Whale of the Month - Long-Finned Pilot Whale

Our whale of the month for July is the long-finned pilot whale, one of two species of pilot whale (the other being the short-finned pilot whale). This whale can be found on the 8th stop in our audio-guide. It is thought that the pilot whales got their name by following their leader, or 'pilot'. Long-finned pilot whales are toothed whales, in the same parvorder of cetaceans as dolphins, porpoises, and orcas. Their exact numbers are unknown, but are estimated to be over 1,000,000.

Males are slightly larger than females, reaching sizes of nearly 7 meters in length (females can be up to roughly 6 meters long). They are black or dark grey in colour, with lighter markings on the face, throat and stomach. The patch on the throat is often shaped like an anchor. They prefer deep waters in the North Atlantic and in the Southern Hemisphere, though they are also often seen in more coastal waters and are a popular sight for whale watching tours. Fish, squid, octopus, and some crustaceans are the whales’ preferred food. They mainly feed at night and use echolocation when hunting. Their average lifespan is between 35-45 years for males and at least 60 years for females. Calves are born every 3-6 years after a gestation period of 12-16 months. Long-finned pilot whales have one of the longest known birth intervals of all cetaceans, and calves can spend nearly 4 years with their mother.

Long-finned pilot whales live in highly social pods of around 10-20 individuals, but gatherings of over 100 whales have been reported. They have been known to socialize and interact with other types of dolphins and whales. Studies suggest that the pods are matrilineal, and older females will help care for calves. Their strong social bonds could be a contributing factor to mass strandings – long-finned pilot whales are the most common species to strand in groups. The largest recent group stranding was in 2017, where over 600 whales beached off the coast of New Zealand.

In addition to strandings, long-finned pilot whales face other threats including disease (especially morbillivirus, which can severely damage their immune system and affect their ability to swim and float), chemical pollution, and noise pollution. They were hunted in the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States, Newfoundland, the Falkland Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Scotland. They are still hunted today in the Faroe Islands.

Long-finned pilot whales are most often spotted off of the northwest and west coast of Iceland.