Subject: Re: Whale breathing

Martine Berube (
Tue, 21 Oct 1997 17:53:13 -0700

Question: If a Human held his breath while going back up to the surface of
the water his lungs would blow up. Also if he went up to fast he would have
decompression sickness.  Why doesn't this happen to a whale?

Dear Keegan Goudiss,
Answer (from Lori Mazzuca):
They do not suffer from compressed air-diseases, such as the "bends," since
they do not breathe compressed air when diving.  Because of this they avoid
the problem of absorbing high amounts of nitrogen which occurs when
previously inhaled compressed air expands at the surface.  When they dive,
their lungs are compressed so that air is forced into the nasal passages,
the windpipe, and air sacs around the lungs, and around the sinuses in the
head. This also prevents the absorption of harmful nitrogen through the
lung wall.
Roughly forty percent of the oxygen is stored in the blood which contains a
high amount of oxygen storage particles called hemoglobin. Even if a marine
mammal is stressed after chase, you will see them taking
several breaths in a row, almost as if they were "panting." This
supercharges their bodies again with oxygen before diving deeply for a
longer period.

Martine Berube
Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of California
Irvine, CA, 92697-2525