Large shark species we are familiar with cannot survive out of water for very long, only a few minutes.
In fact, while they may not die instantly, being out of the water for any length of time can quickly cause death to large sharks.
All sharks are fish and get the oxygen they need to survive from the water they swim in.
As soon as they are in the air, no shark can breathe. The shark species involved, its size, and the circumstances surrounding its removal from the water may determine how long it can tolerate being on land.
However, we will see that some fascinating smaller sharks have actually managed to adapt so they can spend time out of the water and not suffer any consequences.
Sharks can’t breathe out of the water as they get the oxygen they need from the seawater around them through their gills.
The amount of time a shark can survive out of water varies, but large sharks can only last a few minutes while smaller sharks may survive longer, although they will still die if their gills dry out.
Some shark species, such as the epaulette shark, have evolved to tolerate low levels of oxygen and can survive out of water for longer periods.
Can Sharks Breathe Out of the Water?
No, sharks can’t breathe out of the water.
Like all other fishes, sharks get the oxygen they need from the seawater around them. Fish don’t have lungs as we do. Instead, water flows through their gills, which extract oxygen and pass it into the shark’s blood.
Without water, the shark’s gills cannot function, meaning that no oxygen would enter the bloodstream, and the shark would asphyxiated.
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Some sharks, called active pelagic sharks, use a process called ram ventilation. Water is forced through their gills to continually provide oxygen as these sharks swim. It is said that if these obligate ram ventilation sharks stop moving, they cannot breathe and will die.
Some species move in a swimming and gliding pattern. While they may not be actively swimming the whole time, they are moving, so the effect of pushing oxygenated water through their gills is the same.
Well-known examples of ram ventilators include the great white (Carcharodon carcharias), bull (Carcharhinus leucas), thresher (Alopiidae), hammerhead (Sphyrnidae), tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), and whale shark (Rhincodon typus).
Other species, called benthic sharks, will rest on the bottom for large amounts of time and so need a different method to push oxygenated seawater through their gills. These sharks have openings called spiracles which effectively pump water through the gills meaning that the shark doesn’t have to move.
Examples of sharks with spiracles include some reef sharks, zebra sharks (Stegostoma tigrinum), and Wobbegongs (Orectolobidae).
Finally, small sharks, like the spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula), suck water through their mouths using a method called buccal pumping. Using their large cheek muscles can supply oxygenated water to their gills while they are stationary.
Why Can’t Sharks Breathe on Land?
Sharks cannot breathe on land because they have gills and not lungs. Our lungs have evolved to absorb gaseous oxygen and pass it into our blood for our bodies to use.
While a shark’s gills also absorb oxygen, they can only do so from oxygenated water. This means that without being surrounded by water, the shark cannot breathe and will eventually die.
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How Long Can a Shark Live Without Water?
How long a shark could live out of water will depend on the species and its size. They may survive minutes or up to about an hour. As well as needing oxygen to survive, sharks have evolved to take advantage of the physical support that water gives them.
Unlike, for example, mammals, sharks don’t have skeletons with rib cages that maintain their body shape and protect their organs.
Without being submerged, most large shark species, including great white and tiger sharks, will quickly suffer internal bleeding and crushed organs from the effects of gravity on land.
So if they didn’t suffocate from lack of oxygen, they would probably die even if they were returned to the water seemingly alive.
In addition, a shark out of the water is likely to struggle and flap to try and get itself free. This will not only use up valuable oxygen but will probably also further physically damage the shark.
If the gills remain wet, minimal oxygen exchange may occur to sustain the shark. However, this probably won’t be sufficient for the shark to function correctly, and as soon as the gills dry out, they won’t work at all.
The gills are also usually damaged when they are out of the water. The gills will often get stuck together, meaning that when the shark does get put back in the water, they may not function effectively.
Thankfully for the sharks involved, how long they can live without water has not been extensively researched. It could range from just a few minutes to several hours.
However, while the animal may not wholly pass away, time out of the water will likely cause internal damage, including brain damage from lack of oxygen, that could dramatically shorten its life.
How Long Can a Shark Live Without Oxygen?
If all oxygen is taken away from a shark, it will suffer brain damage and die pretty quickly.
A human’s permanent brain damage occurs after about four minutes without oxygen. Death will follow between four and six minutes after that.
Without oxygen, most large shark species will suffer a very similar fate. Hypoxia will rapidly cause brain damage, so while an oxygen-deprived shark may appear to be still alive, it will likely rapidly suffer irreversible damage in just a few minutes.
How Long Can Sharks Stay Underwater?
Sharks can, and should, stay underwater for their whole lives! They have evolved to be underwater constantly.
You may have seen incredible photographs of great white sharks leaping out of the water. However, they are trying to catch prey such as sea lions at the surface. The shark is out of the water for less than a second, so it doesn’t suffer.
Should You Try To Save a Stranded Shark?
Some people ask how long can a shark survive out of water because they are wondering if it is worth trying to save a stranded shark.
While a stranded shark may suffer some damage from being out of the water, it will surely experience certain death if left on dry land.
While attempting to save a shark that has got stuck on land, the first thing to do is keep it wet.
Rescuers will often pour buckets of seawater over the shark’s gills. While this may not give the shark all the oxygen it needs, keeping the gills wet could at least allow some to enter the animal’s blood.
Sharks out of the water will also quickly suffer from hypothermia in warm weather as the sun and temperature overheat their bodies. Pouring water on them may help to keep them cool.
Professional marine rescue teams exist in many locations; if possible, it’s a good idea to call for their help.
Even with the best intentions, the safety of people comes first, and extreme caution must be taken, particularly when dealing with large shark species.
If possible, the shark should be moved by the tail so that people are away from its mouth.
You need to be aware that a stressed shark can flap with vast amounts of strength, so if possible, rescuers should use a rope to pull the animal to the water instead of manhandling it and risking injury.
Once in the water, ram breathing sharks may need pushing back and forth or even pulling from a boat to force water through their gills to recover significantly from lack of oxygen to be able to swim.
How Long Does It Take for a Shark To Suffocate Out of the Water?
A shark could suffocate in just a few minutes depending on the conditions. The animal will start to receive less oxygen from the moment it is out of the water. Even damp gills will only function at a small fraction of their usual efficiency.
Typically we can say that the larger the shark, the faster it will suffocate. Even if the gills are kept wet, the lack of fresh oxygenated water flowing through them and problems caused by gravity will suffocate a white or tiger shark very quickly.
How Long Can a Great White Shark Last Out of Water?
Great white sharks will quickly die out of the water. Lack of oxygen may cause the shark to suffocate in just a few minutes, or its weight may cause significant internal bleeding.
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Any great white shark out of the water will suffer injuries. However, it’s impossible to say how dramatic these will be or how long they will take to come into effect.
Great white sharks are ram ventilators which can further add to their problems.
On land, the shark will thrash and expend large amounts of energy. In addition, stress hormones will build up to dangerous levels.
When this happens, even when the shark is returned to the water, it might simply stop swimming, causing it to sink, be unable to get water through its gills, and effectively drown.
Are There Shark Species That Can Survive Out of the Water?
Some shark species have evolved to survive for periods out of the water. The most well-known of these is the epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium ocellatum).
Epaulettes are found in the shallow, tropical waters off New Guinea and Australia, often living in tidal pools.
These pools can sometimes become isolated from the sea, and as a result, the dissolved oxygen levels in the water can drop 80% or more. This has caused the epaulette to develop an ability to tolerate extremely low oxygen levels.
In fact, scientists have studied epaulette sharks surviving with no ill effects after being kept with just five percent of the usual amount of oxygen for up to three hours.
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In addition to being able to survive in water with low levels of oxygen, the epaulette has evolved to live outside deep water and can walk from one tidal pool to another by wrigging and pushing itself along with its fins.
By keeping its gills damp and tolerating low oxygen levels, this shark can survive out of the water sufficiently long to get to the next pool unharmed.
Can a Bamboo Shark Breathe on Land?
Bamboo sharks (Hemiscylliidae) are a family of sharks found in shallow waters in the tropical Indo-Pacific. Bamboo sharks cannot breathe on land in common with all other sharks.
Like the epaulette shark, they often live in tidal pools and may tolerate lower than normal oxygen levels. Bamboo sharks also use their pectoral fins to walk along the bottom, allowing them to move in shallower water than would usually be possible.
However, bamboo sharks still need to keep their gills wet, and in contact with water, or after extended periods they will suffocate.
How long can a shark survive out of water is very difficult to answer. After just a few minutes, large sharks will almost certainly suffer damage from a low oxygen level.
Most sharks will experience internal bleeding and organ damage due to the effects of gravity on their large bodies.
Smaller sharks may be expected to survive for longer, although if their gills get dry, they too will suffer lasting damage even if they are returned to the water.
No shark can breathe on land, but some small sharks have developed the ability to survive with very low oxygen levels in their blood.
This allows them to survive in waters with low amounts of dissolved oxygen or on land for more extended periods. However, even these unique sharks will perish if their gills dry out
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.
1 thought on “How Long Can a Shark Survive Out of Water?”
Awesome post, very informative