Scientific Name: Globicephala melas
Malti: Il-balena s-sewda
Their common English name “pilot whale” refers to the belief that there is a leader which is followed by the other whales in the pod (family group), even when it means certain death. In fact they are notorious for stranding themselves on beaches. Despite their name, pilot whales are in fact one of the largest members of the dolphin family.
Both species exhibit sexual dimorphism (males and females have distinctive appearance) and have a large, bulbous “melon” (protruding “forehead”). Their colour is dark grey to black, with a characteristic “anchor-shaped” ventral patch and others light grey patches on the body.
Pilot whales are highly social, and studies suggest that both males and females remain in their mothers’ pods for life. Breeding may occur at any time of the year, but most occurs in spring and early summer in both hemispheres. They are very active and can often be seen lobtailing and spy-hopping, with the younger ones also breaching.
The status of the species is unknown due to taxonomic uncertainty and lack of sufficient data about the species’ numbers and distribution, but it is likely that pilot whales, like many other cetaceans, are suffering due to the adverse impact of a number of human activities, such as increasing levels of anthropogenic noise pollution, especially military sonar and seismic surveys, by-catch and competition with squid fisheries. As with other species of cetaceans, pilot whales are a strictly protected species and EU member states need to take all the requisite measures to maintain the population of these species at a favourable Conservation Status (FCS).
It’s very unusual to find the long-finned pilot whales in the Maltese waters. Eight cetacean (whales, dolphins and porpoises) species are represented by resident populations in Malta, but few records exist for the Long-finned Pilot Whale in Maltese waters. The infrequent reports of these magnificent creatures in Malta could be attributed to their association with pelagic waters overlying deep slopes. Globicephala melas inhabits the Atlantic area and Western Mediterranean, but isn’t a regular species in the Central Mediterranean.