Long finned pilot whale Copyright Andrew Livingstone, HWDT

Key Facts

Length: Up to 6.3 metres
Range: Cold sub-Antarctic waters and temperate north Atlantic Ocean
Threats: Entanglement in fishing gear, pollution, hunting
Diet: Mainly fish and squid

Long-finned Pilot Whale

Latin: Globicephala melas
Gaelic: Muc-mhara-chinn-mhoir

Physical Description

The long-finned pilot whale has a large, bulbous forehead and a long, robust body, which can measure up to 6.3 metres in length. The prominent dorsal fin is wide at the base and deeply curved. This species of pilot whale has very long, tapered pectoral fins that can measure about a quarter of the body length. Males are usually much larger than females and they commonly have a more hooked dorsal fin and the melon may overhang the short beak. Long-finned pilot whales are mostly black or dark grey. A light coloured saddle-patch is usually present behind the dorsal fin on Northern hemisphere animals. There is a light grey anchor-shaped marking on the chest which extends as a narrow stripe down the belly.

Habitat and Distribution

There are two separate sub-species of long-finned pilot whales: in the Southern hemisphere they occupy a circumpolar distribution in cold sub-Antarctic waters; in the Northern hemisphere their range is restricted to the north Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea and the western Mediterranean, from the Azores to Greenland. They favour deep waters, although their seasonal movements may reflect prey distribution. Sightings in the Hebrides are widely distributed, and the long finned pilot whale is also the most commonly stranded species here.


Long-finned pilot whales are highly social animals that have been recorded in groups of just a few animals to aggregations of over 1000 individuals; group sizes in the Hebrides are small. Pilot whales are known for their mass stranding behaviour; one such event involving 11 animals occurred on the Isle of Lewis in 1992. Long-finned pilot whales occasionally bow ride, tail slap and spy-hop (raise the head vertically out of the water) although they are often encountered resting motionless at the surface.

Food and Foraging

Diving to depths of between 30 to 500 metres, pilot whales hunt for squid and fish (mainly mackerel and cod around the UK) but may also feed on other species of fish, small octopus and shrimp.

Status and Conservation

Long-finned pilot whales were historically targeted by whalers and the population in the eastern North Atlantic was estimated at over 700,000 animals in the late 1980’s. Fisheries, particularly those for squid, may affect prey availability for pilot whales. In addition, pilot whales can become entangled and die in fishing gear. Drive hunts, where pilot whales are herded onto the shore, still take place in the Faroe Islands and take over 1500 whales each season. The use of underwater sonar for military purposes and oil and gas exploration may interfere with pilot whale vocalisations. Long-finned pilot whales are protected under UK and EU law, principally under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and by the 1992 EU Habitats and Species Directive.