How Long Can Whales Hold Their Breath?

Written by Krishna Maxwell
Updated: September 20, 2022
Image Credit slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com
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Key Points

  • Whales are mammals who have to surface for air. They do not have gills so they can’t breath under water.
  • Whales blow air out of their blowhole very forcefully in order to avoid getting water in their lungs when they inhale.
  • The amount of time that a whale can hold its breath varies depending on the species. On average, it is about 90 minutes. Killer Whales average about 15 minutes. The Cuvier’s beaked whale is the record holder at three hours.
  • Whales do not drown, but they can suffocate if they are unable to surface for air.

Whales travel through the ocean, lunging, leaping, and playing, with grace and swiftness that belies their huge size. The secret to their incredible lifestyle, besides their well-adapted skeletal and muscular structure, is a very unique respiratory system specialized for deep-sea diving. In the course of its evolution, this respiratory system has had to overcome the challenges of mammalian anatomy. Just like any other mammal, whales need oxygenated air to survive. They have a set of big, complex lungs that constantly exchange fresh oxygen for carbon dioxide to stay alive. Because whales lack gills, they cannot draw oxygen directly from the water. This leaves them vulnerable to suffocation if they don’t return to the surface in time. Fortunately, cetaceans have evolved several extreme adaptations to survive the long and difficult journey beneath the surface. Read on to learn about how long whales can hold their breath.

How Does a Whale Breathe?

The spout of water that is seen arising from a whale’s blowhole doesn’t come from the lungs.

The most important feature of any cetacean respiratory system (whether it’s the sperm whale, humpback whale, killer whale, etc.) is the blowhole located at the top of the head. The blowhole remains closed by default to prevent water from entering the body. After returning to the surface, the whale opens up its blowhole by contracting a small muscular flap; it then exhales stale air from its body in a towering gust of pressurized air. The spout of water you see arising from the blowhole isn’t coming from the lungs. Instead, the exhalation from the blowhole is so powerful that it sends the surrounding water from the surface of the body upward into a fine mist in the air. This clears water away from the blowhole so that they can draw air in without getting water in their lungs.

Once the stale air has been expelled from the body, the whale will take in a series of quick breaths to replenish its oxygen. Most species only resurface for a few minutes before they relax the muscles around the blowhole once again and then dive back beneath the surface. In order to keep water out of their lungs when they’re eating, cetaceans generally do not breathe through their mouths. However, scientists have found that some dolphins with damaged blowholes can learn to breathe through the mouth as a last resort.

How Long Can a Whale Holds Its Breath?

The answer to that question definitely depends on the species (as well as the individual). One of the most impressive of all the cetacean divers is the sperm whale (the species with a big rectangular-shaped head). It can hold its breath for around 90 minutes while diving down to depths of more than 3,000 feet to feast upon a favorite meal, giant squids.

The sperm whale isn’t the only impressive cetacean diver though. The blue whale (the largest animal to have ever existed) can hold its breath for up to 90 minutes and usually resurface after about 30 minutes; the deepest dive ever recorded from a blue whale was around 1,000 feet below the surface.

The humpback whale (whose most obvious feature is the large hump on its back) can hold its breath up to an hour at a time, but the typical foraging trip lasts an average of about four to seven minutes. It comes up to the surface, takes six to eight quick breaths, and then dives back down. The deepest humpback whale dive ever recorded was more than 600 feet.

The killer whale, by contrast, does much of its hunting near the surface. This is reflected in its respiratory capacity: it can only hold its breath for about an average of 15 minutes. However, when prey isn’t that easy to find near the surface, the killer whale does have the ability to dive several hundred feet below the surface in search of suitable prey. It will surface about every three to five minutes while traveling long distances.

Humans, by comparison, have much weaker breathing capacity. The average person can only hold their breath for a few minutes at a time. The longest human dive ever recorded, involving years of extensive training, was set by Croatian diver Budimir Sobat in 2021. He held his breath for an astonishing 24 minutes and 37 seconds.

What is the record for the longest whale dive?

The Cuvier’s beaked whale can reach depths of nearly 10,000 feet.

iStock.com/HeitiPaves

The Cuvier’s beaked whale, a deep ocean species which can grow up to 23 feet long and weigh up to 6,800 pounds, holds the record for the longest ever cetacean dive. Capable of reaching depths of nearly 10,000 feet, this beaked whale is continuously setting new (human-observed) records. In 2014, a tagged whale was thought to remain underwater for about 138 minutes before it finally resurfaced. This record stood for about six years until another whale was observed in 2020 completing a dive of more than three hours.

Cuvier’s beaked whale is an interesting species for marine biologists to study. It’s estimated that they spend around 90% of the time beneath the surface, perhaps more than any other mammal. This appears to be pushing the very limits of what whales are capable of enduring, and it’s not entirely clear why.

How does a whale hold its breath?

The secret to the whale’s breathing capacity lies in the efficiency of the entire respiratory system. This starts from the moment of their first breath. While humans can only absorb about five percent oxygen with each breath, whales can easily absorb up to 90% oxygen, which allows them to derive more power with each breath taken.

Contrary to what some people believe, whales do not have bigger lungs (at least in relation to their total body size). Instead, they rely on several other incredible adaptations to survive deep underwater dives. For instance, the blood volume coursing through their veins flows on a massive scale: it’s perhaps three to four times the amount of blood compared to a terrestrial mammal of a similar size. Their blood also contains twice the level of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin as other mammals. This means their blood is particularly oxygen-rich in order to supply their hungry cells.

When whales dive into the water, their bodies will automatically redirect blood flow to vital central organs such as the brain and muscles and away from any organs they aren’t using at the moment, including the kidneys and liver. With only the most vital organs still operable, whales can slow their heart rates down to around four to eight beats per minute, just enough to stay alive. The blue whale provides a particularly extreme example of this. It can apparently reduce its heart rate to about two beats per minute.

Finally, if all else fails and it’s running out of oxygen stores, a whale can always switch to anaerobic respiration, which saves precious oxygen but does cause lactic acid to build up quickly, which tires out the muscles. This is normally an option of last resort; most whales have already completed more than 90% of their dive before they ever switch to anaerobic respiration. One notable exception (again) is the Cuvier’s beaked whale. It can apparently stay underwater for at least another hour after anaerobic respiration kicks in without experiencing much apparent muscle fatigue. This may suggest there’s something unusual occurring within the beaked whale’s metabolism that scientists don’t yet understand.

One important issue that any deep-sea diver must contend with (whether human or whale or anything else) is tissue damage. Small differences in pressure between gas-filled air cavities inside the body (such as the lungs or inner ear) and the surrounding water can cause the tissue to rupture. This is usually known in the scientific jargon as barotrauma. In order to withstand the pressure of a deep dive, it’s believed that some whales have extra veins lining the insides of these gas-filled cavities. When the whale reaches exceptional depths, the veins will then expand outward to fill the extra space inside of the cavity. At the same time, the lungs will collapse to prevent any damage to them. Since they have so much oxygen flowing through their blood, they don’t need to use their lungs anymore until reaching the surface again.

How do whales sleep without suffocating?

Whales sleep either horizontally or vertically.

Cetaceans generally have two different strategies for sleeping. They will either rest horizontally or vertically in the water, or they will catch a bit of sleep while swimming next to another individual. Both of these methods involve sleep states that are more akin to napping; much of their brain remains alert and active. While breathing itself is an involuntary action, whales must remain conscious enough to control the blowhole because it requires voluntary muscle movement. This suggests they don’t exactly sleep in the way humans do.

Can whales drown?

Whales don’t really drown (because their lungs almost never fill with water), but they can suffocate for a lack of oxygen. This can occur when a whale becomes entangled in a fishing net and, in a panic, attempts to dive deeper or remains stuck in place. Newborns can also struggle to reach the surface. Sometimes they will suffocate before taking their first breath.

There are numerous stories of whales being rescued from nets by divers. The whales often stick around to interact with and thank the divers after being set free. They are also able to communicate with each other over long distances with their powerful deep-sea singing. Unfortunately, the number of whales is dwindling, primarily from entanglement with nets and overhunting.

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About the Author

Krishna is a lifelong animal owner and advocate. She owns and operates a small farm in upstate New York which she shares with three dogs, four donkeys, one mule, and a cat. She holds a Bachelors in Agricultural Technology and has extensive experience in animal health and welfare. When not working with her own animals and tending her farm, Krishna is helping other animal owners with behavior or management issues and teaching neighboring farmers about Regenerative Agriculture practices.

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