How Long Can Seals Hold Their Breath Underwater?

Written by Hailey Pruett
Published: April 6, 2023
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As aquatic mammals, seals have to be able to hold their breath for long periods while diving for food, seeking out mates, and fleeing from potential predators. But how long exactly can seals hold their breath while underwater? Which species of seal can hold its breath the longest? Read on to learn more; we’ll also cover some interesting facts about these unusual and amazing animals!

How Long Can a Seal Hold Its Breath Underwater?

seal

All seals can hold their breath for some time underwater; however, the length of time they can vary from species to species.

©Colin Seddon/Shutterstock.com

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Seals can hold their breath underwater for anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours, depending on the species! There are 33 species of pinnipeds, collectively known as seals, within the taxonomic clade Pinnipedia. Three families fall under this group: the true or earless seals, eared seals or sea lions, and, strangely, the walrus, the only living member of the family Odobenidae. 

All species of seals can hold their breath for long periods while underwater. Compared to humans, most seals’ lungs are much larger than their body size. Generally, the larger the seal, the higher their lung capacity, and the longer they can breathe. But even the smallest seal species, the ringed seal, can hold its breath for up to around 45 minutes.

Amazingly, many seal species’ lungs collapse while diving! This is intentional and meant to protect the seal from decompression sickness, also known as the bends. To save energy, their heart rates also slow considerably while underwater.

What Seal Species Can Hold Its Breath the Longest?

walrus vs elephant seal

Elephant

seals are the most efficient divers of all seals, capable of holding their breath for up to two hours.

©creativex/Shutterstock.com

The largest seal species, the elephant seal, is the most skilled diver! While most other seal species can hold their breath for around 15 to 40 minutes, elephant seals can hold their breath for up to two hours while diving for food. It’s common for them to stay underwater for well over an hour at a time! 

Elephant seals dive deeper than any other seal species while hunting. They can dive to depths of up to 1,700 meters with ease. This is mainly thanks to their strong, muscular bodies and heavily reduced, modified limbs better suited for traversing water than land. 

Though they can look rather silly while flopping along shorelines, elephant seals can swim up to 10 miles per hour while diving. However, they tend to swim a bit slower than this to conserve energy when they aren’t hunting or mating. For a seal that can weigh over 5,000 pounds when fully grown, that’s pretty impressive!

Can Seals Sleep Underwater?

Hawaiian monk seal sleeping on the beach

Seals are capable of sleeping on land and in water. In water, though, they’ll keep their heads above the water to continue breathing oxygen while asleep.

©iStock.com/greghonda

Seals can sleep while in water as well as on land. However, they usually don’t fully submerge themselves while sleeping. Most species are buoyant enough to sleep upright in a vertical, “standing” position. Alternatively, they may lay horizontally and float that way, with their belly and head facing up.

While sleeping like this, the seal keeps its head just above the water to breathe oxygen. Meanwhile, the rest of its body below its neck stays just under the water’s surface. Then, the seal floats along until it’s ready to wake up and resume hunting, mating, fleeing from predators, or socializing.

But some seals, like the harbor seal, are so well-adapted to underwater living that they can sleep for around 30 minutes underwater! Since most seal species don’t sleep for long periods but rather take periodic naps in short intervals, this works well for them.

More Amazing Facts About Seals

Want to know more about seals? Here are some incredible facts you might not know about them!

  • The fastest seal species is the California sea lion, which can reach up to 30 miles per hour while swimming!
  • The world’s oldest seal was a female Baikal seal. Scientists at the Limnological Institute in Irkutsk, Russia, estimated she lived to be 56 years old.
  • The largest seal species, the elephant seal, uses its massive proboscis to amplify its loud, booming roars! It mainly uses its roaring call to attract mates.
  • When in water, most seals will sleep with their brains “half awake” to stay semi-alert to the presence of predators. However, they can engage in a much deeper sleep when they are on land.
  • Seals can have various vocalizations, from barks to roars to growls and howls! Strangely, gray seals can even “sing” and mimic human speech.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Image Source Trading Ltd/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Hailey "Lex" Pruett is a nonbinary writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering reptiles and amphibians. They have over five years of professional content writing experience. Additionally, they grew up on a hobby farm and have volunteered at animal shelters to gain further experience in animal care. A longtime resident of Knoxville, Tennessee, Hailey has owned and cared extensively for a wide variety of animals in their lifetime, including cats, dogs, lizards, turtles, frogs and toads, fish, chickens, ducks, horses, llamas, rabbits, goats, and more!

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