Let’s meet the pilot whale

Whalecome to the July 2020 whale of the month: The Pilot Whale. The pilot whale genus “Globicephalus” means round head. I had the chance to watch these lovely creatures during a trip to the Canary Islands seven years ago. I have found them super cute ever since! In this post, I list a couple of interesting facts about pilot whales and talk about the controversy surrounding the ongoing whaling in the Faroe Islands.

Pilot whale in the Canary Islands – ©Anaïs Remili

Two species of pilot whales

Pilot whales actually include two species. The genus Globicephalus has two species: melas and macrorhynchus. For the non-Latin readers, it roughly translates into short-finned and long-finned pilot whales. Both species look very similar and can only be distinguished in a lab (with DNA or bones). Members of both species can reach up to 7m and weigh up to 3200 kg! Some areas are only inhabited by long-finned pilot whales (close to the poles) while others are only inhabited by short-finned pilot whales (close to the Equator).

Life is not easy when you are a squid

Squids are a favorite meal for pilot whales and they can dive to 800m to look for their favorite food. They cannot stay underwater for too long like sperm whales because they are quite active underwater when they catch squid. They occasionally eat fish like cod or turbot.

Mass stranding events

Pilot whales live in pods or maternal families. Sometimes, these pods hang out together. When something bad happens like a virus, a military activity, or a navigation error, pilot whales tend to beach themselves altogether. Scientists still do not fully understand these extreme mass stranding events. When a couple of whales wash up on the shore, it seems like the rest of the group follows. Some stranding events can include a couple of hundred whales at a time!

When the sea turns red…

The Faroe Islands hunt pilot whales. They do so by driving the whale pods with boats towards a shallow bay were hunters slaughter the whales. They catch about 800 individuals per year. The whale pilot whale drive has been a Faroese tradition for centuries. Following an international outcry, the Faroe Islands had to change the way they hunted the whales in 2015. They reduced the number of catches and implemented some killing rules by using a spinal cord lance. The lance paralyzes the whale before the hunters bleed the whale by cutting its arteries. On hunting days, local hunters can kill a few dozen whales. Their blood turns the bay red.

Eating pilot whales: how to intoxicate your body 101

Pilot whales, like all toothed whales, accumulate high concentrations of heavy metals, industrial chemicals, and pesticides. These contaminants increase in concentration at each step of the food web. Consuming pilot whale meat/blubber can be pretty toxic. This contaminant burden can also affect children as these contaminants transfer from the mom’s placenta and milk to the baby.

Pilot whaling is still a controversy today. The local government made some recommendations: the local population should not eat pilot whale meat/blubber more than once or twice a month. You can find all the information here.


Let us know what you thought of this month’s post. We tried to stay as neutral as possible regarding the whaling controversy.

Anaïs is the founder of Whale Scientists. She is a PhD student at McGill University working on killer whale ecology and pollution. You can read more about her here.

1 thought on “Let’s meet the pilot whale”

  1. Found the article really interesting, because a lot of this was new to me.

    It’s beyond words, the massacre at Faroe Is. There is not much that can be done when we are dealing with an island full of barbarians.

    Extremely sorry to hear about such beautiful cetaceans.

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