Short-finned pilot whales spy-hopping in the waters off of Guam

About The Species

Short-finned pilot whales are found globally in tropical and temperate oceans. They are one of two species of pilot whale, along with the long-finned pilot whale. The two species differ slightly in size, features, coloration, and pattern. In the field and at sea, it is very difficult to tell the difference between the two species.

Short-finned pilot whales are long-live, slow to reproduce, and highly social. They live in stable groups of 15 to 30 animals comprised of close family relatives, and tend to live in localized, resident populations, although some populations have wider ranges. Their diet consists primarily of squid, with a small amount of fish. They are commonly found along the coast close to the continental shelf, although some populations have been found to extend into deep, open ocean environments, such as in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Pilot whales are often involved in mass strandings for reasons that are still unclear. 

Three stocks of short-finned pilot whales are recognized in U.S. waters, which live along the U.S. east and west coasts, and around the Hawaiian Islands. On the west coast, short-finned pilot whales were once commonly seen, with an apparently resident population around Santa Catalina Island. After a strong El Niño in 1982 and 1983, short-finned pilot whales virtually disappeared from this area, and there are now thought to about 800 animals in the West Coast stock.  About 21,500 animals live in the East Coast stock, and about 9,000 animals are thought to live in the Hawaiian stock. 


CITES Appendix II

throughout its range


in 1 distinct population segment

  • Throughout the Wider Caribbean Region
MMPA Protected

throughout its range


The short-finned pilot whale has a bulbous melon head with no obvious beak. Its dorsal fin is far forward on its body and has a relatively long base. The body its black or dark brown, with a large gray saddle behind the dorsal fin.

Behavior and Diet

Short-finned pilot whales feed mainly on squid, but they may also feed on octopuses and fish, all from moderately deep water of 1,000 feet or more. When they are swimming and probably looking for food, a pilot whale group can spread out over an area a half-mile wide.

Short-finned pilot whales often occur in groups of 25 to 50 animals. Males have more than one mate—typically a group has one mature male for every eight mature females. Males generally leave their birth school, while females may stay in theirs for their entire lives.

They are known as the “cheetahs of the deep sea” for their deep, high-speed dives to chase and capture large squid.

Location Description
Short-finned pilot whales prefer warmer tropical and temperate waters. They can be found at varying distances from shore, but typically prefer deeper waters. Areas with a high density of squid are their main foraging habitats.
Short-finned Pilot Whale Range
Lifespan and Reproduction

Short-finned pilot whales mature at around 10 years of age. The maximum lifespan is 45 years for males and 60 years for females.

Females have calves every 5 to 8 years. Older females do not give birth as often as younger females. They are pregnant for about 15 months, then nurse for at least two years. The last calf born to a mother may be nursed for as long as 15 years.


Entanglement in Fishing Gear

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


Short-finned pilot whales are directly targeted and hunted in Japan and the Lesser Antilles.

Vessel Strikes

Vessel strikes can injure or kill short-finned pilot whales. Scarred short-finned pilot whales have been observed in Hawaiian waters.

Scientific Classification


What We Do

Conservation & Management

We are committed to protecting short-finned pilot whales. Our work includes:

  • 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.

  • 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.