What is a Whale’s Spout?


Is a whale’s a fountain of water? Both whales and people use lungs and noses to breathe air. But because whales live in the water their noses and lungs work differently from yours. Whales don’t breathe as often as you do; they breathe only when they are on the surface of the ocean.

That means they have to take in and let out a lot of air quickly. Their lung muscles are strong enough to force almost all the air out at once. One breath just about empties their lungs. In contrast, one of your breaths empties only part of your lungs. When a whale comes to the surface after a dive, it breathes out the “old” air quickly, all in one breath. Because the whale empties its lungs with such force, the air travels a great distances – 10, 20, even 40 feet. And because its nose is on the top of its head, the air goes straight up. This air is usually warmer than the air just above the surface of the ocean, so the water vapor (small particles of water carried in the air) condenses.

This condensed water vapor looks like steam – the same thing happens when you “see your breath” on a cold winter day. So the “spout” you see is not a fountain of water; rather, it’s a stream of warm air being forced out of the whales lungs, aka the whale’s breath. Some whale watch guides can tell you the kind of whale that has just come to the surface, even before they see the animal, based on the height and shape of their spout.