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Can Whales Live in Fresh Water?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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How long whales live in fresh water has become a matter of some debate with several visits of whales to fresh water environments. The interest in this matter first peaked when Humphrey the humpback whale took a detour into the Sacramento River in 1985 during annual whale migration season. Humphrey managed several weeks in the brackish water (fresh water) of the Sacramento River before finally returning to the San Francisco Bay and then to the Pacific Ocean. The matter was revisited in May of 2007, when a mother humpback and her calf entered the Sacramento River.

In general, some experts say that it is uncommon to see whales in fresh water for more than a few weeks. There are a few species of dolphins that are specifically fresh water mammals, but most whales are built for salt water environments. Scientists are not exactly sure how long whales can live in fresh water since they are salt water mammals. One issue is that in fresh water, they don't have access to their regular food sources.

An additional concern for whales in fresh water is that salt water performs some natural functions for the whale. Small cuts or scrapes, for example, are easily healed in salt water. Fresh water environments do not provide access to the beneficial healing aspects of salt. It was noted in the May 2007 Sacramento incident that both whales appeared to be injured by the propeller of a boat. Fortunately, the two whales in this instance were herded back to the Pacific Ocean roughly two weeks after making their appearance in the Sacramento Delta.

Fresh water environments are also not natural for a whale's swimming and diving activities. Most whales swim in water that is at least 20 feet (6.1 m) deep, if not considerably deeper. Fresh water rivers may be only a few feet deeper than the girth of a whale's body. This makes them more likely to be beached.

The humpback whale and many others species of whales are migratory animals by habit. Diversions from typical migration patterns can create problems for the whales. Since they are unaccustomed to the route they are taking, whales can easily get confused. Instinct to migrate is innate, so as interesting as it may be to see whales in fresh water, it’s a matter of concern to whale lovers.

When possible, governments and environmental groups use their resources to help whales back to their natural environments as quickly as possible. Marine biologists are certain that the biology of the whale cannot survive indefinitely in brackish water, and that at most, few whales in fresh water will survive more than a month.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a All Things Nature contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon1004466 — On Feb 18, 2021

Not a very smart question. What is a 40 ton whale going to be able eat in freshwater its whole life?

I think for a whale to swim into freshwater would be a smart way to avoid being eaten alive by sharks and orcas. If I were being pursued like that, instead of trying to out-swim them, I would hide out in freshwater and wait. Hopefully, they would get hungry and find something else to chase.

Whales can survive in freshwater for like, a month or two, if they really want to, or until they get tired of being hungry and skin problems start to develop. I can imagine it being more common to see them in freshwater before humans hunted them almost extinct and they developed natural instincts not to trust us like predators.

Maybe entering freshwater is like a relief or place to take a break from the long, boring, unsafe, tiring migration and relax a little. What if they are starting to trust humans a little more now because they aren't being hunted into extinction?

I don't think they are looking for new other places for anything because the whale population is rising at all. The migration to breeding waters and feeding waters are so far away and crucial for survival, that getting lost in freshwater somewhere doesn't make sense to me.

If a whale was lost in freshwater it would look like it was freaking out and probably go crazy trying to get back on the migration route. They would turn around and go back out to the ocean to eat and return to salt water. Their bodies are used to it and they migrate thousands of dangerous miles without getting lost in the ocean. I say no! A whale don't want to live in freshwater for its whole life.

But they can survive a lot longer than I thought. I saw one in a river for over a month swimming the same as when it came in, and acting like it could stay another month fine. It swam so close to shore I could see its huge human-like eye looking back at me. I felt like it was watching me closely, not sure if I was a threat and as if it wanted to trust me.

It was almost friendly how close it would trust me to be without breaking eye contact, as if it was interested looking at my eyes as I was its eye. Like looking at a huge human eye with a soul, memory and feelings intelligently looking back at me just like a human does when you're having a good conversation. If you see whale in freshwater just leave it be and enjoy looking at it. They will find their way back unless people mess with them and stress them out and make them panic.

By PelesTears — On Aug 22, 2010

I was watching a show on the National Geographic Channel that said beluga whales often swim in fresh water in Alaska. They do not live there, but they will swim in Fresh water streams and lakes to feed (on migrating salmon I think).

The show was about a lake monster report in an Alaskan lake. The Beluga whales were a possible suspect, but they were ruled out since they had to surface for air, meaning that sightings would be more frequent. In the end, the investigation concluded that the river monster was a White Sturgeon; a bottom-feeder that can grow to twenty feet long and live about a hundred years.

By cary — On Nov 25, 2009

Interestingly, there seems to be a hoax or running joke suggesting that there are whales living in the Great Lakes, particularly in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior! A little digging indicates that this rumor has been around for many years - there are even fake websites and tours promoting it!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a All Things Nature contributor, Tricia...
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