How long can you hold your breath underwater? More than a minute? More than 5? The current human world record was set in 2012, when German freediver Tom Sietas held his breath underwater for 22 minutes and 22 seconds.
The Cuvier’s beaked whale quite literally blows that record out of the water, with one recent dive clocked at three hours and 42 minutes.
These whales are typically aloof, preferring to stay far from shore. According to the BBC, Cuvier’s beaked whales enjoy feeding on squid, “usually sucking the creatures into their mouths to eat them.” But first they have to find the squid, and that means diving to depths of more than 3,000 meters.
They only come back up for a minute or two to gulp some air before heading back down into the oceanic depths, making them difficult to observe. Still, marine biologists have been fascinated by the beaked whales for years, timing their long dives for the last decade or so.
The longest dive for the species was previously thought to be about 2 hours, after which the animal would run out of oxygen. The latest measurement, more than 3 and a half hours, is possibly the longest underwater dive not just for the Cuvier’s beaked whale but for any mammal on earth.
Scientists believe that the whale’s unique anatomy makes these long dives possible. They have more room for oxygen storage, a slower metabolism so they use less of it, and they can tolerate a build up of lactic acid while their oxygen is used up.
“Their body muscles are sort of built differently, from what you maybe would expect from a deep diver,” Dr. Nicola Quick, from Duke University in Durham, US, told BBC News. “They have sort of smaller brains, and quite a small lung volume. And they have a lot of good muscle tissues that are great for holding oxygen stores, which probably helps them to increase their dive durations.”
Another reason for longer dives is fear. Cuvier’s beaked whales are prey for orcas and sharks, and staying underwater for long periods time make it easier to escape looming danger. It’s possible they are also afraid of human behavior. The record dive was recorded less than a day after US Navy ships had deployed a powerful sonar signal in the area, which may have disturbed the whale.
“The recorded dive time of more than three hours is likely not typical, and instead the result of an individual pushed to its absolute limits,” said Nicola Hodgkins from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who was not involved with the study. “Only one whale, thought to already be compromised as a result of being exposed to extremely high levels of noise from military sonar, and therefore showing abnormal behavior, was recorded undertaking such extreme dives.”
Knowing which mammal can spend the most time underwater may otherwise register as trivia, but scientists hope the Cuvier’s beaked whale’s stand-out capabilities could some day translate into treatment for serious diseases like COVID-19 and cancer.
“There’s some interest in working with colleagues in oncology in Duke University, and even with COVID, as that involves cells losing oxygen or being in hypoxic conditions,” said Dr. Quick. “So if these whales are in these hypoxic conditions in their tissues, and if we can find out what they were doing, then could that have some other implication for human health or just ocean health in general?”
A study on these traits was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Learn more about the Cuvier’s beaked whale in the video below.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.
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