Can Polar Bears Breathe Underwater? Debunking Myths

Polar bears are renowned for their remarkable aquatic abilities, often surprising onlookers with their prowess in the water. Not only can they swim for miles without rest, but their aquatic skills also play a pivotal role in their survival in the harsh Arctic environment. These majestic creatures are adept at navigating vast stretches of open water, showcasing endurance that rivals some of the most efficient marine animals.

However, polar bears cannot breathe underwater. Polar bears, although strong swimmers that can hold their breath for minutes at a time while hunting, are still mammals that require air to breathe and cannot extract oxygen from the water like fish can through gills.

Can Polar Bears Hold Their Breath for a Long Time Underwater?

Polar bears are known for their remarkable ability to hold their breath underwater. An adult polar bear can stay submerged for 2 minutes on average when they go for a swim or while diving. These extended periods allow them to pursue prey or travel without needing to surface for air immediately.

Several adaptations enable polar bears to manage their breathing so effectively underwater. They possess large lungs relative to their body size, which offers more significant reserves when taking those deep dives. Additionally, their muscles contain high levels of myoglobin, a protein that stores oxygen, providing their bodies with an efficient oxygen supply during underwater pursuits.

The impressive diving capabilities of polar bears have been documented, with the longest recorded dive lasting a stunning 3 minutes and 10 seconds. This demonstrates the polar bear’s exceptional adaptations to its Arctic marine environment and its ability to push the boundaries of mammalian underwater endurance.

Breath Holding Duration:

  • Average: 2 minutes
  • Maximum Recorded: 3 minutes and 10 seconds


  • Lungs: Large capacity
  • Myoglobin Levels: High for oxygen storage

These biological traits position polar bears among the adept marine mammals despite being primarily land-based creatures. Their ability to thrive both on land and water showcases their unique evolution as apex predators in one of the harshest climates on the planet.

See this remarkable video of a polar bear swimming steadily underwater on end in pursuit of prey:

Do Polar Bears Have Special Adaptations for Swimming and Diving?

Polar bears have evolved a suite of exceptional physiological traits that facilitate efficient swimming and diving.

Thermal Insulation:

A significant factor in their aquatic prowess is a thick layer of body fat, which can be up to 11.4 cm (4.49 inches) thick. This blubber is essential, serving as a thermal barrier that insulates their bodies in icy waters, thus allowing them to maintain core body temperature.


Their large front paws are adapted to serve as powerful paddles, propelling them through the water with ease. This anatomical adaptation enhances their swimming efficiency, making them proficient swimmers over long distances.


When diving, polar bears demonstrate an impressive adaptation to aquatic life. Special valves close over their nose and ears, forming watertight seals that prevent water from entering during submersion.


Underwater visibility is augmented by special eye membranes, which act like goggles, allowing for clear vision when swimming below the surface.

Olfactory Capability:

Although polar bears boast an extraordinary sense of smell on land, this sensory ability is substantially limited when they are submerged underwater. This limitation is due to the fact that scent particles are not detectable in the same way as they are in the air.

These adaptations underscore the polar bear’s remarkable aptitude for an amphibious lifestyle, especially in the context of their harsh Arctic habitat.

Why Can’t Polar Bears Breathe Underwater Like Whales or Seals?

Polar bears, despite being adept swimmers, cannot breathe underwater due to their classification as terrestrial mammals. They lack the specialized physiological adaptations that marine mammals such as whales and seals possess, which are necessary for underwater respiration.

Key Differences:

  • Respiratory System: Whales and seals have evolved unique respiratory systems tailored to their aquatic lifestyles. Their bodies efficiently utilize oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, allowing them to stay submerged for extended periods. Polar bears do not have this ability.
  • Breathing Mechanism: Marine mammals have a breathing mechanism that allows for the exchange of air quickly and efficiently at the surface. In contrast, polar bears must breathe atmospheric air and cannot perform gas exchange underwater.

During swimming or hunting expeditions, polar bears display impressive diving skills but must periodically surface to breathe. They are capable of holding their breath for only brief spans while underwater.

  • Physical Adaptations: Seals have muscles around their ribs that can collapse their lungs to withstand high underwater pressure, and their blood can store large amounts of oxygen. Whales possess a similar set of adaptations, alongside the ability to slow down their heart rate and direct oxygen to vital organs during dives. Polar bears have none of these adaptations, as their bodies are not designed for aquatic breathing.

In summary, their evolutionary path has led them to excel on the ice and in the water for swimming and hunting, but not for breathing underwater. Polar bears are equipped with characteristics suitable for their environments and hunting methods, but being an aquatic breather is not one of them.

How Do Polar Bears Hunt While Swimming?

Polar bears are impressive swimmers, often covering long distances in search of food. While hunting, these powerful animals take advantage of their aquatic skills to pursue prey, particularly seals. Polar bears typically locate seals resting on ice floes. By using their strong front limbs for propulsion, they are able to swim up silently and then suddenly attack by pulling the seals into the water.

Not only do they rely on brute force, but polar bears also exhibit strategic intelligence during hunting. They may methodically approach several seals in succession, using stealth and patience, which indicates a sophisticated hunting strategy rather than random chases. This approach allows them to conserve energy while maximizing their chances of a successful hunt.

It’s noteworthy that polar bears usually do not pursue prey underwater for extended periods. Their hunting technique relies more on the element of surprise and their exceptional strength. A common method involves waiting near ice holes and bursting through to catch unsuspecting seals.

Through these hunting techniques, polar bears demonstrate their adaptability and skill in the harsh Arctic environment, striking a balance between power and calculated intelligence. They continue to thrive as apex predators, largely due to their proficiency in swimming and strategic hunting tactics.

Impact of Climate Change on Polar Bear Swimming Patterns

Climate change has a profound effect on the habitats of polar bears, particularly in the form of melting sea ice. This phenomenon significantly alters their swimming patterns, as polar bears are frequently compelled to swim longer and more hazardous distances to reach stable ice platforms or hunt for food.

  • Increased Swimming Distances: Due to the scarcity of sea ice, polar bears must swim greater distances, which can be exhausting and particularly dangerous for cubs.
  • Notable Endurance Feats: In a striking demonstration of their endurance, polar bears have been documented swimming extraordinary distances, with one recorded swim reaching an astounding 426 miles.

The shifts in sea ice availability have a cascading effect on polar bear behavior:

  • Hunting Challenges: As stable ice floes become less accessible, polar bears encounter difficulties in hunting seals, their primary prey.
  • Reproductive Impact: The altered landscape also imposes challenges for mating and rearing cubs, who are less adept at long-distance swimming and more vulnerable to fatigue and drowning.

Researchers continue to monitor these changes, understanding that the long-term survival of polar bears hinges on a stable and sufficient habitat, which is rapidly being reshaped by the ongoing climate crisis. The relationship between sea ice loss and polar bear survival is a clear indicator of the broader consequences of a warming planet.


  1. Polar bear awes with record-breaking dive. CBS News. Retrieved January 25. 2024, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/polar-bear-awes-with-record-breaking-dive/
  2. Longest Polar Bear Swim Recorded—426 Miles Straight. National Geographic. Retrieved January 25, 2024, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/110720-polar-bears-global-warming-sea-ice-science-environment

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