Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Globicephala melas – pilot whale

Globicephala melas

Globicephala melas Traill, 1809
Family: Delphinidae

Long-finned pilot whales occur in warm temperate to sub-polar waters in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Although they are occasionally seen off the west and south-west coast of Ireland, sightings in Northern Ireland coastal waters are unlikely. Over the last twenty years there have been three records of long-finned pilot whales, found dead, on the County Londonderry shoreline. The inhabitants of the Faroe Islands (Danish Islands in the north-east Atlantic) still hunt long-finned pilot whales. In the annual “grind”, hundreds of animals are rounded up by boat, herded into shallow water and slaughtered.

In brief

  • Unlikely to be been seen in Northern Ireland coastal waters
  • Black with a bulbous head
  • Listed as a UK Priority species
  • Main threats to the population are accidental capture and drowning in commercial fishing equipment (by-catch)
  • Noise pollution

Species description
The long-finned pilot whale is one of the largest members of the dolphin family (adults are 3.8-7.6m long). The body is black, with a pale W-shaped patch beneath the chin that extends along the belly. The pectoral fins are long and pointed. The dorsal fin, wide at the base and distinctly hooked and rounded at the tip, is located less than halfway down the body. The head is bulbous, with a very slightly protruding beak. There are 40-48 small teeth.

Life cycle
Long-finned pilot whales are very social animals. They are usually found in groups of 20-90 individuals. Squid, octopus and cuttlefish are their main food, although small fish may be taken when available. Calves are born in the summer and suckle for up to 2 years or more. Mass strandings are, unfortunately, relatively common for this species.

Similar species
Long-finned pilot whales may be confused with either Risso’s dolphin or the killer whale. The easiest way to tell the species apart is by body shape and colouration. Killer whales have very obvious black and white markings while Risso’s dolphins are dark/pale grey, criss-crossed with heavy scarring.

How to see this species
Long-finned pilot whales are usually found in deep offshore waters and are therefore unlikely to be seen in the waters around Northern Ireland.

Current status

  • Protected under schedule 5 of the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985
  • Listed in Schedule 2 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010
  • Listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention)
  • Listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (The Bonn Convention)
  • Covered by the terms of the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS)
  • Listed in Annex IV (Animal and Plant Species of Community Interest in Need of Strict Protection) of the EC Habitats Directive
  • Listed in Annex A of EU Council Regulation 338/97 and therefore treated by the EU as if they are on CITES, Appendix I
  • Listed in Appendix II of CITES
  • Listed in Schedule 2 of The Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1995

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • Listed as a UK Priority species

Threats/Causes of decline

  • Entanglement in fishing gear (by-catch)
  • Reduction in fish numbers due to commercial fishing
  • Disturbance and/or injury by sea vessels
  • Pollution (chemical and noise)

Conservation of this species

Current action
Long-finned pilot whales are included in the UK Biodiversity Grouped Species Action Plan for toothed whales, which was published in 1999.

  • Post mortem and tissue studies are carried out on stranded whales dolphins to establish the cause of death and condition of the animals at the time of death
  • In 2008, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency initiated a cetacean monitoring programme to provide information on the distribution and relative abundance of cetaceans in Northern Ireland waters. The information collected will enable the future selection of marine protected areas for cetaceans

Proposed objectives/actions

  • Avoid accidental harm to whales and dolphins when present in Northern Ireland waters
  • Contribute to international measures for the conservation of whales and dolphins

What you can do
To report long-finned pilot whale sightings to CEDaR, Telephone 028 9039 5264 or email

Further information

UK Grouped Species Action Plan for toothed whales

Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) priority species pages

NBN Gateway: Long-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas) grid map

Irish Whale and Dolphin Group

Cetaceans of Northern Ireland - Sea Watch Foundation

Irish Cetacean Review 2000-2009, The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.

Text written by:
Angela Ross

iNaturalist: Species account : iNaturalist World Species Observations database