How do Whales Breathe?

imageI’m so glad that we’ve started to write down answers, otherwise I would be promising to answer so many questions and forgetting half of them!

I know whales have blow holes and I am fairly sure they surface to breathe.  But I know you want a little more detail.


Whales are mammals, yes that’s right, like us.  Mammals are animals that breathe air using a set of lungs.  Also, mammals give birth to live young.  They don’t lay eggs.  They feed their young with mother’s milk.

imageAll animals, including people, need oxygen to live.  Oxygen is a chemical element in both air and water.  (Fish use their gills to extract oxygen from the water that they live in).

To breathe air whales come to the ocean’s surface. Sometimes they lie right at the surface of the water, with just a part of their back sticking out.

A whale’s nose is a hole on top of their head.  It is called a “blow hole”. When a whale breathes air out of it’s blow hole, you see a spray or mist called a “spout”. Blow holes are surrounded by muscles that keep the hole closed when the whale is under water and open it when it is at the surface and needs to breathe.
Some Whales have two blow holes next to each other and others have one. Pilot whales and dolphins have one blow hole; humpbacks, minkes and right whales have two.


Whales have developed breathing techniques to let them stay underwater for a long time without surfacing for air.  A whale’s lungs work like ours do, but they are much more efficient with each breath. In one breath, people absorb about 15 percent of the oxygen inhaled. The whale, absorbs up to 90 percent of the oxygen it breathes in.

Whales store the oxygen in myoglobin, a protein cell found in muscles. Whales have more myoglobin than other animals, so they can store more oxygen.  When they dive, their heart beat slows down and some arteries are constricted. This slows the flow of blood to certain organs without decreasing blood pressure. This way each breath last longer.

The sperm whale’s respiratory system is among the most efficient in the world — it can hold its breath for 80 to 90 minutes at a stretch. The beaked whale can swim without a breath for as long as two hours.


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