Breaching The Surface: Can Whales Drown?

can whales drown

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Whales are marine mammals that have adapted over millions of years to living life in the ocean. Some species can live as long as 90 years, spending every second of time in the water.

Making mistakes in the ocean can be deadly, not just for humans, but for animals too. Even the most experienced divers make mistakes from time to time.

Today, we’re going to answer a question that often comes to mind when discussing these ocean giants. “Can whales drown?”

YES, despite whales spending all of their lives in the ocean, they can drown. Whilst it’s incredibly rare for a whale to drown, there are some circumstances where this may happen.

Let’s take a closer look…

Do Whales Drown?

A whale drowning in the ocean is similar to a human suffocating on land, it’s rare but it does happen from time to time.

Unlike fish, whales do not have gills that allow them to extract oxygen from the water. Instead, they have lungs, much like our own human lungs (only much bigger!).

This means that whales must return to the surface to breathe when their lungs run out of oxygen.

When a whale dives down deep into the ocean, it is holding its breath in order to stay submerged, just as we do.

The length of time a whale can hold its breath largely depends on the species. The Cuvier beaked whale can dive for 222 minutes on a single breath, whilst the sperm whale can dive for 90 minutes.

Sperm whales are the deepest diving of all whales, capable of reaching depths of up to 3,000 in search of giant squid.

Whales and other marine mammals rarely drown as they simply will not breathe whilst underwater, and only do so once they break the surface.

Why Might A Whale Drown?

As whales have lived in the ocean for millions of years, they’ve adapted their lungs and vital organs to become incredibly efficient swimmers.

Unlike other animals, whales do not breathe through their mouth and instead have a specially adapted blowhole that allows them to stay submerged whilst breathing.

However, despite the whale’s adaptations, there are some scenarios where whales may drown.

Let’s take a look…

Entangled In Fishing Nets

Globally it is estimated that 300,000 large whales and dolphins die from being entangled in fishing nets every single year, though only a fraction are recorded.

Fishing nets are a huge threat to whales. Their flukes and fins can become trapped in nets easily, preventing them from swimming and holding them under the water.

This stops whales from coming to the surface to breathe and is sadly a common cause of death for many whale species.


Whales get injured in a number of ways, from being attacked by large predators such as great white sharks to being accidentally hit by small vessels.

An injury that damaged a whale’s fins or fluke could be the difference between them reaching the surface for air or drowning.


Some whales that are sick or disorientated may find themselves being beached ashore and unable to move.

This is incredibly dangerous for whales. As the tide rises, water may cover or enter the whale’s blowhole, causing the animal to drown before it can swim away.

Navigation errors, bad weather as well as sickness are all ways that whales may find themselves beached.

How Do Whales Sleep Without Drowning?

So how do whales sleep without drowning?

Well, unlike humans, whales actually remain partially awake whilst they sleep to keep control of their blowhole and breathe when needed.

The blowhole is a flap of skin that opens and closes under the control of the whale, therefore, it’s vital the whale can open its blowhole even whilst sleeping.

humpback whale rolling near surface

Depending on the species, whales will sleep close to the surface, with some species such as sperm whales using a technique known as “logging”.

Whales are also able to switch one part of their brain off whilst having the other half remain active and alert.

This not only helps whales keep a look out for predators, but ensures that they can get the vital sleep they need to be refreshed and ready to tackle the day ahead.

Do Whales Die Of Old Age Or Drown?

The lifespan of a whale varies drastically, with some species only living for a couple of decades to others living to be 200 years old.

But when a whale does come to the end of its days, how does it actually die? Does it drown, or die of old age?

This depends, but whales certainly can die from old age. Once a whale reaches a certain age its vital organs begin slowing down, which may result in them not making it to the surface to breathe.

Whales may even suffocate if they overestimate the depths into which they can dive too.

If a whale dives too deep and is unable to make it back to the surface, the whale will suffocate.

Whales therefore can die from suffocation, drowning as well as old age, it just depends on the individual circumstances the whale finds itself in.

Final Thoughts

Whales are magnificent animals that have adapted over millions of years to thrive in their ocean environment.

These giants have large lungs and a blowhole that they use to breathe when needed, as well as a strong, powerful fluke that can propel them to the surface quickly when needed.

However, even whales can find themselves in trouble if they’re not careful, which may ultimately lead to them drowning.

A whale drowning is incredibly rare, which should come as no surprise being that these are very much aquatic animals.

But circumstances out of their control such as entanglement and injury are often the cause of why a whale drowns.

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this post and now have a clear answer to “can whales drown?”

Catch you in the next one!