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On September 17th, 1998 the Ithaca Journal ran its first "Ask A Scientist!" article in which Professor Neil Ashcroft , who was then the director of CCMR, answered the question "What is Jupiter made of?" Since then, we have received over 1,000 questions from students and adults from all over the world. Select questions are answered weekly and published in the Ithaca Journal and on our web site. "Ask A Scientist!" reaches more than 21,000 Central New York residents through the Ithaca Journal and countless others around the world throught the "Ask a Scientist!" web site.

Across disciplines and across the state, from Nobel Prize winning scientist David Lee to notable science education advocate Bill Nye, researchers and scientists have been called on to respond to these questions. For more than seven years, kids - and a few adults - have been submitting their queries to find out the answer to life's everyday questions.

Previous Week's Question Published: 10 January, 2001 Next Week's Question
Stored oxygen helps whales stay submerged
Question
Why can't we hold our breath like the whales?

Question
Whales, like humans, breathe to take in oxygen, which they use to generate the energy needed to think and to move. But when a whale sounds (dives) it can't breathe while it's underwater. So how does it generate enough energy to stay under for so long (the record is nearly 2 hours!). You might think that a whale, being as big as it is, could just take a very big breath and hold it. But, in fact, whales have rather small lungs for their size. Besides, most of the oxygen the whale breathes in just before it dives is used very quickly.

So the whale has to rely on oxygen it stored before it sounded, oxygen attached to proteins in the blood (hemoglobin) and muscle (myoglobin). We have these proteins too, but in smaller amounts. Whales also conserve energy while they are underwater, by slowing their heartbeat and by pumping blood to only a few organs (brain, heart and muscles). Humans have this "diving reflex" also, although it's not as well developed. If a whale gets low on oxygen, it can generate a small amount of energy without using oxygen, but this process creates lactic acid - the substance that makes your legs "burn" if you run too far or too fast. Whales, however, don't seem to mind the "burn" as much as we do. So the whale's secret to staying under water for a long time is to store up a lot of oxygen before it dives and then use as little of it as possible while it's submerged.