The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


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General Characteristics

The long-finned pilot whale is a medium sized toothed whale, belonging to the family of oceanic dolphins, also called the delphinid family.

PJean Family pds NEA PatrickJEAN 05
A pod of long-finned pilot whales, North-East Atlantic. Photo: Patrick Jean

Average size

552 cm in length and 1.7 tons for adult males and 432 cm and 0.9 tons for adult females.


One calf every 5 years from 9 years of age on average (range 6-15 years).


59 years in females and 46 years in males. 


No definite migration patterns, but movements associated with prey sources, as in the Faroes, where the abundance of pilot whale seems to follow that of the European flying squid.


Primarily schooling squid in mid water, with some preferred species when available, but also including small pelagic fish.


Latin: Globicephala melas (Trail 1809)

Faroese: Grindahvalur

Greenlandic: Niisarnaq

Icelandic: Marsvin, grindahvalur

Norwegian: Grindhval

English: Long-finned pilot whale, blackfish, pothead, caaing whale

French: Globicephale noir, globicéphale commun, dauphin pilot, chaudron

Spanish: Caldéron negro, caldéron común, ballena piloto

Danish: Grindehval

At sea

The long-finned pilot whale is a very social species and are almost always seen in groups of tens or hundreds of animals of both sexes, but single animals are also observed. They are dark in colour with a thick and bulbous head, but the dorsal fin of the adults is their most distinctive feature. It is falcate (hooked) to flaglike, low in profile, markedly longer at the base than at the peak and set far forward on the animal's back. It makes pilot whales easy to differentiate from any other species in the NAMMCO area. The two species they could be confused with, the short-finned pilot whale and the false killer whale, which overlap at the southern end of the range, do not occur commonly in the NAMMCO area.

The blow of the pilot whale is usually inconspicuous. Pilot whales only rarely show surface behaviours when swimming. Occasionally they can be seen resting or 'logging' at the surface, and sometimes spy hopping or lobtailing. They are relatively slow-swimming; radio-tagged individuals averaged a speed of 3.3 km/hr, with burst of up to 16 km/hr (Mate 1989), while the average speed of three satelite-tagged whales off the Faroes was 4.7 km/hr (Bloch et al. 2003).

Pilot whales are commonly observed in association with other species such as bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus), common (Delphinus delphis) and Atlantic white sided (Lagenorhynchus acutus) dolphins, but also with fin (Balaenoptera physalus) and minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) whales, sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus).


GD Globi adult young NASS95

Pilot whale adult and calf observed during NASS 95. Photo: Geneviève Desportes



Off the Faroe Islands, males reach a length of 6.25 m and a weight of 2.3 tonnes, compared to 5.12 m and 1.3 tonnes for females. Calves average 178 cm (range: 163 - 191 cm) at birth (Bloch et al. 1993b). Pilot whales exhibit striking sexual dimorphism. In addition to their larger size, adult males develop a more pronounced and bulbous melon and have a much larger and rounder dorsal fin with a thicker leading edge. They also have longer flippers and larger flukes (Bloch et al 1993c).


Long-finned pilot whales are dark brown to black in colour, with younger animals being paler and new-borns being light grey. There is a light anchor-shaped pattern on the belly, and on some a whitish stripe extends towards the tail along the back and sometimes also behind dorsal fin. The flippers are long (to one-fifth of the body length or more) and sickle-shaped and acutely pointed on the tip. The tail is dorsally thickened just in front of the flukes, which have a concave trailing edge and a deep median notch.

Long-finned and short-finned pilot (G. macrorhynchus) whales differ by their flipper length, skull shape and number of teeth (e.g., Bloch et al. 1993c, Culik 2011) and are therefore difficult to distinguish at sea.


FMNH PW SpyHopping IMG 5499 Cropped

Pilot whale spy hopping within a pod. Photo: Faroese Museum of Natural History, Náttúrugripasavn


Listen to pilot whales here
See pilot whales swimming here


GD Pilot whale long Flipper NASS1995 cropped 2

The long flipper of the pilot whale can be seen through the water. NASS 95. Photo: Geneviève Desportes