Diving Physiology of Marine Vertebrates


Air‐breathing marine vertebrates that dive to find food deal with two fundamental problems, the effects of pressure at depth, and the need to actively forage while breathholding. Adaptations to diving can be divided into two categories, those that are associated with adaptations to pressure, and those associated with breath‐hold diving. Adaptations to pressure have to deal with the mechanical effects of pressure and the increased solubility of gas at depth. Adaptations to breath‐hold diving centre around modifications in metabolism, blood flow and an increased oxygen storage capacity.

Keywords: diving; decompression sickness; bradycardia; oxygen stores; diving behaviour; aerobic dive limit

Figure 1.

Diving pattern of an adult northern elephant seal female.

Figure 2.

Diagram of the structure of the alveoli and associated structure in (a) a true seal, (b) a sea lion, (c) a walrus. From Kooyman GL (1973) Respiratory adaptations in marine animals. American Zoologist13: 457–468.

Figure 3.

The concentration of O2, CO2 (left hand side) and lactate (right hand side) in the arterial blood of a grey seal, before, during and after an 18 min forced laboratory dive. From Scholander PF (1940) Experimental investigation on the respiratory function in diving mammals and birds. Hvalradets Skrifter22: 1–131.

Figure 4.

The oxygen stores of dolphins, sea lions and fur seals, true seals, humans and penguins are provided in mL O2 per kg body mass. The numbers in parenthesis are the relative contribution of O2 stored in the lung, blood and muscle. From Kooyman GL (1989) Diverse Divers: Physiology and Behaviour. Berlin: Springer.

Figure 5.

Blood lactate levels for an Emperor Penguin, a Baikal seal and a Weddell seal as a function of dives of different duration. The point where the lactate level starts to increase is the aerobic dive limit. From Kooyman GL and Ponganis PJ (1998) The physiological basis of diving to depth: birds and mammals. Annual Review of Physiology60: 19–32.


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Costa, Daniel P(Jan 2007) Diving Physiology of Marine Vertebrates. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0004230]