As mammals, all whale species have to breathe air. This is good for whale watchers, because otherwise we’d hardly ever get to see these animals who spend the majority of their life underwater! It’s these short moments at the surface of the water that we get to watch them! But, sometimes as quickly as they surface, they once again disappear on a dive. It’s this part of whale watching that is never advertised: whale waiting. The question then arises, How long can a whale hold its breath? (aka, How long do we have to wait?). 

Photo by Kristin Rayfield, Rudee Tours

Consider this response from a Whale SENSE naturalist with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company:

Photo: Hugo Navarro, Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company

By Hugo Navarro. The average length of a dive depends on several factors. Some larger whales can hold their breath for up to 1/2 hour. In the Gulf of Maine we have observed dive times ranging from 2 minutes up to nearly 20 minutes. We suspect that the length of the dive sometimes depends on the behavior of available prey near the bottom (according to our fish finder). Sperm whales are known to hold their breath for up to 90 minutes. According to Nick Pyenson from the Smithsonian, Cuvier’s Beaked Whales have been clocked at 117 minutes underwater.

There is certainly a lot of variability for how long a whale will hold their breath, depending on the species of whale and what they are doing! It is always a good idea to keep your head on a swivel, looking all around for blows, disturbances, and flukes (Read: How do you find whales on a whale watch?). You can never truly know when or where a whale will surface next! 

Learn more: 

How do whales and dolphins breathe? (Whale and Dolphin Conservation)

How do marine mammals avoid the bends? (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute)

How do whales and dolphins sleep without drowning? (Scientific American)

Read more answers to Frequently Asked Questions here!

Header photo submitted to the 2020 Whale SENSE Photo Contest by Alayna Robertson

Ali Schuler
Ali Schuler

Ali has been working with the Whale SENSE Program since 2018. She has worked as a whale watch naturalist in both Alaska and Hawaii, and spent her master’s researching the effects of whale watching on humpback whales and conservation.