Pilot Whales

The AWdF has been based in Tenerife for some thirty years and has continuous datasets on resident short fin pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins, and on species (16 species) migrating through its waters. The datasets cover upwards of 16,000 interactions and combine photo I/D work with data including date and time, GPS location, and parameters advised by the Tethys Institute on non-evasive cetacean research.

About the Species


  • Short-finned pilot whales are recognisable by their characteristic large and globular head, hence the latin name Globicephala macrorhynchus
  • The male’s body length varies between 4 and 6 meters whereas females come in at around 3 to 5 meters
  • Their body is a grey-black colour with a large grey saddle patch behind the dorsal fin
  • Males can weight up to 3’000 kilograms while the females only weight up to 1,500 kilograms 


  • Short-finned pilot whales communicate acoustically with their conspecifics in order to navigate, hunt and explore
  • Their communication is made up of pulsed calls and whistles, each having their own unique function
  • The tonal signals and clicks produced are used for echolocation; the location of objects using reflected sound 
  • Short-finned pilot whales are able to produce social calls even while hunting during deep dives up to 2 kilometers, hence their need to recycle air in the pneumatic system in order to maintain such vocal production

Habitat and distribution

  • They are known to occur in warm-temperature and tropical waters on the outer edges of continental shelves
  • In the Atlantic Ocean, Short-finned pilot whales have populations along North and South America and the Gulf of Mexico as wells as the Canary Islands and Australia
  • In general, Short-finned pilot whales prefer deep waters, located at continental shelves and canyons, which they use to hunt prey such as giant squid


  • Females reach sexual maturity after 9 years whereas males do at 16 years
  • Mating takes place seasonally and one single calf is produced in multiyear intervals
  • Females usually mate with individuals who do not derive from their own pod
  • In a female’s lifetime, she will give birth around 4-5 times, with a calf being born every seven years as they reach menopause around the age of 40


  • The Short-finned pilot whale predominantly feeds on squid and sometimes small fish
  • The pod hunts together while diving to depths of up to 2 kilometers; a pod may spread out up to 800 meters to find food
  • Due to their high-speed pursuits of squid at depths of hundreds of meters, they have earned the nickname ‘cheetahs of the deep’. 

Literature Reviews

Areas of Collaboration

Currently, there are a number of areas of research, each of which could benefit from collaboration:

  • Solid datasets consisting of continuous data collected through the years including photo-identification and acoustics in order to study the behaviour of the resident pilot whale families
  • Categorising vocalisations within the families in order to distinguish them from other families through dialect
  • Use the data to demonstrate cessation of vocalisations where anthropogenic noise is present
  • With the existing data; create better understanding of vocalisation types and functions