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10 Interesting Facts About Pilot Whales

Angela, an animal lover, has a passion for learning and understanding God's creatures. As a born teacher, she enjoys sharing her knowledge.

Read on to learn 10 amazing facts about the pilot whale.

Read on to learn 10 amazing facts about the pilot whale.

What Are Pilot Whales?

Pilot whales are long, slender, and relatively small whales from the dolphin family Delphinidae. Their Latin name Globicephala (meaning "round head" or "globe head") is fitting since one of their most obvious identifying characteristics is their bulb-like head. Another important identifying feature is their small mouth, which slants up toward their eyes, giving the appearance that the pilot whale is always smiling.

According to the International Whaling Commission, the pilot whale was given its common name because "it was once believed that each observed group was navigated by a pilot or leader." On the other hand, The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica say that the origin of this name is unclear.

In this article, we'll take a look at the following 10 interesting facts about pilot whales:

  1. There Are Two Subspecies: Short-finned and Long-finned
  2. They Are the Second Largest Animal in the Dolphin Family
  3. Their Calves Are Born Six Feet Long
  4. They Eat Up to 70 Pounds Each Day
  5. They Are Very Intelligent and Easily Trained
  6. They Are Social Creatures
  7. They Are Known for Mass Strandings
  8. They Are Considered the Cheetahs of the Deep
  9. They Travel in Both Hemispheres
  10. They Are Often Killed for Meat, Fertilizer, and Oil

1. There Are Two Subspecies: Short-finned and Long-finned

Pilot whales, which belong to the dolphin family, have two subspecies: short-finned whales and long-finned whales. The main difference is the size of their pectoral flippers, which is clear by their name.

They also live in different areas. The short-finned pilot whale lives in warm subtropical/tropical waters, whereas the long-finned pilot whale lives in colder waters.

2. They Are the Second Largest Animal in the Dolphin Family

The only animal in the dolphin family that exceeds the size of the pilot whale is the killer whale or orca. Both subspecies are similar in size and anywhere between 13 and 25 feet in length. They also weigh anywhere from 1 to 3 tons, with the males being much larger than the females.

A range map of the two pilot whale species: Short-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) is shown in blue and the Long-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas) in green.

A range map of the two pilot whale species: Short-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) is shown in blue and the Long-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas) in green.

3. Their Calves Are Born Six Feet Long

Even at birth, these animals are not small. A calf is born at about 12 to 15 months gestation and is about 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length, weighing around 225 pounds. They nurse on their mother for about 22 months, although there is some evidence of them nursing until the age of ten.

Females reach sexual maturity before males when they are about 12 feet long, around 6 or 7 years old. The males do at about 12 years old when they are about 15 to 16 feet (4.6 meters). Females usually give birth during the summer every 3 to 5 years. Females will have young until they are about 35 years old.

4. They Eat Up to 70 Pounds Each Day

These mammals are carnivorous creatures who eat primarily squid and octopus but will also eat cuttlefish, herring, and other small fish. They are created to eat meat with their large heads, although short beaks lined with 40 and 48 large teeth. This is fewer than most dolphins, which generally have 120 teeth, which may be why they prefer squid, where the teeth are only used for catching.

Adult pilot whales are nocturnal hunters that catch their prey in groups. Like most dolphins, they have a communicating system that sounds like high-pitched whistles to communicate their positions. They work on trapping their prey by circling it. Some are massive eaters and eat between 30 and 70 pounds per day.

Pilot whales are big eaters, and once in a while even feast on up to 70 pounds of food each day.

Pilot whales are big eaters, and once in a while even feast on up to 70 pounds of food each day.

5. They Are Very Intelligent and Easily Trained

Like most dolphins, the pilot whale is a very intelligent animal. Many aquariums and zoos train them to perform for visitors. The Navy has even used them.

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Read More From Owlcation

Once, Navy scientists were able to teach one of their pilot whales, named Morgan, to retrieve beeper-attached objects from the ocean floor as part of Project Deep Ops. Morgan used a device he held in his mouth that would help him bring objects back to the surface. They have continued to use them in the Navy.

Project Deep Ops Film Starring Pilot Whale Morgan

6. They Are Social Creatures

Pilot whales are very social animals and stay in groups. Although some of their social groups can be very small, some groups can have up to several hundred members. Although on average, their group size is between 20 and 90.

These groups usually are made up of females and their offspring. Although the fathers do not stay in the group, many offspring have the same father. This indicates that a male will enter a group and breed with many of the females while there.

A group of pilot whales swim together near the surface of the ocean.

A group of pilot whales swim together near the surface of the ocean.

7. They Are Known for Mass Strandings

On multiple occasions, mass strandings have occurred with primarily healthy individuals. Some of these groups have had hundreds of whales beached together. The reason for this is unknown, although it is believed it is in part to their strong bond with one another. Some think it may be navigational errors due to the magnetic fluctuations. However, the root cause is unknown.

8. They Are Considered the Cheetahs of the Deep

They can travel up to 20 miles per hour in the ocean. They can be underwater for 10 to 16 minutes without needing to catch a breath. In that time, they can dive as deep as 1,600 feet due to their high speeds. Combined with their high intelligence, this explains their unique value to the Navy.

This photo depicts a couple of beached pilot whales on the coast of the Everglades National Park in Florida, December 2013.

This photo depicts a couple of beached pilot whales on the coast of the Everglades National Park in Florida, December 2013.

9. They Travel in Both Hemispheres

Because long-finned whales tend to stay in the colder areas, and short-finned tend to stay in the tropical warmer areas, pilot whales can be found all across the globe. All of the world's oceans contain both species of pilot whales, except the Arctic.

10. They Are Often Killed for Meat, Fertilizer, and Oil

Unfortunately, people often hunt pilot whales for their meat, oil, and bones. Although they still are plentiful in the wild, the number is decreasing in some areas due to hunting, such as in the Faroe Islands. One of the worst cases of pilot whales hunting happened in Newfoundland between 1951 and 1961.

When hunting, hunters often make frightening noises in the water that drives the whales to the shore, where they kill them. They also may kill one when a school of pilot whales is sunning themselves.

Pilot whales are beautiful dolphins who are still numerous in the wild. We should continue to monitor hunting activity so they do not find themselves on the endangered species list.

This illustration depicts a mass whaling event in the Faroe Islands in 1854. Today, these events are much more regulated and are supervised by police.

This illustration depicts a mass whaling event in the Faroe Islands in 1854. Today, these events are much more regulated and are supervised by police.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Angela Michelle Schultz

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