WILDLIFE

WHALES AND DOLPHINSShort-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) are one of the main target species of the global whale watching industry. The hotspot is on Canary Islands – the southwest coast of Tenerife. Short-finned pilot whales look very similar to their colder-water relatives the long-finnedpilot whales. The differences between them are subtle. Short-finned pilot whales are a bit smaller and their flippers are not quite as long (they are a sixth of the body length rather than a fifth). Short-finned pilot whales also have fewer teeth. Adults are black or dark grey, they have a lighter grey saddle patch on the back behind the dorsal fin, and an anchorshaped patch on the underside. Pilot whale babies are lighter coloured than their parents. Adults have a prominent, thick-set dorsal fin situated one-third of the way back from the head. Some males have very curved or even hook-shaped dorsal fins. The head is bulbous with no beak. Male pilot whales are larger than females. They have a more bulbous forehead, a chunkier dorsal fin and – sometimes – scars on their bodies.

What do they eat? Pilot whales catch and eat fish such as mackerel, hake, herring and cod but their favouriteprey, by far, are squids and octopuses. Their squid-eating habit is evident when lookinginside their mouths as they have far fewer teeth than dolphins that prefer to grab and eatfish. Pilot whales ‘ram and suck’ squids and octopuses and so their mouths are adaptedfor sucking rather than grasping prey.Pilot whales can dive to depths up to 1000 m for 10 to 16 minutes at a time. They mostlyfeed at night in deep water using echolocation to find prey. They have been recordedswimming very quickly at depths, sprinting after large squid and have been aptlynicknamed ‘cheetahs of the deep sea’.

The most important thing in their lives is each other, and they are incredibly loyal. They live together in extended family pods which are tight-knit and stable. The males and females within each pod are related to one another and mating takes place outside the pod. Baby pilots grow up in the safety of the pod they are born into. Pilot whales put a lot of energy and effort into maintaining their relationships. They are long-lived whales; females live longer than males and females go through menopause. Once older females stop having babies themselves, they help other mothers in their pod care for their babies. Pilot whales are strongly bonded to each other and do everything together; resting, hunting, socialising, playing and travelling as a unified pod.