How Long Can You Hold Your Breath Underwater?

In Kingdom of Oceans: Fire and Ice viewers have the opportunity to examine the paradox of whales, penguins, iguanas and dolphins. These are all animal which inherited a burdensome legacy from their land-dwelling ancestors: they must breathe in open air. When an animal finds its food in the ocean waters, coming up for air can be a real inconvenience. The deeper a marine mammal has to dive for food, the longer it is going to need to be able to hold its breath to be successful. Humans who have trained can hold their breath underwater for around 20 minutes, but the average person can only hold his or her breath for 1 minute.

There are several adaptations that make it possible for marine mammals to stay submerged longer than a land-based mammal. For starters, they actually have more blood. For example, 12 percent of an elephant seal’s body weight is in blood, compared to just 7 percent in humans. They also have specialized chemistry allowing more efficient oxygen storage. Diving marine mammals have another surprising feature as well, collapsible rib-cages. As they dive to deeper depths, the rib-cage pushes in making the animal less buoyant. With these specialized features, the top diving marine mammals will probably always be the champions. Here are three amazing divers.

Fin Whale

The fin whale is the second largest creature on Earth, reaching maximum lengths of 82 feet (25 meters) for males and 89 feet (27 meters) for females. This whale inhabits all of the world’s major oceans, and in tropical to polar waters. Fins are baleen whales: They use the fringe-like baleen in their mouths to strain krill and tiny fish from the massive amounts of water they ingest as they feed. They are also masters at diving for a snack.

Maximum Depth: 350 Meters (1148 feet)
Can hold breath for: 20 Minutes

Weddell Seal

Weddell seals spend much of their time below the Antarctic ice, where the fish are plentiful and the predators are few. They have the southernmost range of any seal, but use the icy waters to their advantage. They have the ability to dive deep and hold their breath for an astounding length of time. All the same, they have to come up for air eventually. If natural openings are not available, no problem. Weddell seals use their teeth to open and maintain air holes in the ice pack.

Maximum Depth: 610 Meters (2000 feet)
Can hold breath for: 70 Minutes

Sperm Whales

As big as a bus, the winner of the deep diving competition is fins down, the sperm whale. The whale made famous in the novel Moby Dick has fascinated humans for centuries, especially because of their relationship to giant squid. Sperm whales and giant squid may even be mortal enemies. Many stories of deadly battles between these two massive animals exist, and sperm whales have even been seen with suction cup-shaped wounds and remnants of giant squid in their stomachs. Hunting for giant squid means diving deep though and the sperm whale has it down!

Maximum Depth: 1,000 + Meters (3,280 feet)
Can hold breath for: 90 Minutes

Tune in to Kingdom of the Oceans: Fire and Ice March 10 at 9 PM et/pt and again on March 21st at 10 PM et/pt if you missed it. Learn more about marine animals that breathe air and other amazing animals in this 4-part series. You’ll want to catch them all!


  1. johanna esposito
    Bath England
    June 16, 2013, 9:44 pm

    It is possible for an untrained human to hold their breath for way longer than one minute. I believe the key is how relaxed you are if faced with an emergency and I am not trying to pretend that staying calm is easy but for me it just happened. I am 38 now but when was 19 I went to to the US with my parents and we spent a day at Carmel Beach. I was ‘wave jumping’. A much bigger wave than usual came towards me, I was anxious but somewhat excited. In all honesty I thought I would fly over the top like I did all the other waves. As the wave passed over I got sucked down and I ended up getting spun around under water. When this stopped I did not know which way was up or down. I believe my first choice was the wrong choice…. I swam and swam for what seemed like forever but I am sure must have been at LEAST 4 minutes but never reached the top or the top or the sea bed. I decided I needed to change direction and did so/ I must have swam then for at LEAST 2 mins… I saw a flash of light and became opptimistic that I was then swimming the right way but then it became dark and I got so tired I didnt feel I could go on anymore. I thought I was going to die but for some reason i was very calm and I just ‘Let go’. The few moments after that are blank, All I know is I popped up very near the shore…. stood up within my depth and walked out the sea and onto the beach. I was exhausted and VERY out of breath and panting but I was fine…. not coughing up water or anything.

    I think it must have been a rip tide. I honest think the whole time I was under water was altogether MORE than six minutes and apart from the fact I was a decent enough swimmer I am not trained in anything…. have never even had proper swimming lessons ever

  2. Anonymous
    June 30, 2013, 2:53 pm

    I must say that story that you told Johanna was interesting and dramatic. The average adult with clean lungs can voluntarily hold their breath for about 1 minute and a half. But if you exert yourself , then this figure decreases. I think Johanna, that you most likley didn’t hold your breath for 6 minutes ( although in that situation I’m sure it felt that way.) It is likley that you held your breath whilst exerting yourself for over 2 minutes, which is impressive.