchor-shaped patch on the underside. Pilot whale babies are lighter coloured than their parents. Adults have a prominent, thick-set dorsal fin situated one-third of the way back from the head. Some males have very curved or even hook-shaped dorsal fins. The head is bulbous with no beak. Male pilot whales are larger than females. They have a more bulbous forehead, a chunkier dorsal fin and - sometimes - scars on their bodies.
What’s life like for a short-finned pilot whale?
Pilot whales have a very sociable and inquisitive nature. They live together in extended family pods which are tight-knit and stable. The males and females within each pod are related to one another and mating takes place outside the pod. Baby pilots grow up in the safety of the pod they are born into. Pilot whales put a lot of energy and effort into maintaining their relationships. They are long-lived whales; females live longer than males and females go through menopause. Once older females stop having babies themselves, they help other mothers in their pod care for their babies. Pilot whales are strongly bonded to each other and do everything together; resting, hunting, socialising, playing and travelling as a unified pod. The most important thing in their lives is each other, and they are incredibly loyal. Pod sizes vary between 10 and 50. Huge multi-pod get-togethers of hundreds or even more than a thousand pilot whales, give ample opportunity for males to mix and breed with females from other families.
Short-finned pilot whales have a slower growth rate than long-finned pilot whales; females become sexually mature at 9 years-old, and males are 13 to 16 years-old. The maximum lifespan is 45 years for males and 60 years for females.
Females have calves every 5 to 8 years. Older females do not give birth as often as younger females. Each pregnancy lasts for about 15 months and then the mother will nurse her baby for at least two years, often longer, as the age gaps between her babies are 3 to 6 years. Nursing can last for as long as 15 years if the mother does not go on to have another baby. The bond between a mother and her offspring are very strong and last until the mother dies.
Pilot whales are often active at the surface; they may spyhop (poke their heads out of the water), or lobtail (lift their flukes out of the water and splash them down). They are also regularly seen (logging) resting in unison, close to one another at the surface. Sometimes they will approach vessels moving at slow speeds and will often allow slow-moving whale-watch boats to approach them.
What do short-finned pilot whales eat?
Pilot whales will catch and eat fish such as mackerel, hake, herring and cod but their favourite prey, by far, are squids and octopuses. Their squid-eating habit is evident when looking inside their mouths as they have far fewer teeth than dolphins that prefer to grab and eat fish. Pilot whales ‘ram and suck’ squids and octopuses and so their mouths are adapted for sucking rather than grasping prey.
Pilot whales can dive to depths up to 1000m for 10 to 16 minutes at a time. They mostly feed at night in deep water using echolocation to find prey. They have been recorded swimming very quickly at depths, sprinting after large squid and have been aptly nicknamed ‘cheetahs of the deep sea’.
Where do short-finned pilot whales live?
Short-finned pilot whales are found globally in tropical and temperate oceans (warmer seas than those preferred by long-finned pilot whales). They can be found at varying distances from shore, but typically prefer deeper waters where most squid live. Pilot whales are generally nomadic and follow movements of squid. Resident pilot whales have been recorded in places such as Hawaii and California.
Why are they called pilot whales?
Pilot whales get their name from an old theory that the pod was ‘piloted’ by a single leader - we now know this is not the case, but the name has stuck. Pilot whales are actually large dolphins; they are the second largest member of the oceanic dolphin family (second only to orcas in size).
Pilot whale strandings
Sadly, perhaps the thing that pilot whales are most famous for is their tendency to mass strand on beaches . The whales often appear to be healthy and we are sure that the strong bonds between them and their propensity to stick together and follow one another plays a big role in these stranding events, whatever the underlying reasons might be. Possible causes are navigation mistakes when following prey or travelling (perhaps due to irregularities in the magnetic field), or possible parasitic infections resulting in neurological disorders, or perhaps the whole pod simply sticks together to support an ill whale.
When human helpers are able to refloat whales returning them to sea, many will return to the beach for a second time. It is likely that the whales’ strong bonds causes refloated whales to return to shore if others of their group remain in distress. Refloating stranded whales has to be carefully managed to ensure whales leave the beach together, or in large enough groups to offset the impulse to return.
They are also often seen swimming with oceanic dolphins in mixed-species pods.
Short-finned pilot whales need your help
The main threats...
- Strandings - Short-finned pilot whales are intensely social whales and are susceptible to mass strandings. Sadly many perfectly healthy whales die on beaches every year despite human attempts to rescue them by refloating them back to sea.
- Hunting - The social nature of pilot whales means that unfortunately it is easy for humans to herd them together and kill them. Hunting for short-finned pilot whales still takes place in Japan, Indonesia and has only recently stopped in the Caribbean. The largest catches have recently occurred off Japan, where a few hundred are killed each year.
- Entanglement in nets and other fishing gear - Short-finned pilot whales can become entangled or hooked in many different types of fishing nets, ropes and other equipment, including gillnets, longlines, and trawls. Once entangled, whales may be stuck and unable to escape. Sometimes they swim off with the equipment attached to them and unable to escape completely, they drag it for long distances. Unfortunately they get very tired and are unable to feed properly if this is the case and/ or may suffer severe injury, which may lead to death.
- Noise pollution - Ocean noise such as commercial shipping, marine construction, airguns used by oil and gas exploration companies, and military sonar, are a big threat to whales that rely on acoustics and echolocation for navigating and finding prey.
- Captivity - Numerous short-finned pilot whales have been captured for training and/or display in the United States and other parts of the world.