What Animals Can Hold Their Breath the Longest?

Get a watch or use your phone’s stopwatch. Try to hold your breath and check how long you can manage, not breathing. Probably, you only can hold up to two minutes but that already causing discomfort to your lungs. There is a misconception that when you are holding your breath, you are running out of the air; however, you’re not. Carbon dioxide is building up in your blood when you don’t exhale for a very long time, which is very dangerous.

About six minutes of holding a breath may cause blackouts because your brain badly needs oxygen, so it knocks you unconscious so your automatic breathing mechanisms will kick back in. If you’re underwater, perhaps you will inhale water into your lungs, which is life-threatening.

But freediver Aleix Segura Vendrell of Barcelona, Spain, is an extraordinary exception. He holds the 2016 Guinness World Records for being able to hold his breath for about 24 minutes! Humans were not designed to hold the breath for a more extended period, but some animals, mostly underwater, can survive without breathing.

Breath-holding animals include turtles, fishes, and some marine mammals. They have specialized body parts that enable them to stay underwater for a longer time than other animals and humans.

Loggerhead Turtles

Many animals were designed to have a higher capacity to hold breath. Some turtle species like loggerhead can hibernate and spend all their winter on the bottom of frozen lakes without using their lungs.

Though it seems strange, it is possible because of cloacal respiration. Instead of using lungs for breathing, these turtles use their butts instead, and only a little amount of oxygen. Funny to know that butts can actually be used for breathing besides the disposal of wastes because it is well vascularized, meaning it has a lot of blood vessels.

Loggerhead, Caretta caretta, turtles stay underwater about an hour in a single dive and can last for more than 10 hours and sustain themselves entirely as long as there is no danger approaching nearby. On the other hand, sea turtles don’t perform butt-breathing, but a sleeping sea turtle can hold its breath for up to seven hours at a time.

Being ectotherms of sea turtles makes this possible. Ectotherms living in environments with fluctuating seasons adapt through sheltering in burrows or similar locations or by becoming dormant to some degree (e.g., in winter, fish may rest near the bottom of a body of water).

Loggerhear turtle floating in the sea

Cuvier’s beaked whale

Another marine mammal holds the record for the endotherm that’s achieved the most extended breath-holding session; it’s the Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris). This mid-sized whale has a robust, cigar-shaped body, similar to those of other beaked whales, and can be difficult to distinguish from many of the mesoplodont whales at sea.

It is also the deepest-diving marine mammal that can go down 10 000 feet beneath the waves looking for food. They can hold their breath for about 137 minutes, representing both the deepest and the longest dives ever documented for any mammal.

Elephant seal

Meanwhile, before the spotlight turns to the Cuvier’s beaked whale, a northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) broke the record as the gold medalist for long-held breath that lasted for 119 minutes followed by the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) comes in third place at 90 minutes.

What’s the secret behind the longest-held breath?

These amazing abilities exhibited by whales are due to the high amount of hemoglobin and myoglobin in their bodies. Myoglobin is a protein found in the muscles of most mammals whose primary function is to bind oxygen molecules, which helps store excess oxygen. Whenever you hold your breath even for a little while, myoglobin is there to supply oxygen to your body. Whales have significantly more myoglobin than mammals that live on land.

Also, whales have a higher tolerance to carbon dioxide in their blood. A whale’s brain does not trigger something called a breathing response until the levels of carbon dioxide are too high.

These mechanisms are part of the responses in marine mammals, are ways of adaptations that they had helped them achieve their evolutionary history. They can live in an aquatic environment and not drown while in the middle of sleep. Cetacean Whale, which holds the longest dive record, reduces the number of breaths they take during rest periods.

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