Picture of a long-finned pilot whale

About The Species

Long-finned pilot whales are very social, living in large schools of hundreds of animals separated into close-knit pods of 10 to 20 individuals. This structure made them easy targets for whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whalers would drive and herd pilot whales together into tight groups to harpoon them, hunting them for their meat, oil, and blubber.

Long-finned pilot whales are one of two species of pilot whale, along with short-finned pilot whales. In the field and at sea, it is very difficult to distinguish between the two species, which differ only slightly in physical size, features, coloration, and pattern.


Long-finned pilot whales, like all marine mammals, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the Antarctic, there are an estimated 200,000 long-finned pilot whales.

Review the most recent stock assessment report with population estimates

CITES Appendix II

throughout its range

MMPA Protected

throughout its range


Long-finned pilot whales are wide-ranging, medium-sized animals that have a stocky, sturdy body. They have a large bulbous or squarish forehead, known as a melon, that varies with age and sex. In some animals, the melon can develop a prominent crease. Long-finned pilot whales have 16 to 26 peg-like teeth in each jaw, which may be an evolutionary adaptation to consuming large amounts of soft squid. Their thick dorsal fin is located about a third of the body length behind the head. As the they mature, their dorsal fin becomes broader and rounder.

This species gets its common name from the pair of long, tapered, sickle-shaped flippers on either side of its body. Long-finned pilot whales are dark black in color, but can sometimes can appear dark gray or brownish. They have pale grayish or whitish marks, such as a diagonal eye-stripe, or a blaze, that extends from behind the eye and up towards the dorsal fin. They also have a large saddle behind the dorsal fin, and an anchor-shaped patch that starts at the throat and extends down their underside.

Behavior and Diet

Long-finned pilot whales are commonly seen in tight, social pods and sub-groups (usually containing more females than males) of 10 to 20 individuals, but have been reported in loose groupings of several hundred or even up to a thousand animals. Studies have shown that these established pods are maternally based. The strong social structure of these animals has been suggested by mass strandings on beaches. Long-finned pilot whales are known to associate with a variety of other dolphin and whale species, and sometimes even sharks.

At the surface, these whales will often display various active behaviors such raising their heads above the surface or lifting their flukes out of the water and splashing them down against the surface. They are also regularly seen resting or logging at the surface in a chorus-line or stacked formation, and sometimes approach vessels moving at slow speeds. This species has a small, strong, low, bushy blow that is often visible.

Long-finned pilot whales can dive to depths of about 2,000 feet for 10 to 16 minutes to feed on fish (e.g., cod, dogfish, hake, herring, mackerel and turbot), cephalopods (e.g., squid and octopus) and crustaceans (e.g., shrimp). Most feeding occurs at night in deep water between depths of 650 and 1,650 feet. Like other members of the delphinid family, long-finned pilot whales echolocate when foraging for prey.

Location Description
Long-finned pilot whales prefer deep temperate to subpolar oceanic waters, but they have been known to occur in coastal waters in some areas. Larger groupings of animals have been documented on the continental edge and slope, depending on the season. This species has been described as "anti-tropical."
Three distinct populations or subspecies of long-finned pilot whales are recognized: Southern Hemisphere, North Atlantic, and an unnamed extinct form in the western North Pacific. In the Southern Hemisphere, their range extends from 19° S to 60° S, but they have been regularly sighted in the Antarctic Convergence Zone (47° to 62° south) and in the Central and South Pacific as far south as 68° south. They have been documented near the Antarctic sea ice and associated with the colder Benguela and Humboldt Currents, which may extend their normal range, as well as the Falklands. The southern subspecies range includes Cape Province, South Africa; Chile; southern Australia; New Zealand; and Sao Pablo, Brazil.
In the Northern Hemisphere, their range includes the U.S. east coast, Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Azores, Madeira, North Africa, western Mediterranean Sea, North Sea, Greenland and the Barents Sea. In the winter and spring, they are more likely to occur in offshore oceanic waters or on the continental slope. In the summer and autumn, long-finned pilot whales generally follow their favorite foods farther inshore and on to the continental shelf.
Long-finned Pilot Whale Range map
Lifespan and Reproduction

Males become sexually mature at 12 to 13 years and females at 8 years. Breeding and mating usually takes place between the months of April and September in the North Atlantic and between October and April in the Southern Hemisphere. Every 3 to 6 years a single calf is born after a gestation period of 12 to 16 months. This is one of the longest known birth intervals of all cetaceans. At birth, calves measure about 5 to 6.5 feet and weigh about 165 pounds. After 18 to 44 months, the calf stops nursing and is weaned by the cow. Older and/or unreproductive females help care for calves in the social group. The lifespan of long-finned pilot whales is 35 to 45 years for males and at least 60 years for females.


Entanglement in Fishing Gear

Long-finned pilot whales can become entangled or hooked in fishing gear, either swimming off with the gear attached or becoming captured in the gear. They can become entangled in many different gear types, including gillnets, longlines, and trawls. Once entangled, whales may drag and swim with attached gear for long distances, ultimately resulting in fatigue, compromised feeding ability, or severe injury, which may lead to reduced reproductive success and death.


Historically, whalers benefited from pilot whales’ strong social structure and would drive and herd them together into tight groups during hunts. In the 19th and 20th centuries, American sperm whalers in the North Atlantic harpooned them, while a drive fishery in Newfoundland targeted them for meat, blubber, and oil. Drive fisheries for this species also historically occurred in the Falkland Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Scotland (Orkney Islands and Hebrides Islands), and the United States (Cape Cod, Massachusetts). Currently, shore-based hunters in the Faroe Islands (Denmark) continue to directly target long-finned pilot whales.


Morbillivirus has affected pilot whales in the North Atlantic and certain strains of the virus may be native to specific areas. The historical prevalence of morbillivirus in the blood of these whales suggests that they may have increased contact with the virus. This increased exposure means that enough of the population is immune to the virus to prevent serious outbreaks of infectious disease from occurring in areas of the western Atlantic.


Contaminants enter ocean waters and sediments from many sources, such as wastewater treatment plants, sewer outfalls, and pesticide application. Once in the environment, these substances move up the food chain and accumulate in species such as long-finned pilot whales. Pollutants and various contaminants in the marine environment have been found in their blubber. These pollutants can harm their immune and reproductive systems.

Despite modern pollution controls, chemical contamination through the food chain continues to threaten long-finned pilot whales. These controls have reduced, but not eliminated, many contaminants in the environment. Additionally, some of these contaminants persist in the marine environment for decades and continue to threaten marine life.

Scientific Classification


What We Do

Conservation & Management

NOAA Fisheries is committed to protecting long-finned pilot whales. Targeted management actions taken to secure protections for these whales include:

  • Reducing interactions with fishing gear.

  • Minimizing the effects of noise disturbance.

  • Responding to stranded pilot whales.

  • Educating the public about pilot whales and the threats they face.

  • Monitoring population abundance and distribution.

Science Behind the Scenes

Our research projects have discovered new aspects of pilot whale biology, behavior, and ecology and helped us better understand the challenges that all pilot whales face. This research is especially important in maintaining populations. Our work includes:

  • Undertaking stock assessments to determine the status of populations and/or subpopulations.

  • Measuring the response of animals to sound using digital acoustic recording tags.

How You Can Help

Marine Life In Distress

Report Marine Life in Distress

Report a sick, injured, entangled, stranded, or dead animal to make sure professional responders and scientists know about it and can take appropriate action. Numerous organizations around the country are trained and ready to respond.

Learn who you should contact when you encounter a stranded or injured marine animal >

Keep Your Distance

Keep Your Distance

Be responsible when viewing marine life in the wild. Observe all small whales from a safe distance of at least 100 yards and limit your time spent observing to 30 minutes or less.

Learn more about our marine life viewing guidelines > 

Report a Violation

Report a Violation

Call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964 to report a federal marine resource violation. This hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days week for anyone in the United States.

You may also contact your closest NOAA Office of Law Enforcement field office during regular business hours.