What Marine Animal Holds Its Breath the Longest?

Drawing of a Cuvier's Beaked Whale

Bardrock / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Some animals, like fish, crabs and lobsters, can breathe underwater. Other animals, like whales, seals, sea otters, and turtles, live all or part of their lives in the water, but can't breathe underwater. Despite their inability to breathe underwater, these animals have an amazing ability to hold their breath for a long time. But what animal can hold its breath the longest?

The Animal That Holds Its Breath the Longest

So far, that record goes to the Cuvier's beaked whale, a medium-sized whale that is known for its long, deep dives. There's a lot that is unknown about the oceans, but with developments in research technologies, we're learning more each day. One of the most useful developments in recent years has been the use of tags to track an animal's movements.

It was through using a satellite tag that researchers Schorr, et.al. (2014) discovered this beaked whale's amazing breath-holding capabilities. Of the coast of California, eight Cuvier's beaked whales were tagged. During the study, the longest dive recorded was 138 minutes. This was also the deepest dive recorded—the whale dove more than 9,800 feet.

Until this study, southern elephant seals were thought to be the big winners in the breath-holding Olympics. Female elephant seals have been recorded holding their breath for 2 hours and diving more than 4,000 feet.

How Do They Hold Their Breath so Long?

Animals that hold their breath underwater still need to use oxygen during that time. So how do they do it? The key seems to be myoglobin, an oxygen-binding protein, in the muscles of these marine mammals. Because these myoglobins have a positive charge, the mammals can have more of them in their muscles, as the proteins repel each other, rather than sticking together and "clogging up" the muscles. Deep-diving mammals have ten times more myoglobin in their muscles than we do. This allows them to have more oxygen to use when they're underwater.

What's Next? 

One of the exciting things about ocean research is that we never know what happens next. Perhaps more tagging studies will demonstrate that Cuvier's beaked whales can hold their breath even longer—or that there is a mammal species out there that can surpass even them.

Sources and Further Information

  • Kooyman, G. 2002. "Diving Physiology." In Perrin, W.F., Wursig, B. and J.G.M. Thewissen. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press. p. 339-344.
  • Lee, J.J. 2013. How Diving Mammals Stay Underwater for So Long. National Geographic. Accessed September 30, 2015.
  • Palmer, J. 2015. Secrets of the Animals That Dive Deep Into the Ocean. BBC. Accessed September 30, 2015.
  • Schorr GS, Falcone EA, Moretti DJ, Andrews RD (2014) First Long-Term Behavioral Records from Cuvier’s Beaked Whales (Ziphius cavirostris) Reveal Record-Breaking Dives. PLoS ONE 9(3): e92633. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092633. Accessed September 30, 2015.
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Kennedy, Jennifer. "What Marine Animal Holds Its Breath the Longest?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-marine-animal-holds-breath-longest-2291894. Kennedy, Jennifer. (2020, August 26). What Marine Animal Holds Its Breath the Longest? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-marine-animal-holds-breath-longest-2291894 Kennedy, Jennifer. "What Marine Animal Holds Its Breath the Longest?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-marine-animal-holds-breath-longest-2291894 (accessed March 29, 2023).