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Whales are one of the most fascinating animals that we can find in seas and oceans around the world. This family of aquatic mammals belonging to the order of Cetaceans includes some 86 species, among which we can find the impressive blue whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the largest animal of all those that have ever inhabited our planet; as well as the humpback whaleMegaptera novaeangliae) and the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), both surprising for their amazing jumps on the surface of the sea.

One of the main reasons why whales come to the surface and perform these jumps is to be able to breathe. Keep reading this interesting article by Green Ecologist in which we tell you where and how whales breathe.

Where do whales breathe?

All whales breathe through their nostrils, which are called spiracles. These holes have nerve endings that allow the animal to recognize if it is out of the water and are located in the top of head. This location of the spiracles allows the whales to breathe with practically no effort, being able to remain resting on the surface of the ocean and capturing the oxygen they need to live.

The spiracles appear covered by a membrane that acts as a valve, which in a relaxed position of the muscle keeps the orifice sealed, preventing the entry of water into it.

On the other hand, it should be noted that the nostrils are not connected with the animal's mouth, and that therefore are unable to breathe through their mouth. In this way, the whales are assured of a feeding process independent of respiration, so that no water reaches their lungs while they are eating.

How whales breathe

The whale respiration process is the following:

  1. Despite living in aquatic environments, whales need oxygen from the air present in the atmosphere to breathe, as do all land animals. With each new intake of air, the whales are capable of acquiring up to 85% of their total lung capacity.
  2. Once the air has entered your nostrils through the blowhole located on its head, this is conducted to the trachea.
  3. From the trachea the air passes lungs, where the oxygen they have taken from the atmosphere will start their breathing circuit.
  4. Oxygen is carried from the lungs by the blood and eventually converted to carbon dioxide.
  5. Carbon dioxide is expelled along with nitrogen through the same blowhole, thus closing the circuit of respiration.

This last step of the respiratory process, the exhalation, is the moment in which the whales expel carbon dioxide and we can see on the surface torrents of water that emerge from the blowholes of the whales in the form of columns of water and air.

Within the respiration process, whales acquire various strategies to facilitate it and to save oxygen and power last longer underwater.

Bradycardia in whales

Bradycardia stands out, for example, a process by which whales slow their heart rate, which is directly related to a lower oxygen demand, thus being able to remain submerged in the water for a longer time before carrying out the next inhalation. In addition, whales have a high tolerance to carbon dioxide, so they can keep it in their body for longer periods of time than in the case of humans, before each exhalation.

More oxygen for vital organs

Another strategy that whales use to optimize respiration is by sending oxygen through the blood only to the vital organs that need it, such as the brain, heart and muscles used to swim; thus conserving oxygen in your body for a longer time.

How whales breathe when they sleep

The whales are not able to sleep soundly, since in that case they would stop breathing. We can say then that your breathing is always conscious.

The muscles of the lungs and other organs involved in the breathing process perform their functions in a controlled way by the nervous system, which is always alert to be able to distinguish any dangerous situation, both due to the presence of predators and the need to go back to surface to breathe, by the need to inhale oxygen or exhale carbon dioxide.

Now that you know where and how whales breathe, you may want to further expand your knowledge of these large marine mammals. If so, we recommend reading these other Green Ecologist articles:

  • Where does the whale live and what does it eat?
  • What is the largest whale in the world.
  • How the killer whales are classified.
  • Why the blue whale is in danger of extinction.

If you want to read more articles similar to Where and how whales breathe, we recommend that you enter our category of Animal Curiosities.

  • I. J. Oyarzo (2022) General characteristics and main differences of cetaceans. University of Magallanes, pp: 5-20.
  • A. Berta et al. (2006). Marine Mammals: Evolutionary Biology (3rd ed. Ed.). Academic Press. p. 547.
  • T. M. Williams & A. J. Graham (2002). Anatomy and physiology: the challenge of aquatic living. Marine Mammal Biology: An Evolutionary Approach. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 73-97.
  • A.M Zúñiga Ibarra (2016) The intelligence of whales. University of Magallanes, pp: 3-7.
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