Whales Don’t Spray Water Out of Their Blowholes Nor are Their Throats and Blowhole Connected

Emily Upton 23
Myth: Whales spray water out of their blowholes.

humpback-whaleContrary to what you may have seen in such movies as Pixar’s otherwise extremely entertaining Finding Nemo, whales don’t  spray water out of their blowholes.  Further, the whale’s trachea doesn’t connect to the esophagus of the whale; so when Dory and Marlin went down the whale’s throat, in real life, they’d have simply been eaten.

(Another interesting thing about Finding Nemo is that when the mother died, the father would have turned into a female and become the mother- clownfish are all born male with the dominate male of a group becoming female when the female of the group dies.  Also, Coral, Marlin’s wife, should have been bigger than Marlin, not smaller as depicted in the movie.)

Whales, of course, are mammals that live in the ocean; that’s why they evolved to have a blowhole in the first place. Scientists believe that whales were once land mammals that adapted to live in the sea, likely because the sea held a more bountiful supply of food than the land did during their evolutionary period.

Whatever the case, whales’ “noses”, or blowholes, are on the top of their heads, so that they can just barely break the surface to breathe without rising too far out of the water. When inhaling, they flex a muscle which opens the blowhole and take in a big gulp of air. Then, they relax the muscle to close the blowhole, leaving them free to dive down beneath the surface of the water once more without drowning themselves.

It’s exhaling that’s the interesting part. When the whale resurfaces, they have to release the used up air back into the atmosphere just like all other mammals do. This results in a spout, but it isn’t water (at least not at first). The air inside the whale is typically quite warm from the whale’s body heat. When it’s exhaled, it meets the much cooler temperature of the air outside and immediately condenses, making it look like a spout of water. (This is also often mixed with mucus —it is a nose, after all!)

The great thing for avid whale watchers is that every species of whale has a differently shaped blowhole (some even have two!) which results in differently shaped spouts. Because of this, an experienced whale watcher can tell what species of whale is nearby just by seeing their spouts. For instance, a humpback whale’s spout looks like a column; orcas’ spouts are somewhat more bushy; and gray whales’ two blowholes are positioned in such a way that their exhalation results in something of a heart-shaped spout.

As a rule, baleen whales—those whales who don’t have teeth, but rather have baleen plates to filter food out of the water—have two blowholes, while toothed whales have just one blowhole.  Types of baleen whales include the humpback, blue, and gray whales. (This is, of course, another inaccuracy in Finding Nemo as that was a humpback whale that they showed having only one blowhole.)

Meanwhile, toothed whales include sperm whales and beluga whales, among others. Interestingly, the blowhole of a sperm whale is actually located on its left side rather than right on top of its head. It’s technically a “left nostril.” While they don’t have a right nostril, they do have a right nasal passage that is fully developed; it just lacks an opening. (Well, about 85% of humans breathe out of just one nostril at a time, so it works!)

Luckily for whales, they don’t have to keep coming up for air every few minutes like we’d have to. Sperm whales, for instance, can hold their breath for about an hour and a half.

Part of their ability to stay underwater so long comes down to the size of their lungs which are, as you can imagine, pretty large (to give you an idea, a blue whale’s lung capacity is 5000 litres, or 1320 gallons). However, it also has to do with the way whales are able to process the air that goes in. It’s estimated that whales use about 90% of the oxygen that enters their lungs, making the most of each breath. In comparison, humans are estimated to use only about 15% of the oxygen we breathe.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Another whale of an error in Finding Nemo is when they depict the humpback whale as having a uvula- whales don’t have those.
  • “Mr. Ray” in Finding Nemo was depicted as a female, lacking claspers used for mating.
  • Dory and Marlin should have never been able to encounter an angler fish, as they are found in depths of greater than 1,000 meters- an environment the stalwart pair could not have survived in.
  • After a female clownfish lays her eggs, neither she nor the male fish that fertilized the eggs have anything further to do with their offspring.
  • An episode of Seinfeld features Kramer accidentally hitting a golf ball into a whale’s blowhole—a “blowhole in one.” The whale washes up on shore and George has to pretend to be a marine biologist to save it by simply plucking the ball out of the blowhole. This would have been impossible, trained marine biologist or not. First off, a golf ball likely wouldn’t have been an obstruction, as it would have landed atop the nasal plug used to keep seawater out during dives, and then blasted off when the whale exhaled. If somehow it did get past the nasal plug, it’s doubtful the whale would have tolerated George sticking his whole arm in and even if it did, his arm wouldn’t have fit into the nasal cavity and into the larnyx, nor would a golf ball likely be big enough to block the larnyx. If one did get down that far, the whale would simply eject it, according to marine biologist Dr. Joy Reidenberg. (For reference, humpback whales can sneeze air at over 300 mph, which would have shot that golf ball out quicker than Kramer hit it, even if sucked in.)  Finally, the whale depicted was a baleen whale, meaning it had two nostrils so if one nostril was clogged, they could still breathe.
  • As a consequence of the fact that the whale’s trachea and esophagus are not connected, it’s next to impossible for them to choke on food, unless they somehow suck something in through their blowhole that they can’t get out.
  • If whales have to breathe consciously, how do they sleep? They can’t fall fully asleep because they wouldn’t get up to breathe otherwise. Instead, they allow one half of the brain to sleep at a time. That way, they’re able to rest but can also make the decision to go up for air when necessary.

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23 Comments »

  1. LOVEPAREEK October 15, 2013 at 9:53 am - Reply

    I M AMAZED AFTER READING THIS …. IF THEY DONT SPOUT WATER, THEN HOW DID THIS MYTH GAIN SUCH STRONGHOLD…..ITS EVEN MENTIONED IN THE CLASSIC NOVEL “MOBY DICK” OF HERMAN MELVILLE WHICH IS PRESENTED LIKE A TRUE ACCOUNT.

    • JJ Waker October 15, 2013 at 11:50 am - Reply

      I’M AMAZED THAT AFTER READING THIS…. YOU STILL DON’T KNOW WHY THEY DONT SPOUT WATER AND HOW THE MYTHCONCEPTION GOT STARTED.

      • LOVEPAREEK October 16, 2013 at 5:21 am - Reply

        SORRY, MY STUPIDITY. SEEMS LIKE I READ THE ARTICLE IN TOO MUCH OF A HURRY. AFTER READING U (AND “DUH”) I WENT BACK AND RE-READ, AND SAW YOUR POINT. U R RITE. NOW I GET THE POINT. TNX FOR POINTIN OUT.

  2. Squishymonster October 15, 2013 at 11:53 am - Reply

    Also, fish can’t really talk.

    • JamminOnThe1 October 16, 2013 at 7:43 am - Reply

      I M AMAZED AFTER READING THIS …. IF THEY TALK, THEN HOW DID THIS MYTH GAIN SUCH STRONGHOLD

    • WoodenSaucer November 29, 2014 at 8:15 am - Reply

      Lol. Exactly. It’s a movie for kids, not a scientific documentary.

      Still interesting stuff, though.

  3. Duh October 15, 2013 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    Did you even read the article? They don’t spout water, but the condensation of air gives the appearance of them shooting water from their blowholes.

  4. heiwood jayblume' October 15, 2013 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    and the moon isn’t made out of cheese……
    I can’t believe there is anyone out there who didn’t know Whales actually breathe through their blowholes. I did enjoy the information about the differences in anatomy between species, so thanks for that.
    could be author please investigate the claim that cats have 9 lives? I see so much information that says they have multiple lives, while other sources say they only have one.

  5. hutch October 15, 2013 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    learned this in elementary school. i am 36. and this info gets a dude to say “i’m a writer”… what a world. By this logic, cuz he grew up with Nemo; do i have to go back and de-myth Bambi, ET< etc?

  6. Karthikraja December 12, 2013 at 7:44 pm - Reply

    Then Whales dont sleep…every half an house it has to come on top of the sea/ocean to get Oxygen. it is amazing.

  7. john January 28, 2014 at 8:22 am - Reply

    Marlin would have become the female, and mated with his son Nemo, because children’s movies are written by sick people.

  8. Paul Kienitz August 29, 2014 at 12:54 pm - Reply

    Some whales DO spout water. Especially sperm whales, as featured in Moby Dick. They have a large intermediate space between the blowhole and the lungs, and they sometimes flood this with water in order to cool the spermaceti oil in their foreheads. This decreases their bouyancy and allows them to dive deeper.

  9. Jason November 22, 2014 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Your bonus fact about clownfish is incorrect. Clownfish pairs are fiercely protective of their brood after spawning. They even periodically “blow water” at them preventing sediment that may fall upon them, and also discard eggs that may not be viable.

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