Common Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas)

Pilot Whales live all year round in the Strait of Gibraltar and are very social animals. Meanwhile some know the boats of firmm so well that they approach trustingly and proudly present their offspring to us.

What do we know about the Pilot Whales in the Strait of Gibraltar?

The Pilot Whale is a medium-sized toothed whale. In the Strait of Gibraltar the species Globicephala melas occurs, the Common Pilot Whale or Long-finned Pilot Whale. It prefers cooler waters and has longer pectoral fins than Globicephala macrorhynchus, the Indian Pilot Whale or Short-finned Pilot Whale (which otherwise is confusingly similar).

While playing, the Pilot Whales often come very close to the boat.

The Pilot Whales of the Strait are resident, i.e. they spend the whole year in the same region. They do not undertake any major migrations, but slowly follow their prey. Usually, the Pilot Whales swim westwards in order to compensate for the constant Atlantic current into the Mediterranean. When the current decreases at high tide, the animals can relax and we often find groups resting on the surface. Then there is also time for socialising: the animals play with each other and often even come very close to the boat to watch us curiously.

Since firmm has started the work in the Strait, we collect data about sightings on each trip. As we found out, several families live in the Strait of Gibraltar. While in former times, on average about 14 animals lived in one family, the number decreased dramatically after the outbreak of the morbilli virus in 2007; the numbers recover only very slowly. Further information on this species can be found in our research report on the Pilot Whale.

Pilot Whales chase Orcas away

In July, when the Orcas enter the Strait of Gibraltar, many Pilot Whales retreat to the Mediterranean. Our records indicate that they may be bringing their calves to safety. After a few days or weeks, however, the Pilot Whales return again, whereby several families join together to build bigger groups. With a little luck we could witness a rare spectacle: In a stunning chase some Pilot Whales drive the Orcas, which are superior in number and size, out of their territory. This behavior could so far only be observed in the Strait of Gibraltar and also here only a few times.

Facts worth knowing

  • almost uniformly dark grey or brownish in colour
  • bright w-shaped spot on the chest
  • very long flippers
  • flat sickle-shaped dorsal fin
  • distinctly notched fluke
Common Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas)
Suborder: Odontoceti (toothed whales)
Family: Delphinidae (dolphins)
Size: 4–7 m, 1.8–3.5 t
Size at birth: 1.5–2 m, 75 kg
Life expectancy: 60 years
Sexual maturity: with 7–14 years
Reproduction: every 3–5 years
Gestation period: 15 months
Nursing period: 27 months
Food: squid, fish; 27 kg/day
Speed: up to 35 km/h
Diving time/depth: up to 20 min, up to 824 m

Pilot Whales - Video

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