How Long Can Alligators Stay Underwater — and How Long Can Alligators Hold Their Breath?

Written by Taiwo Victor
Updated: January 24, 2023
Share on:


As reptiles, alligators can live on land and in water, but that doesn’t mean they can breathe underwater like fish. When diving and staying underwater, alligators come in place with mammals, humans, whales, dolphins, polar bears, and other sea-diving creatures that don’t breathe underwater. However, unlike humans, alligators can hold their breath way longer and better than we do. So, this raises the question: how long can alligators stay underwater? And how long can they hold their breath? 

Humans often dive for fun and experience, while alligators use water for hunting. Although they may appear clumsy on land, they can swim incredibly rapidly in the water using their tails and capture prey faster and more readily as a result. So, how much time can alligators spend submerged? Although it may seem foolish, many individuals have debated that issue for ages.

Research on the creature even dates back to Aristotle, who argued about how long alligators can hold their breath. Since then, various studies have been carried out by scientists and researchers to see how long alligators can survive underwater. This article will discuss the alligator’s breathing techniques underwater and more.

How Long Can Alligators Stay Underwater?

Alligator can rest underwater for up to two hours in an emergency.

© Stripe

Alligators are no fish, so, like any other semi-aquatic reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, alligators can dive and stay long underwater but must always resurface for air. Compared to humans, alligators can submerge for far longer. An average dive could take 10 to 20 minutes, although an alligator can rest underwater for up to two hours in an emergency. Additionally, an alligator can stay submerged for up to eight hours in extremely cold water. 

No matter how long they can stay underwater physiologically, they don’t often act in such severe ways unless they’re in danger or brumating (becoming dormant) in the cold. Alligators rarely dive deeper than the surface for longer than 10 to 20 minutes at a time, and they can also submerge themselves for as long as their oxygen supply lasts.

Alligators can stay underwater indefinitely, just like crocodiles, as long as they can periodically surface and breathe. Although they are accustomed to living most of their time on the water, they do not necessarily reside there. Hunting is their number one reason to dive into freshwater, added to the fact that it’s always fun to relax beneath the water.

How Long Can Alligators Hold Their Breath?

Alligator in Swamp

Alligators can easily hold their breath for 20 to 30 minutes regularly.

©Thierry Eidenweil/

Because it’s vague how long exactly an alligator can stay submerged, it’s also unclear how long it can hold its breath. Texas Parks and Wildlife says that alligators can easily hold their breath for 20 to 30 minutes regularly and hold their breath for up to 24 hours when necessary. They rarely stay underwater for that long, though, as they constantly need to surface to breathe.

The length of time an alligator can hold its breath for may vary depending on the alligator’s age and health, the water conditions and temperature, and other variables.

Do Alligators Supply Their Own Oxygen?

The quick answer is yes, and this is one thing that makes them unique. Alligators can ration their air supply, which helps them hold their breath longer than most animals. The ability of alligators to limit their oxygen consumption allows them to take in what they need to stay alive. They can use relatively little oxygen for a very long time in this way.

But how do they do this? Alligators will decrease their heart rate to just two or three beats per minute while submerged for a long time. In such circumstances, the heart will be the only organ receiving oxygen.

According to theory, the alligator “tanks up” on oxygen in the first 20 minutes of the dive, using up almost half of its supply before using very little oxygen for the remainder.

Alligators that engage in these prolonged periods of submersion stay under the water before their oxygen supply is practically depleted, at which point they resurface.

Why Can’t Alligators Breathe Underwater?

Alligator near cypress trees

Because alligators lack gills, they can’t breathe underwater.

©jaimie tuchman/

As reptiles, alligators have extremely different lungs from ours, like other reptiles such as lizards and snakes. But unlike fish, they lack gills. They can’t breathe underwater, so they only show off their excellent breath-holding abilities when they submerge themselves for extended lengths of time. Because alligator lungs contain much more nitrogen than human lungs, they may stay underwater for longer periods without experiencing any pain or discomfort.

They must occasionally surface, despite spending a great deal of time underwater. Even an alligator that remains underwater for 24 hours eventually needs to surface to breathe. Although they occasionally appear to breathe underwater, they can only breathe when their nostrils are in contact with the air. Their snouts allow them to almost be completely submerged while still breathing.

Do Alligators Sleep Underwater?

Although they won’t always do so, alligators may doze off while underwater or partially submerged. They don’t typically sleep underwater, at least not for extended periods. Alligators often keep their nostrils tilted up and out of the water to breathe, even when they doze off. They frequently create sleeping hollows in the mud, which allows them to spend some time in the water and some time on the shore.

How Do Alligators Hunt Underwater?

Alligators are highly sneaky, according to scientists, and will wait for hours or even days to catch their prey at the water’s surface. Their bodies are virtually immobile in the water as they swim very slowly. As prey approaches, the alligator will leap forward and close its jaws on its victim. They can quickly catch prey, including fish, frogs, and insects, because of the sharp teeth on their robust jaws. Alligators are carnivorous reptiles that mostly eat small to medium-sized animals, fish, turtles, frogs, and birds. They can, however, eat anything that comes their way as they are opportunistic feeders.

How Do Alligators Float?

Alligators float steadily in water, so many animals (even humans) often don’t notice them in swamps and other freshwater habitats. Amazingly, alligators can adjust their buoyancy by expanding and contracting their lungs, much like submarines. The modification enables them to blend in, approach prey covertly, and hide their bulk. This skill results from various additional elements, including the combination of particular muscles, a distinctive breathing pattern, the capacity to move their lungs, and others.

Lung Control

Just like humans and any other animal, an alligator floats by breathing air into its lungs. An alligator’s lungs are unique in that they do more than allow it to float; they give the gator unique control over how it floats. An alligator’s muscles allow its lungs to shift backward in its body when it’s time to submerge, allowing its head to descend and dive gracefully through the water.

Movable Lungs

Can you picture having the ability to move your lungs? Alligators can effortlessly roll in the water, resembling an airplane performing a barrel roll, by pushing their lungs to one side or the other. Alligators have additional special muscles on the sides of their lungs responsible for pushing them to either side of their bodies.

Special Muscles

Apart from the additional muscles that let an alligator rotate and roll from one side to another, they also have muscles that do more than that. Humans require muscles that contract and relax to carry air into and out of the lungs. Alligators also have them, but they also have unique muscles near the lungs that serve more purposes than simply breathing in and out. Humans’ diaphragms flatten below the lungs to facilitate lung expansion. However, a unique muscle in alligators that connects the liver to the hip bones drags the liver down, allowing the lungs to grow and stretching them further back.

Silent Creepers

You might question how an alligator can sneak up on its prey on land because they seem so awkward and slow. However, in the water, all of this clever lung shifting allows the alligator to maneuver without significantly agitating the water. Alligators can move their lungs to dive, surface, turn, and roll, which allows them to move stealthily and virtually unnoticed through the water until it is too late for dinner to elude them.

Can Alligators Live in the Ocean?

The quick answer is no. The more detailed answer is that alligators are not designed for swimming in the ocean and will quickly become exhausted and drown. When swimming or sailing along the ocean, you are sure to encounter a plethora of creatures, but alligators aren’t one of them. Alligators are typically freshwater creatures that live in swampy environments, streams, lakes, rivers, and ponds. They require the ability to submerge themselves in freshwater to control their body temperature.

By maintaining its head above the water and breathing through its nostrils, an alligator could be able to survive for a short while in saltwater, but the saltwater would gradually dehydrate it. Although alligators have existed since the time of the dinosaurs, they have not evolved the necessary adaptations to live or hunt outside freshwater habitats.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Proxmire

Share on:
About the Author

For six years, I have worked as a professional writer and editor for books, blogs, and websites, with a particular focus on animals, tech, and finance. When I'm not working, I enjoy playing video games with friends.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.