Caring for Stranded Marine Animals
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How Do Whales Breathe?


Because whales live in the ocean, many people think they are fish. But do you know that whales and dolphins are not fish? They are mammals. People are mammals too. Mammals are the group of animals that breath air using lungs, give birth to live young (rather than laying eggs), and feed their young with mother’s milk. All animals, including people, need oxygen, a chemical found in the air and in water. Fish use their gills to take oxygen from the water that they live in. But people get the oxygen we need by breathing air, using our lungs. Whales and dolphins use their lungs to breathe air also.

That’s one reasons why they come to the surface of the ocean. Sometimes they lie right at the surface of the water, with just a part of their back sticking out. Look closely at a picture of a whale or dolphin; can you see a nose on the whale? You can’t, because whales don’t have noses like you and me. Instead they have a hole – called a “blow hole” – on top of their heads. Sometimes when a whale breathes air out of its blow hole, it shows up as a spray or mist – called a “spout” – that can be seen many miles away. Blow holes are surrounded by muscles that keep the hole closed when the whale or dolphin is under water and open it when the animal is at the surface and needs to breathe.

In fact, some of the animals have two blow holes next to each other and others have only one. So when you see a picture of a whale, see if you can tell the difference. Pilot whales and dolphins have one blow hole; humpbacks, minkes and right whales have two.


  1. That’s an interesting question, Hayley. I don’t know! There are some people such as free divers who have learned to increase the efficiency of their breathing. Many athletes are able to breath very efficiently. While I don’t think we can (or should) seek the air exchange capacity of a whale – because it’s simply not necessary – taking care of our lungs by exercising and not smoking is always a good idea! Thanks for your question.

  2. Can we as humans improve our breathing by exhaling more completely like the whale? Would that help us build our lung capacity, or simply make better use of the capacity we have?

  3. Happy to help!

  4. That is really useful tips for my project. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Hi Ravi.
    Although whales and dolphins are mammals and can breath out of water, their physiology is adapted to an aquatic environment. Out of water, they are vulnerable to the elements. They can get skin damage including sunburn! The stress of being in such a vulnerable condition can cause heart damage. And, over time, their weight in air can crush their internal organs. It’s important to get experienced stranding network personnel involved as soon as possible.
    Thanks for your question!

  6. Hi Sue.
    Thanks for your comment. Because of the structure of a dolphin’s blubber and rib cage, especially in relation to its blowhole, it would be difficult to perform CPR. If a dolphin had something in it’s blowhole, an experienced marine animal veterinarian and a laproscope may be necessary.
    Thanks for your question!

  7. Hi, when whales shore and get stuck, they eventually die. What would be the reason for that? Lack of food or lack of water or some other reason as well?

  8. If a dolphin had something caught in its blowhole, would a version of cpr work? I am thinking of a young calf, tangled in a net and drowning. Once the net is cleared, if the calf has water or other debris lodged in its blow hole does modified cpr work? What else?

  9. Thanks for your question. Whales use their tongues to push out the water through their baleen, leaving the fish and krill behind. They can then swallow the food without swallowing very much water. Additionally, they do not breathe through their mouths so they are not in danger of choking from any water that they may swallow.

  10. Hello,every one. Whales have to come to the the surface for breathing, but when they are inside the water and they need food they usually open their mouth and everything around it goes into his mouth as well as millon liters of water wher does this water go??

  11. How they feed they are children? With they are milk

  12. I dont know that some animals have two blow holes. Awersome

  13. Thanks for sharing

  14. Thanks Kathy ! It is amazing.”They are mammals.” I see Ć°hales on TV. But until now i know how to whales breathe.

  15. thanks bcoz i understood how whales breathe

  16. Hi there this is so much information did not know were to star so cool to have dolphins in the world thanks I learnt heap on dolphins and whales too i hope we can save some because I got told that there are not much dolphins and whales

  17. Hi there. A dolphin exhales then inhales. Dolphins are very efficient breathers and exchange approximately 90% of the air in their lungs with each breath. This compares with humans who exchange approximately 20% of the air in our lungs when we breathe. Thansk for your question!

  18. what is the order of a dolphins’ respiration? my daughter has a research project on a dophins respiratory system

  19. To Savannah: A whale’s blowholes are like nostrils. However, whales are voluntary breathers and must consciously open and close their blowholes in order to breath. When the whale surfaces, it opens its blowhole and breathes out, then inhales. It is the forceful exhalation of air that vaporizes any residual water on top of the whale’s head and creates the spout. Hope this helps!

  20. To Avinash: I’m glad this was helpful! And thank YOU for helping to spread correct information!

  21. how do whales use there blow wholes?it is hard for me to answer that one question.i am doing it for a project and i just need that one thing.

  22. Thanks Kathy, I had an argument with the teacher of mu student who said whales were fish and breathed through their GILLS. I showwed her your detailed comment. That settled the issue and my student got her full credits.

  23. Thanks…. good information

  24. Thanks for your question! Whale’s have a very forceful exhalation that clears away any water – hence the “spout” or “blow” seen. Their inhalation is very very fast so waves don’t even have a chance to get into the blowhole. Further, the volume of a whale’s lungs is quite large, so even if a little water from a wave got into the blowhole it wouldn’t cause more than mild discomfort. Sometimes whales and dolphins “chuff”, which is a coughing-like exhalation from their blowhole, and it is thought that one purpose of “chuffing” may be to rid their lungs of water. It’s kind of like when a human swallows wrong and a small amount of liquid goes into our lungs. We cough, but most of the time we’re ok.

  25. If when the whale goes to breathe IN after expelling 90% of the air in it’s lungs, and a wave comes when it is inhaling, would the water go in the blowhole and lungs and the whale drown?

  26. Not all mammals give birth to live young. The monotremes are a group of egg laying mammals that include the spiny ant eater and the platypus.

  27. Thanks needed it for a project

  28. Thanks i needed it for my homework

  29. Thanks. I need these facts to answer my 5 year old son’s questions. Great to have found this.

  30. Yes – like our nostrils, they use both blowholes to breathe out then both to breathe in. Only baleen whales (mysticetes) like Humpbacks and Blues have two blowholes. Toothed whales (odontocetes) like dolphins and porpoises have one.

  31. Whales that have 2 blow holes: do they breather out and in through both?

  32. Glad this helps, Nicole! I’m looking forward to seeing the movie. It’s based on a true story!

  33. Hi Mark.
    Thanks for your question! Whales exhale then inhale when they surface. They are very efficient breathers and exchange up to 90% of the air in their lungs at every surfacing. They will frequently surface and breath several times in a row, than go on a deeper dive.

  34. I am glad I found this. Sadly, I was confused by the new movie coming out about whales trapped below the ice. I couldn’t understand how Ice on the surface of the water would effect them. now I understand! thanks!

  35. If a whale blows out when it surfaces, when does it inhale?


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