After a week of severe weather in September 2019, a naturalist from the whale-watching outfitter Croisières Escoumins wondered whether whales could suffocate due to rainwater or waves accidentally entering into their blowhole. 

During a dive, a whale’s blowhole (or blowholes) is closed by “fibrous plugs” that prevent water from entering its respiratory tracts. On the surface, the whale contracts its muscles to remove the plugs, allowing it to breathe. Once the blowhole is open, water could theoretically enter the nasal cavities and cause the whale to “swallow a mouthful”. However, the subsequent exhalation should expel the water since a whale’s breath is very powerful. Therefore, it should not suffocate. 

Additionally, one of the hypotheses to explain the breaches or half-breaches performed by some whales is that they might allow the animals to breathe without having to “worry” about the waves. 

Can they choke on food?

Even if a whale’s respiratory and digestive tracts are not connected to each other, food could still inhibit breathing. Indeed, the larynx intersects with the pharynx perpendicularly. Over-sized prey could compress the larynx, thereby blocking breathing.

Whale Q&A - 29/4/2020

Jeanne Picher-Labrie

Jeanne Picher-Labrie joined the GREMM’s team in 2019 as a writer at Whales Online and a naturalist at the Interpretation centre on marine mammals. With a Bachelor's degree in biology and training in science journalism under her belt, she is back in 2021 to tell new whale stories. By immersing herself in scientific studies, she tries to learn more and more about the mysterious life of cetaceans.

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