People Are Just Realising This Whale Fact, And I Can't Stop Thinking About It

This changes everything.
Vincent Pommeyrol via Getty Images

2023 was the year of the whale, from their high-profile interferences with ships to their grisly unexpected appearance in, well, Wales.

And it seems that 2024 is proving pretty viral for the marine mammals as well. TikTokker lowmariam’s video about the creatures has racked up 1.2 million views over the past couple of days.

Having seen the clip myself, I get the hype ― turns out, I’ve gone most of my life without knowing a pretty fundamental fact about whales.

What’s that then?

“Maybe I’m just dumb,” the creator started her video, “but I was under the impression that whales could be underwater for like, 12 hours without having to surface.”

You probably already knew that whales don’t have gills, so can’t breathe underwater. Instead, the mammals rise to the surface of the sea to take a deep breath through their blowhole, and then return to the waters ’til they run out of puff.

But if this TikTokker’s “dumb”, I am too ― I would have put the amount of time whales can wait at about an hour to two hours. And I’m very, very wrong, it turns out.

“I’m just finding out they’ve got to come up every ten to twenty minutes,” she said in her TikTok. “That seems so inconvenient, honestly ― like why are you even in the water at that point?”

Why can’t whales hold their breath for very long?

Well hold on ― they’re doing better than us. 10-20% of their body mass is made up of blood compared to our measly 7%; that blood contains about twice as much oxygen-carrying haemoglobin as ours.

Their breaths, which take place in far more efficient lungs, involve an 80-90% air exchange compared to our paltry 10-15%.

Thanks to their efficient biology, it’s also a lot quicker for a whale to take a super-deep breath than it would be for us to do the same.

And then there’s the fact that not all whales take the same amount of time in between breaths. Dolphins can be down in the deeps for around 4-5 minutes before coming up for air; orcas last about 15 minutes.

Humpback whales last about 20 minutes underwater, foraging for an average of 4-7 of those minutes, whereas deeper-diving sperm whales can stay down for as long as 90 minutes at a time.

People were still surprised (it’s me, I’m people)

“When I learned about whales drowning I was shook,” one commenter said (yes, that can actually happen).

“That’s honestly so embarrassing for them,” another commented.

Still more people pointed out that the animals that would become whales went from the land to the sea about 50 million years ago, explaining their mammalian characteristics ― they used to have four legs.

All I can say is that’s the stubbornest sea-lover I’ve seen because my ancestors would have dipped after the first chest-crushing dive. Way too orc-ward (sorry...).