Pilot whales are cetaceans belonging to the genus Globicephala, comprising two species - the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) and the short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus). The latin name Globicephala literally means 'pot head' or 'round ball', referring to their bulbous head shape, and it is believed they became known as pilot whales because they usually follow a leader who guides or 'pilots' them.
Despite their name, pilot whales are actually the largest member of the dolphin family after the Orca (Killer Whale) and science deems them to be highly intellegent. They and other large members of the dolphin family are also known as blackfish.
Pilot whales are usually dark grey, brown or black in colour with a distinctive light anchor-shaped marking on their chest and a grey saddle patch behind the dorsal fin. Their lifespans are about 45 years in males and 60 years in females for both species, with adult males reaching up to 6.5 metres in length and 2,300 Kgs in weight. The long-finned pilot whale has 9–12 teeth in each row and flippers one-fifth of its total body length.
In the Faroe Islands, the whales eat mostly squid (an adult pilot whale can consume up to 27 Kgs of squid per day!), but will also eat fish such as greater argentine and blue whiting (although not cod, herring or mackerel which are also abundant in Faroese waters).
Long-finned pilot whales generally prefer to live in colder waters such as the Atlantic Ocean around the Faroe Islands, in groups or 'pods' of 10–30 individuals, although some pods may have 100 or more members. Their social structures are similar to those of resident killer whales, with close family bonds and highly stable groups consisting of various ages and sexes. They have been observed displaying various kin-directed and altruistic behaviors, such as providing food and protection to other pod members. Both males and females remain in their mother's pod for life.
Motherhood is a lengthy business for pilot whales, who have one of the longest birth intervals of all the cetaceans and calf only once every three to five years. Gestation lasts 12-16 months, with most breeding activity taking place during the summer. The female feeds her calf with milk for three years, forming an extensive bond between mother and baby.
Pilot whales communicate using low-frequency whistles and pulses to keep in contact with each other, and have been known to develop calls unique to their own pod. When in stressful situations they produce 'shrills' or 'plaintive cries', which are variations of their whistles.
The pilot whales' devotion to their other pod members also makes them one of the most common stranders. Because of their strong social bonds, whole groups of pilot whales will strand (beach themselves) together ,and it is this very behaviour which also makes them particularly vulnerable during drive hunts. The whales refuse to leave each other and will remain with their family until the very last member is killed.
The Intenational Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists both species as 'Data Deficient' in its Red List of Threatened Species, meaning not enough data exists to effectively measure the effects of hunting and pollution on population levels or conservation factors. Contrary to this, NAMMCO considers them as being a sustainable catch.