Short-Finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus)


Get your copy of "Albert the Orca Teaches Echolocation to The Super Fins" beginning March 2017 at
Get your copy of “Albert the Orca Teaches Echolocation to The Super Fins” beginning March 2017 at

Short-finned pilot whales are larger members of the dolphin group reaching average lengths of 12 feet (3.7 m) for females and 18 feet (5.5 m) for males with maximum male size of 24 feet (7.3 m). Adult weight is 2200 to 6600 pounds (1000 to 3000 kg).

They have a bulbous melon head with no discernable beak. Their dorsal fin is located far forward on the body and has a relatively long base. Body color is black or dark brown with a large gray saddle behind the dorsal fin.

They are polygynous (males have more than one mate) and are often found in groups with a ratio of one mature male to about every eight mature females. Males generally leave their birth school, while females may remain in theirs for their entire lifetime.

Gestation lasts approximately 15 months while lactation lasts for at least two years. The last calf born to a mother may be nursed for as long as 15 years. The calving interval is five to eight years, but older females do not give birth as often as younger females. Maturity occurs around 10 years of age and maximum longevity is 45 years for males and 60 years for females.

Short-finned pilot whales often occur in groups of 25 to 50 animals.

They feed primarily on squid, but they may also feed on octopus and fish, all from moderately deep water of 1000 feet (305 m) or more. When they are swimming and probably looking for food, pilot whales form ranks that can be over a kilometer (more than 1/2 mile) long.

This species is classified as DATE INCOMPLETE according to the IUCN's Red List.
This species is classified as DATE INCOMPLETE according to the IUCN’s Red List.


MMPA – Short-finned pilot whales, like all marine mammals, are protected under the MMPA
CITES Appendix II – throughout its range

Species Description

 2200-6600 pounds (1000 – 3000 kg)
females average 12 feet (3.7 m) and males average 18 feet (5.5 m), with a maximum male size of 24 feet (7.3 m)
a bulbous melon head with no discernable beak and black or dark brown color, with a large gray saddle behind the dorsal fin.
45 years for males and 60 years for females
primarily feed on squid, but also feed on octopus and fish, in moderately deep water (1000 feet or more)
Often occur in groups of 25 to 50 animals. Males have multiple mates and group ratio is typically 1 mature male to 8 mature females.

RELATIVE SPECIES: Long-finned pilot whale

NEIGHBORING SPECIES: False killer whale, pygmy killer whale

THREATS: Trapped in fishing gear. Hunted in drive fisheries in Japan. Ship collisions.

DIET: Mostly squid, sometimes octopus and fish.

MANNER OF FEEDING: Are seen with tuna because both prey on squid. Has been known to become stranded from prey on squid close to the shore.

BEHAVIOR: Groups of 15-20. Groups consist of 1 male to 8 females. Other groups are mainly all male. females will stay with the same pod their entire lives, while males will start new pods as they mature. Often seen with bottlenose dolphins.

REPRODUCTION: Gestation lasts 15 months. Lactation lasts 2 years. The last calf born can nurse for up to 15 years. Give birth every 5-8 years. Become mature around 10 years.

LIFE SPAN: 45-60 years


They prefer warmer tropical and temperate waters and can be found at varying distances from shore but typically in deeper waters. Areas with a high density of squid are their primary foraging habitats.


Short-finned pilot whales are found primarily in deep waters throughout tropical and subtropical areas of the world.

Population Trends

Short-finned pilot whales were once commonly seen off Southern California, with an apparently resident population around Santa Catalina Island. After a strong El Niño in 1982-83, short-finned pilot whales virtually disappeared from this area. The most recent stock assessment reports with population estimates are available on our website.


  • Bycatch and interactions in fishing gear
    Several types of commercial fishing gear, including gillnets, longlines, and trawls, incidentally take short-finned pilot whales, and they can also become entangled, hooked, and captured in these various types of fishing gear.
  • Fisheries that specifically target pilot whales in Japan and the Lesser Antilles.
  • Ship strikes may also pose a threat in Hawaii, as propeller scarred whales have been documented.

Conservation Efforts

In 1997, NOAA implemented the Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Plan, which requires the use of pingers and 6-fathom net extenders in the CA/OR drift gillnet fishery to reduce bycatch of cetaceans, including short-finned pilot whales. The Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Team continues to meet and recommend measures to further reduce bycatch and achieve MMPA goals.

In 2005, NOAA convened the Atlantic Pelagic Longline Take Reduction Team to address bycatch of both short-finned and long-finned pilot whales in the mid-Atlantic region of the Atlantic pelagic longline fishery. The team submitted their recommendations to us in 2006. A proposed rule to implement the pelagic longline take reduction plan was published on June 24, 2008. NOAA published a final rule to implement the PLTRP[pdf] (74 FR 23349) on May 19, 2009.

Regulatory Overview

This species is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 as amended.


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Delphinidae
Genus: Globicephala
Species: macrorhynchus



  • The longest known dive of a short-finned pilot whale lasted 15 minutes.
  • They are the second largest species in the dolphin family after killer whales.
  • Pilot whales are often involved in mass “strandings” for reasons that are still unclear.
  • Two subspecies in Japan, they differ in size and the current that they travel in. They form “ranks” as they travel that can be almost a mile long