People often ask me what my favorite creature is. It’s not an uncommon question, even for humans. But there are so many magnificent creatures of the sea, it can be hard to pick. At least, until I experienced the Pilot Whales in Moorea during Mermaid Week Tahiti 2019 with Mermaid Kat and Ian Gray Photography. Since then, they’ve been a clear winner in the race to be my favorite animal.
We were on the search for humpback whales, which we found, but we were also treated to pilot whales in our expeditions. Dozens of marine life that look like a cross between a beluga whale and a dolphin enchanted us in the water. We were fortunate enough to get to swim with these amazing creatures multiple times, and the last time we swam with them an incident happened on one of the neighboring tour boats and the French Polynesian government shut down swimming with the pilot whales, which made our experience even more special and unique.
The pilot whales would bob up and down, vertically in the water. It was like they were playing peek-a-boo or hide and seek with us! We also swam along with the pod, which was a magical experience.
Pilot whales are actually not even whales at all! They’re large dolphins, part of the delphinidae family. This makes them a mammal and they must come up to breathe air in their lungs. They take several breaths before diving down for a few minutes underwater. Their scientific name is globicephala, and there are actually two species of pilot whales - the longfin pilot whales, and the shortfin pilot whales. We swam with the shortfin whales. They’re also known as pothead whales, and together with killer whales make up what are called “blackfish”. It’s said that they get their common name of pilot whales from the belief that the pods have a leader, or a pilot, to guide the group. While I’m not sure if that’s true (some sources said it wasn’t while some said it was), about 80% of the time they have a follower of the group, an oceanic white tip shark. But more on that later.
Long-fin pilot whales have a larger fin to body ratio than their short-fin counterparts, and the long-fin whales tend to live in colder climates, but without doing a skull exam it can be pretty difficult to tell the difference between the two. Females live to be about 60 years old and can grow up to 6.5 meters long, whereas males only live to about 45 years old but can grow to be 7.5 meters long. For the Americans like me, that’s a little over 21 feet for the females and just under 25 feet for the males. Pilot whales are a nomadic species, meaning they travel around a lot, but there are permanent groups in Hawaii and California. Pilot whales can be found all over the world, except in the Arctic.
So what exactly do these dolphin-not-whales look like? Well, they look like small, slender, toothed whales. They’re normally black in color, though to me they looked more grey but maybe it was just the Polynesian sun. They have a round, bulging forehead, a short, beak-like snout, and slender, pointed fins. They live in large groups called pods, that consist of anywhere from 10 to hundreds of pilot whales.
In the spring and summer, their mating season, larger groups will form as the males visit other pods to mate. Offspring normally stays with the mother’s pod. Speaking of mothers, the gestation or birthing period lasts anywhere from a year to 16 months and pilot whales can reproduce every 3 to 5 years. They’ll stop having babies at around age 30, and pilot whales are one of a handful of mammals that actually experience menopause, just like humans. There were a few mom and calf pairs in the pods we got to swim with and they were so cute! I feel like they accepted us mermaids as extra calves in the pod!
Pilot whales are carnivores, meaning they eat meat. They primarily feed on squid, but will also eat octopus, cod, whiting, herring, and mackerel. The other day I was watching a TV show about penguins, and they eat herring so the narrator said “bad day to be a herring”. My first thought was “everyday is a bad day to be a herring” as so many of our marine life, as well as many humans, feast on this common northern fish.
Pilot whales have an unusually high metabolism and their feeding dives tend to only take about 10 minutes!
Because of their spread out distribution, it’s hard to know the exact number of how many are in the population and their stability level. However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species lists pilot whales as “least concern” which means “they do not qualify as threatened, near threatened, or conservation dependent” and is therefore not a focus of conservation efforts.
Pilot whales are sometimes preyed upon by large sharks. They can become infested with whale lice, nematodes, and cestodes. Nematodes are roundworm parasites and cestodes are flatworm parasites. Pilot whales are also susceptible to bacterial and viral infections, just like any mammal. They’re also vulnerable to loud sounds from human activity and accumulations of toxins and heavy metals.
Pilot whales were trained to perform in oceanariums, and the US Navy even trained pilot whales to attach devices to stray torpedos for them! Humans remain the main predator of pilot whales, and they are still hunted for their meat and oil. Humans will frighten them with a loud noise in the water, which drives the pilot whales towards shore to be killed. Long-finned pilot whales are hunted in the Faroe Islands and Greenland, and short-finned pilot whales are hunted in Japan.
Unfortunately, pilot whales partake in mass strandings sometimes. This is when an entire pod will beach themselves to die. There are two main theories as to why they’d do this. One is that there was an error in their echolocation, which miscalculated the slope of the shore, leading to an accidental stranding. The second is that pilot whales are highly, highly social creatures. Some whales might follow a podmate that’s stranding itself and become trapped, accidentally stranding themselves in the process. Has your mother ever asked you “if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” well, if you were a pilot whale, unfortunately the answer seems to be “yes”. When individuals strand themselves, it tends to be because they had a disease and were dying already. In some cases, some pilot whales that were suffering from accidental strandings have been rescued by their podmates! Distressed calls have lured the stranded whales back to the safety of the sea, saving them.
Now that you’ve learned all about pilot whales, let me tell you about one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had so far!
Okay, so, remember when a little while ago I told you that 80% of the time, pilot whale pods are followed by Oceanic White Tip Sharks? Oceanic White Tips are the 4th most dangerous shark in the world, but don’t worry I’ll have another blog post and YouTube video specifically about them coming out in the nearish future. This story is about the pilot whales.
Just imagine. You’re in the clear, blue waters of French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean. It’s a warm day and the water, though a little chilly for the locals, feels great to you because you know you’re about to experience something very few people in life have the chance to experience. You’ve just swam with some humpbacks and a smaller pod of pilot whales, when you join up with another pod of pilot whales. A larger pod, with some mom and calf pairs. You take a breath, dive down, and dolphin kick forward. The pod accepts you as one of their own. You are now part of the pack. Behind you, the oceanic white tip is slowly getting closer, but there is no unrest as your safety divers are with you keeping an eye out and it appears that even the shark has counted you as another pilot whale. As you come up for another breath, your fellow mermaids remark how incredible you looked amongst the pod and how the shark completely disregarded you. Mixed in with species not your own, you felt the serenity of the ocean wash over you and bring you Peace, if only for a few moments. Quickly you are ushered back as there has been an emergency with an adjacent tour group and later that evening you find out that the government has banned swimming with the pilot whales for the rest of the season due to the incident. And just like that, a moment you would have never forgotten anyways becomes even more rare and special.
This was back in 2019, so I’m not sure if they’ve allowed pilot whale swims to continue or not since, especially with the Coronavirus, but as always, make sure you do your research and trust who you’re going out with. Some companies just want to make a profit, some want to give you a fun experience, and some really care about safety and sustainability and conservation. Find the best company to put your trust into, don’t go alone, and you’ll be fine. For those wondering, we used Moorea Ocean Adventures and Moana and Troy were some of our crew. I really recommend Moorea Ocean Adventures because they not only care about the health and safety of their passengers and guests, but also of the wildlife that they interact with. Only one boat is allowed in an area with the wildlife, whether it be the humpbacks or the pilot whales or what have you, so that the creatures don’t feel overwhelmed and there’s not too much crowding for a good guest experience. If there’s already a boat with one animal, don’t worry, there are plenty more, especially if you go during the proper time of the year. We went in October. Additionally, Moorea Ocean Adventures goes over safety measures before letting anyone in the water and the guide always stays between the guest and the animal, not in a way that would block your view at all but to where the guide would be able to intervene if necessary as these are wild animals and not pets in an aquarium.
Stay safe, do your research, and have fun!
Mermaid kisses and starfish wishes,
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