Animals That Are Best at Holding Breath Underwater

What animals can stay underwater the longest without coming up for air?

Fish, of course! But no, that’s not what we mean. After all, they have gills and don’t need to go to the surface to breathe.

This record is for animals that mostly live in the water but have lungs, like marine mammals, birds and reptiles. They can’t filter oxygen from the water, so they have to surface to breathe in and out. More about lung breathing.

AnimalCategoryDuration
Cuvier's Beaked Whale Mammal 2 h 17 min
Sperm Whale Mammal 2 h
Weddell Seal Mammal 1 h
Marine Iguana Reptile 30 min
Walrus Mammal 30 min
Sea Cow Mammal 20 min
Emperor Penguin Bird 18 - 20 min
Dugong Mammal 6 min
Sea Otter Mammal 5 min
Orca Mammal 2 - 5 min
Polar Bear Mammal 2 min

The Cuvier's beaked whale can stay in the water longer than any other animal. Reptiles like the marine iguana and birds like the emperor penguin also manage impressive times.

Sperm Whale Sperm Whale - Photo: Shane Gross/Shutterstock

How Can Marine Mammals Stay Underwater for so Long?
  • They reduce their heart frequency underwater. In some animals, their heart may beat up to 120 times a minute out of the water but only 4 - 6 times a minute under the surface. The heart of a healthy human beats around 60 - 70 times a minute if you were wondering. Especially sporty people can have a heartbeat of 40 beats per minute.
  • They have more cells, that transport oxyge.
  • They have up to three times more blood than humans.
  • They mostly store oxygen in their muscles and blood.

As a comparison: the world record for free diving is 11 minutes and 35 seconds (in free diving, the diver doesn’t take an oxygen bottle with them underwater).

This record was set by Stéphane Mifsud, from France. He stayed underwater for almost 12 minutes on one breath! His lung capacity is around 2.77 gal (10.5 liters). This is almost twice as much as a normal human. You can only achieve this with years of training.

AnimalLung capacity
Mouse 0.033 oz (1 ml)
Rat 0.33 oz (10 ml)
Human 1.5 gal (6 l)
Blue Whale 1,320 gal (5,000 l)
And finally:

Why do these animals stay underwater for so long? That one’s easy: they go hunting.

Did You Know?

There are also insects, that can stay underwater for a long time. They breathe through their trachea and have to surface just like lung breathers. But the water spider has an impressive trick: it creates a diving bell!

Find out more:
How Do Animals Breathe Underwater?
6 Creepy Deep-Sea Animals
The Deepest Diving Animals