Dolphin Respiration: Can Dolphins Breathe Underwater?

can dolphins breathe underwater

Dolphins are up there with the most intelligent animals on earth, with a large brain-to-body ratio they are capable of complex problem-solving and understanding abstract situations.

They are part of the cetacean family alongside whales and porpoises and are classified as marine mammals.

In this post, we will answer a question that many are eager to learn more about. Can dolphins breathe underwater?

In a nutshell, no, dolphins are unable to breathe underwater. Dolphins have lungs which means they must surface regularly in order to replenish their lungs with oxygen.

Can Dolphins Really Breathe Underwater?

Dolphins cannot breathe underwater as they do not have gills as fish do. Instead, they have lungs that require them to come to the surface to breathe.

They hold their breath whilst submerged under the water until they come up to the surface, being able to hold their breath for between 8 and 10 minutes.

This gives dolphins enough time to dive into the depths if they are required in order to catch prey such as squid and fish.

How Do Dolphins Breathe?

Dolphins are some of the world’s smartest animals that are incredibly agile in the water. They are capable of swimming at speeds of up to 60km/h allowing them to chase after their prey.

Just like mammals, they need to breathe for their bodies to function. Dolphins have a blowhole at the top of their heads which opens when they reach the surface and are ready to breathe.

When a dolphin reaches the surface, he first blows the excess water that is sitting on top of his blowhole away, before breathing in fresh, oxygen-rich air.

This is why dolphins can often be heard before they can be seen, as this blowing of air makes a distinct noise that is also heard in whales and some other marine mammals.

This breathing process only takes a fraction of a second as dolphins have incredibly powerful lungs that are collapsable for them to avoid compression sickness when diving into the depths to pursue prey.

These impressive lungs allow dolphins to breathe two to three times quicker than we humans can, so they only need to pop out of the surface for a short period so that they can take in a full breath of air.

Up until very recently, it was thought that dolphins only used their blowhole to breathe. But in 2016, scientists discovered a New Zealand dolphin with a damaged blowhole that had learned to breathe by using its mouth.

Dolphins’ lungs are very impressive, and they are part of what makes the dolphin such an incredible marine predator in the ocean.

They are fast, agile, and incredibly intelligent – which means they have the tools necessary to take on many types of prey.

The whole circulatory system of a dolphin is very impressive. They can discern which bodily functions are needed and which can be temporarily paused whilst diving to conserve energy.

For example, when dolphins dive into the depths, they are able to shut off their digestive system, blood flow, and even heart rate in order to stay submerged for longer.

Their heart, brain, and tail muscles all function properly whilst shutting down these functions, which allows them to make calculated decisions and ensures they can still function perfectly before coming up for air.

How Can Dolphins Sleep Without Drowning?

When it comes to sleeping, dolphins have two main methods that they use to catch some shut-eye so that they can recover their bodies and be ready to tackle the day.

Dolphins will often rest either horizontally or vertically near the surface of the water or sleep whilst swimming next to other animals.

This behavior has been observed frequently in aquariums and zoos. Another way dolphins sleep without drowning is by “logging”.

They sleep in a state that very much resembles a log, which is why the term logging is given.

Dolphins alternate which half of their brain is sleeping periodically so that they can get the rest they need without ever losing consciousness.

They will usually swim very close to the surface so that they don’t need to swim when they are required to breathe.

This allows them to stay conscious and be aware of their surroundings in case of an oncoming predator but also allows them to get some rest and allow their bodies and minds to recover.

Can Dolphins Drown In Water?

As you can imagine, it’s very rare for a dolphin or any marine mammal for that matter to drown whilst in the ocean.

This is the natural habitat that they have evolved over millions of years to survive in, so drowning is something that is few and far between.

However, dolphins that are trapped underwater for long periods of time may certainly drown. Sometimes they can become tangled in fishing nets or be fighting off a predator and run out of oxygen.

Dolphins will not inhale underwater, but if they are trapped under the surface and are expending a lot of energy, then they may well drown if they do not manage to reach the surface.

Final Thoughts

Can dolphins breathe underwater? No, they cannot breathe underwater as they do not have gills but instead have lungs as other marine mammals do.

Dolphins have remarkable lungs that allow them to collapse to ensure the animal can benefit from every last bit of oxygen that they have before needing to surface.

Unlike fish, dolphins can only hold their breath for between 8 and 10 minutes, which means once they run out of oxygen they need to come to the surface in order to breathe.

These incredible animals have some of the most impressive circulatory systems in the animal kingdom.

They are capable of shutting down certain bodily functions such as their digestive system to conserve energy and stay submerged for longer periods.

Hopefully, you’ve learned something new today about why dolphins are unable to breathe underwater and have enjoyed reading this article.

If you have enjoyed your time here, feel free to stick around to learn more about dolphins and the many other types of marine life that we discuss at MarinePatch.