How Do Narwhals Breathe? Do They Have Blow Holes?

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Narwhals are iconic marine mammals. Because of their horn, they look like a mixture between a unicorn and a whale. Some people think this horn is used to kill their prey. But, it can be useful to help them breathe. You may be surprised to hear that they breathe in a similar way to us humans!

Narwhals breathe by inhaling air through their nostril (their blow hole) into their lings. As they are marine mammals, they do not have gills. This means that they cannot breathe underwater.

Keep on reading to find out more about how narwhals breathe, and how this can be risky in their environment!

How Do Narwhals Breathe?

As narwhales are marine mammals, they breathe in similar ways to whales and dolphins. Although narwhals spend a lot of their time underwater, they do not actually breathe there.

This means that narwhals have to travel to the water surface, and poke their heads outside of the water. By doing this, they push their nostril (referred to as a blow hole) out of the water. This allows the narwhal to inhale air from the atmosphere, and into their lungs. This means that the narwhal needs to have access to open water.

This can be challenging whilst living in polar regions, as ice can cover a lot of the water surface – especially in winter months. Sometimes, this means that the narwhal has to use its tusk to break a gap in the sea ice. In some circumstances, the ice is too thick and the narwhale cannot breathe – this can cause them to drown1 (sources: Whale and Dolphin Conservation and T.M. Williams, et al., Marine Mammal Science, Vol. 27, Issue 2, pp.334-349, 2011).


Are There Any Risks to How Narwhals Breathe?

Yes, there are risks associated with how narwhals breathe. Narwhals are at risk of “entrapment”. This is where they become trapped underneath ice. Because narwhals need access to the water surface to breathe, becoming trapped under the ice can cause narwhals to drown2 (source: Wikipedia).

For this to happen, the ice would have to be too thick for the narwhal to break through – the holes have to be 0.5 meters (1.6ft) for an adult narwhal to breathe. A narwhal can swim for approximately 1,450 meters (4,760 ft) without breathing3 (source: T.M. Williams, et al., Marine Mammal Science, Vol. 27, Issue 2, pp.334-349, 2011).


Related Questions

Do Narwhals Breathe Air?

Yes, narwhals do breathe air. Narwhals breathe air through their nostril (their blow hole) and into their lungs4 (source: Wikipedia).

Does A Narwhal Have A Nose?

Narwhals do not have a pronounced nose. However, narwhals do have nostrils. Narwhals breathe through their nostrils. Their nostrils are commonly called their blow hole5 (source: Whale and Dolphin Conservation).

Do Narwhals Have Lungs?

Yes, narwhals do have lungs. As narwhals are mammals, like us humans, they get oxygen from the air.

Do Narwhals Have Gills?

No, narwhals do not have gills – they are mammals. This means that they cannot breathe underwater. Instead, narwhals get oxygen from the air through their nostrils – their blow hole6 (source: Whale and Dolphin Conservation).

Do Narwhals Have A Blow Hole?

Yes, narwhals do have a blow hole. Their blowhole is located at the top of their head. Their blow hole is essentially their nostrils – it is used to breathe!

Can Narwhals Drown?

Yes, narwhals can drown. Because they do not have gills, they can not breathe underwater. Narwhals need access to the water surface to breathe. Sometimes there is too much sea ice, or it is too thick, for the narwhals to access the air. This causes the narwhal to drown7 (source: T.M. Williams, et al., Marine Mammal Science, Vol. 27, Issue 2, pp.334-349, 2011).

Ryan Charles

Ryan is a research scientist with a MSc in marine biology from Bangor University. His research focuses on developing an understanding of threatened species to assist conservation efforts. He is particularly interested in sharks and their relatives, alongside whales and other marine mammals.