Underwater Wonders: Can Seals Breathe Underwater?

can seals breathe underwater

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Seals are widely distributed animals that can be found in every continent on earth, often along most costs and in cold waters.

They’re part of the Pinniped family which is a diverse clade of carnivorous, fin-footed, semiaquatic marine mammals.

As mammals, seals have all mammalian characteristics which include being warm-blooded, having hair or fur, and mothers producing milk for their young.

But what about their breathing? An interesting topic that often comes up when discussing seals is how they breathe and specifically, can seals breathe underwater?

This question has fascinated people for centuries as these animals spend so much time in the water but are also semiaquatic.

If this question has ever crossed your mind, stick around, because you’re in the right place!

Can Seals Breathe Underwater?

No, seals can NOT breathe underwater. Seals are marine mammals that have the requirement to breathe air to extract oxygen, they’re unable to extract oxygen directly from the water like some animals.

Sharks, fish, rays, and other animals have gills that allow them to extract oxygen directly from the water, allowing them to stay submerged for as long as they please.

can seals breathe underwater
Photo by JOHNY REBEL, the Explorer Panda

Pinnipeds do not have this ability, and instead, once their oxygen stores deplete they must return to the surface to breathe.

Most seal species can hold their breath for around 30 minutes or so which is typically long enough for them to dive and find food.

Why Can’t Seals Breathe Underwater?

Seals are unable to breathe underwater because they are mammals that have lungs and they do not have gills.

All mammals have lungs, which are organs that are used to extract oxygen from the air as opposed to from the water.

Whilst this may seem a bit odd for an animal that spends so much time in the water, lungs are surprisingly efficient for marine mammals and have many benefits.

Whales, otters, dolphins, orcas, and many other aquatic and semiaquatic animals have lungs and also can not breathe underwater.

Seals are semi-aquatic animals that spend most of their lives along shorelines and coasts, so they’re not in the water full-time like some other marine mammals.

Land provides a safe haven for seals to give birds, molt, and sleep. Therefore, having lungs isn’t so bad for seals as they are known to spend a lot of time on land.

During the molting period, many seal species will spend up to 12 hours per day on land, and young pups will stay on land for 7 days or more.

How Do Seals Breathe?

Seals breathe air by using their lungs. When their oxygen stores deplete, they return to the surface and breathe through their nostrils which are located on top of their snout.

This allows the seal to breathe quickly and efficiently without having to exit the water and allows the seal to dive back down quickly if needed.

Seals have a special adaptation that allows them to close their nostrils tightly so that no water can enter whilst its underwater.

When a seal dives, it relies on the oxygen stored in its blood and muscles to sustain it until it can surface again.

Harbor seals can dive as deep as 1500 meters and hold their breath for over 30 minutes, whereas elephant seals can dive more than 4,000 feet and hold their breath for up to 2 hours.

can seals breathe underwater
Photo by Craig Adderley

The species and size of its lungs as well as overall health will play a large role in how long each seal can hold its breath.

When seals need to return to the surface to breathe, they exhale the air from their lungs out of their nostrils which created a “puffing” sound.

Then it quickly inhales a breath of fresh air which allows it to dive again.

Like all marine mammals, seals are highly efficient at breathing. With a single breath, they can exchange 90% of the air in their lungs.

How Can Seals Hold Their Breath For So Long?

All seals have a number of adaptations that allow them to hold their breath for so long, which enables them to dive in order to catch prey.

For starters, they have a high capacity for storing oxygen in their blood and muscles and the ability to slow their heart rate and constrict their blood vessels to conserve oxygen.

When a seal takes a deep breath before diving, it can store up to four times more oxygen in its bloodstream than a human can.

Seals can also slow their heart rate from 100 beats per minute to only 10, allowing them to use less oxygen whilst holding their breath.

Not only that, but seals have the ability to restrict blood flow to their non-essential organs such as the kidneys and liver, and instead, direct it to the heart and brain, essential organs while diving

They also have a very high tolerance for carbon dioxide which means they can hold their breath for longer periods without feeling discomfort or the desperate need for air.

All of these amazing adaptations allow seals to stay underwater for long periods which is why they’ve evolved to be very effective marine predators.

Can A Seal Sleep Underwater?

Seals sleep both in the water and on land, but they don’t typically sleep underwater as they need to be able to breathe whilst sleeping.

They may take small naps whilst submerged, but these are often no longer than 30 minutes or so depending on the species as when their oxygen depletes they need to breathe.

In the water, seals sleep floating in a standing position with their heads just out of the water enough so that they can breathe when needed.

Sleep is crucial for seals, as it is for all animals. It’s vital that they get enough shuteye so that they can perform and have the energy to catch prey.

Seals also sleep on land, with many species averaging around 80 minutes of sleep per day to ensure their physical and mental health stays intact.

can seals breathe underwater
Photo by ArtHouse Studio

They can often get into a deeper sleep on land as they likely feel safer here, and they’ll usually sleep with other seals around them for extra security.

Whether seals are sleeping in the water or on land, they must remain alert to their surroundings and be able to quickly awaken if they sense danger.

Wrapping Up

To wrap up, NO, seals can not breathe underwater. They are marine mammals that have lungs instead of gills, and therefore they must surface to breathe when their oxygen stores deplete.

Seals have a number of adaptations that allow them to hold their breath for long periods, such as an increased tolerance for carbon dioxide, slowing their heart rate down, and restricting blood flow to nonessential organs.

These fascinating animals are perfectly adapted to a semiaquatic life and spend lots of time both in and out of the water.

Thanks for taking the time to learn more about seals and their breathing today, I hope you’ve enjoyed your time here.

See you next time!