Marine Mammal Stranding Database

Marine Mammal Species Description

Short-finned Pilot Whale

Globicephala macrorhynchus

Gray, 1846


Order: Cetacea
Family: Delphinidae
Alternate Common Names: Pothead, blackfish

Status: protected under MMPA


   Length: 13.9-18 ft (4.25-5.5 m)
   Weight: male maximum of 6,614 lbs (3,000 kg); female maximum of 3,300 lbs (1,500 kg)

Male short-finned pilot whales tend to be larger than females. They have a rounded head (called a melon) and a falcate dorsal fin. The dorsal fin has a wide bottom (where it attaches to the body) and is located closer to its head than its tail. The flippers are also falcate shaped and are about one-sixth the length of the body. They are dark gray or black overall, except a lighter patch on the back behind the dorsal fin and a pale patch on its underside, which is shaped like an anchor.


Short-finned pilot whales occur in deep warm waters. They are commonly seen at the edge of the continental shelf or canyons. In the Gulf of Mexico, they were recorded in waters ranging from 1,969-3,280 ft (600-1,000 m) deep. Long-finned pilot whales occur in the northern and southern cold temperate waters. Short-finned pilot whale schools range between 20-90 individuals with the average being 25 individuals.


Pilot whales eat mostly squid. They also feed on fish and octopus. Pilot whales have been documented cooperatively hunting for fish and other food by ringing food and herding them into a small group to make feeding easier. Short-finned pilot whales were documented by scientists diving at depths of 328-2625 ft (100-800 m) and for a maximum of 27 minutes. They tend to make their deeper dives at night and make shallower dives during the day.


Sexual maturity for female short-finned pilot whales occurs when they are around 9 years old. Males reach sexual maturity around 13-16 years old. The sizes of sexually mature individuals are about 12 ft (3.7 m) for females and 15-16 ft (4.9 m) for males. Females typically give birth once every three to five years. Gestation period lasts approximately 15-16 months. Females give birth to one calf, typically in the summer or fall in the Northern Hemisphere. Females nurse the young for up to three years. Females stop being reproductive at around 35 years old, and may lactate for 10-15 years after their last calf is born either nursing their own young or other young from the school.


The documented life span for short-finned pilot whales is 35-60 years, with females typically living longer than males. Documented swimming speed for this species is about 8 knots (9.2 miles per hour/ 14.8 kilometers per hour). During resting periods, pilot whales can be seen with other schools of whales. They line up and bob up and down breaking the surface to breath. This behavior is called logging.

Distribution / Range:

Short-finned pilot whales occur in warm temperate and tropical waters worldwide. Off the shores of the United States, they can be seen off both the east and west coast.

Similar species:

Long-finned pilot whales overlap in range in the Atlantic Ocean. At sea, these two species are almost impossible to tell apart. The short-finned pilot whale has shorter fins (one-sixth of their body length) versus the longer fins on the long-finned pilot whales.



Abend, A. 1999. Short-finned pilot whale, Globicephala macrorhynchus. In The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Wilson, D.E. and S. Ruff, eds., 285-286. Smithsonian Institution in association with the American Society of Mammologists, Washington DC.

American Cetacean Society. 2004. American Cetacean Society Fact Sheet. Accessed January 2012.

Culik, B. 2010. Odontocetes. The toothed whales: "Globicephala macrorhynchus". UNEP/CMS Secretariat, Bonn, Germany. Accessed January 2012.

Olson, P.A. 2009. Pilot Whales - Globicephala melas and M. macrorhynchus . In: Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals 2nd Ed. Perrin W.F., B. Würsig, and J.G.M. Thewissen, eds. Academic Press, New York, pp. 405-406.

Taylor, B.L., Baird, R., Barlow, J., Dawson, S.M., Ford, J., Mead, J.G., Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Wade, P. & Pitman, R.L. 2011. Globicephala macrorhynchus. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. Downloaded on 09 January 2012.