Can Penguins Breathe Underwater?

Penguins and humans share similar ability when it comes to breathing underwater. Like humans, penguins also cannot breathe underwater. Penguins cannot breathe underwater because they do not have gills. When they are in the ocean in search of prey they have to hold their breath. The duration of which they can hold their breath depends on the species.

Penguins have to go airborne to breathe and dive in to continue the hunting. Some penguin’s food may be available in the minimum reach in the ocean but certain species which prey on krill, squid, and fish have to dive deeper into their food.

How Long Does a Penguin Hold Its Breath Underwater?

Most of the species of penguins stay in upper water level. Their dive lasts approximately up to 6 minutes. Species like emperor penguins have to dive deeper into the ocean to find its prey such as squid, krill (shrimp-like crustacean) and tiny fishes.

Emperor penguins can swim under the ocean for up to approximately 20 to 25 minutes. The long capability is because of their natural skill and most particularly they are the largest of all living penguins.

Group of penguins in the water
Group of penguins in the water

Smaller species of penguins can dive to the depth of 500 feet, whereas, the emperor penguins can dive up to 1800 feet to find its food.

Why Don’t Penguins Dive Last Longer?

Naturally, penguins are small creatures and their lungs can hold very less oxygen when they dive. The density of the water strains their lungs and air sacs.

The airways can provide merely vital oxygen for the penguins to stay under water. Seals can stay longer underwater due to their comparatively big lungs and air sacs.

Penguin’s Effective Rework to Be Underwater:

Penguins can proficiently use the molecule of oxygen till the last with the help of red blood cells which contains the ultra-sensitive hemoglobin. Blood flow is to the brain, heart and other chief organs. Also, penguins muscle tissues aid incapable of swimming.

The exceptional enzyme allows penguins muscle tissue to act while swimming along with the lactate build-up even though without the desired amount of oxygen. Moreover, the muscle tissue has some oxygen in it when the penguins are under water.

Penguins can also save extra oxygen by controlling their heart rate to low and dive into the ocean. The use of less energy helps them find more time in swimming. The emperor penguins underwater dive can be back after eight hours of the previous dive.

They usually get exhausted after the dive and take rest for quite a long time after food. The hemoglobin allows them to hold their breath even at low oxygen level.

With the help of the effective hemoglobin, the function of unimportant organs is temporarily closed for the time in the water.

Humboldt penguin dive in the water
Humboldt penguin dive in the water

Anaerobic is the state in which the penguins dive without oxygen. They start the anaerobic state during the dive and relax to reform when they surface.

Many penguins swim efficiently in the deeper ocean than the surface of the water. There are few species which swim in the surface. The technique used to swim in the surface of the water is called porpoising.

Porpoising technique is not in general found in emperor or king penguins. Some smaller species of penguins use the porpoising technique to swim in the surface of the water.


Researchers found that after the completion of the oxygen in muscle tissues, the penguins boost the anaerobic metabolism to swim further. They can exhaust oxygen from their muscles solely from the lungs and the blood. They back up the oxygen in other organs and also redirect the oxygen into the muscles.

Penguins use these techniques only when required and they are one of the marine birds that have the remarkable uptake and can handle it efficiently. Despite their easily run out oxygen, penguins can incredibly use the cool trick to master their living in the marine.


Image source:

  1. Group of penguins in the water by pixelRaw / Pixabay License
  2. Humboldt penguin dive in the water by Barni1 / Pixabay License

I got interested in penguins from a young age and as I grew I realized that penguins are such fascinating birds. I made it a mission to create a website where all information about penguins could be accessed in an easy to read format.

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