The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


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Distribution and Habitat


The long-finned pilot whale has an antitropical distribution in cold temperate and subpolar waters of all oceans except the North Pacific (Taylor et al. 2008), with a typical temperature range of 0-25° C (Martin et al. 1990). Globicephala melas melas occurs in the northern hemisphere and Globicephala melas edwardii inhabits the southern hemisphere (Olson 2009). This oceanic species occurs far offshore, but can also be found in coastal areas.

Distribution in the North Atlantic

Long-finned pilot whales are very widely distributed in the North Atlantic, from about 35°–65° N in the west and from about 40°–75° N in the east (ICES 1996; NAMMCO 1998ab, Abend and Smith 1999, Reid et al. 2003; Garrison et al. 2011).

The 20-year long series of NASS and T-NASS summer sightings surveys, centered upon the three first weeks of July, provides a good understanding of the potential summer distribution of the species in the North Atlantic. There is an apparent gap in distribution in the area south of Greenland, however this area has not been surveyed extensively so the gap may be an artefact.

Pilot whales can shift to and from oceanic and neritic (coastal) habitats, as revealed by their feeding ecology (Desportes 1985, Desportes and Mouritsen 1993, Spitz et al. 2011, Méndez-Fernandez et al. 2012, 2013, Monteiro 2013).

pilot whales all NASS survey s

Summer distribution of long-finned pilot whales in the North Atlantic, showing sightings and effort from all North Atlantic Sightings Surveys, 1987 - 2007, as well as 2007 CODA and SNESSA surveys.

Approximate North Atlantic distribution of the long-finned pilot whale, based on ICES (1996)



Pilot whale distribution does change from year to year, as is apparent from the distributions observed during the five NASS surveys (below). Although there is no indication that pilot whales undertake extensive seasonal migrations, the distribution also changes on a seasonal basis, with whales moving onto the slope, shelf and shelf edges over the summer months and moving back southwards into deeper offshore waters in winter (Sergeant and Fisher 1957, Sergeant 1962, Evans 1980, Payne & Heinemann 1993). This also reflects in the July–August peak in the frequency of pilot whale drives in the Faroes (Zachariassen 1993).

The abundance and movements of preferred prey seem to drive pilot whale abundance and movements, as with Todarodes sagittatus off the Faroes (Desportes and Mouritsen 1993, Zachariassen 1993, Jákopsstovu 2002), Illex illecebrosus off New Foudland (Mercer 1975) and Loligo pealei and Scomber scombrus off the United States (Smith et al. 1990, Payne and Heinemann 1993, Gannon et al. 1997b). The same pattern seems also present off the Iberian Peninsula with Illex coindetii and Todaropsis eblanae (Santos et al. 2013).


pilot whales all 5 NASS survey 

Distribution of pilot whales in the NASS-TNASS surveys, as well as 2007 CODA and SNESSA surveys.