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A humpback whale tail rises above the surface as the whale dives underwater.
News Update

How Do Whales Sleep? And Other Whale Trivia

February 28, 2024
  • Species conservation
  • Natural history

You already know whales are majestic creatures, but how well do you know your whale facts? From how whales sleep to what their groups are called, take a deep dive into this trivia. Plus, see how you can be part of critical conservation efforts to protect these animals. 

Ready to put your knowledge to the test? Click “Show More” to reveal the answer and more facts about whales.

Aerial view of a gray whale mother and calf swimming in the ocean.

How do whales sleep without drowning?

Whales sleep by “turning off” one half of their brain to rest while the other half remains alert.  

This is because as air-breathing creatures that live in the ocean, whales have adapted to be voluntary breathers, which means they consciously control their blowholes. Because whales must maintain awareness to breathe, they “turn off” half of their brain to rest while the other half stays alert to prompt their next breath. 

In this state of half-consciousness, some whales will swim slowly while others will rest motionless along the surface. Others, like sleeping sperm whales, will float vertically in groups just under the surface to enter a deeper rest.  

How long can whales hold their breath underwater?

Whales can generally hold their breath for 45 minutes to up to two hours before needing to surface, depending on the species.  

Several factors contribute to this impressive feat. For one, whales can take in more air with each breath than humans can. Their red blood cells, the mechanism by which oxygen is transported in our body, also carry more oxygen than humans. 

You can imagine that using oxygen wisely is crucial for long dives, so whales have adapted to slow their heart rate and divert their blood flow, and in turn their oxygen flow, away from the surface of their body so that it is conserved for dive-essential organs, such as the heart, brain and swimming muscles. 

A spout is above the water as two humpback whales surface to breathe air.
An underwater view of a group of humpback whales, called a pod, swimming.

What is a group of whales called?

Many whale species are social and can be found in groups called pods.  

Pods can contain anywhere from two to more than 30 individuals. Generally, smaller whales can be found in larger pods while bigger whales are often found in small pods or traveling solo. Scientists believe whales form pods for social interaction, to protect themselves from predators and to hunt for food collaboratively.  

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species conservation
natural history