The Need For Air: Do Whales Breathe Air?

do whales breathe air

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Whales are truly magnificent animals that can be found in all oceans around the world from the warm tropical seas to the icy waters of the Arctic.

With over 40 different species that range in size, behaviors, and diets, these ocean giants have fascinated humans for centuries, and for good reason.

With complex social structures and large brains, whales are highly intelligent and function in ways similar to humans.

Like breathing, feeding, and nursing. But one question that often comes up when discussing these animals is how they breathe and specifically, do whales breathe air?

In this post, we’re going to answer exactly that and go through everything you need to know about how whales breathe and how they extract oxygen from their environment.

So let’s get to it…

Do Whales Breathe Air?

Yes, whales are marine mammals that breathe air. They have large lungs that have about the same capacity as a small car, allowing them to take in lots of air to replenish their oxygen supply when needed.

Unlike fish, whales don’t have gills that allow them to extract oxygen directly from the water, instead, whales must return to the surface to breathe when their oxygen stores have depleted.

do whales breathe air
Image by Marc Di Luzio

Most whale species are able to hold their breath for around 60 minutes, which is long enough for them to feed, breed, and go about their business, but there are some outliers that can hold their breath for much longer.

Breathing is an essential part of all whales’ survival and as conscious breathers, they need to take the active decision to breathe, unlike humans.

This is why when sleeping, they rest near the surface of the water and only shut down one half of their brain at a time, whilst the other is on alert for predators and triggers breathing when required.

How Do Whales Breathe Air?

Whales are marine mammals that breathe air directly into their lungs through a special adaptation located on top of their heads, a blowhole.

All whales have a blowhole that is located centrally on top of the whale’s head, allowing them to breathe without removing themselves from the water fully.

This is a highly efficient way for these mammals to breathe as it only requires them to break the surface of the water slightly to take in a breath of fresh air.

Blowholes are essentially nostrils that connect straight to the whale’s lungs, so when they are ready to breathe, they simply surface and inhale.

It’s also important to note that whilst we humans exchange only about 10 – 15% of the air in our lungs with every breath, whales exchange about 80 – 90%.

They also have a very quick gas exchange which allows them to surface for only a second or two and still be able to inhale a full breath.

Whales’ breathing is INCREDIBLY efficient, which is possible as their lungs have a surface area to rapidly exchange gases.

This is because they have many small alveolar sacs in the lungs at the end of the larger airways that come into contact with fresh oxygen.

In essence, whales are remarkably efficient breathers that use their blowhole and impressive respiratory system to exchange gases very quickly.

Why Do Whales Breathe Air?

Whales breathe air because they are marine mammals that have adapted and evolved to use their lungs to breathe, and they are unable to extract oxygen directly from the water as they don’t have gills.

These majestic giants are unable to breathe underwater, so they must return to the surface to breathe air to survive life in the ocean.

Whales evolved from land mammals millions of years ago, and whilst their appendages changed to fins and flukes, they kept their lungs during this transition for breathing.

Gills may seem more optimal adaptation for whales, but lungs are actually more effective as they offer better overall performance.

Whales have a number of other fascinating adaptations that work in conjunction with their lungs to conserve oxygen.

They are able to collapse their lungs when diving deep to make use of every bit of air in their lungs, as well as slow their heart rate down.

But ultimately, whales breathe air for the same reason we humans do, to extract oxygen that helps with the many bodily functions they have.

Can A Whale Breathe Out Of Water?

When whales are in the water, their weight is supported which allows them to breathe and operate easily and efficiently.

Take a whale out of the water, and gravity starts to crush the animal under its own weight which makes it almost impossible for them to breathe.

This is why so many beached whales die incredibly quickly, as the weight of their own body makes it almost impossible for them to breathe.

Whales’ that find themselves out of the water are in a dire situation that can lead them to suffocate very quickly.

Without human intervention, almost all beached whales will die in a matter of hours.

Can Whales Survive Without Air?

No, whales cannot survive without air. They need air to be able to take in oxygen using their lungs, so without it, whales would not be able to breathe and would suffocate.

Unlike fish and sharks, whales are unable to extract oxygen directly from the water using gills, so instead, they rely on their lungs for oxygen.

do whales breathe air
Image by Ton Nolles

Therefore, they must remain in the water and surface when they need oxygen by using their blowholes.

Wrapping Up

To wrap up, YES, whales do breathe air. They are marine mammals that rely on air for oxygen and breathe by using their blowholes and enormous lungs.

The special breathing adaptation on top of their head is called a blowhole and allows them to breathe and exchange gases very quickly.

When a whale’s oxygen stores run out, the animal must return to the surface and take a breath once again, allowing it to resubmerge.

It’s true that whales are capable of holding their breath for long periods, with some species being able to dive for 2 hours or more.

But ultimately, every whale must return to the surface to breathe air or the animal would not be able to survive in the ocean.

Thanks for reading this post today and learning more about how and why whales breathe air.

I’ll catch you next time!