Do Sharks Drown? What Would Make a Shark Drown?

Do Sharks Drown? What Would Make a Shark Drown?

Drowning is a common water or marine accident. It basically involves the suffocation caused when water or other liquid fills the lungs.

Do sharks drown? The right answer to this is yes. Sharks can drown due to different natural and man-made circumstances. Just like every living thing, sharks need oxygen to breathe. When there is a shortage of oxygen in water, and they can no longer breathe, they drown.

The shark species have existed for millions of years. Almost 500 species of all sizes. Over the cause of these years, the oceans have been their home. Quite surprising that these sea predators also die of accidents in the comfort of their homes.

Sometimes these deaths are mostly not accidental. It might actually be as a result of natural events. And most especially, man-made causes.

Humans have impacted so much on these aquatic lives. They pose the most threat to these sea predators. As a matter of fact, these sharks have more to fear for in humans than any other aquatic predators.

How do natural and man-made activities affect sharks? How do these activities initiate or enforce sharks to drown? Now Let’s find out;

How Do Sharks Drown in the Water?

Sharks will drown following various activities that can make them stop breathing. Some circumstances that can make sharks drown include:

Shark Finning

Just popular knowledge that sharks have more to fear with humans than in the wild. Shark finning has caused so much killing of sharks both legal and illegal.

Shark finning is the act of hunting sharks for their fins. These humans cut off sharks’ fins and toss them back into the water. A fin is one of the appendages of a fish, which it uses to propel itself. When you cut off a shark’s fin and toss it back into the water. It will immobilize the shark and it will sink, drown and die or eaten by other predators.

Why is shark finning rampant? Shark finning has high monetary value and cultural value too. The fins are used for a popular Chinese soup called the shark fin soup, which is a symbol of status.

In Chinese culture, the Chinese emperors prefer shark fin soup as a dish to honor guests because it was thought to have medicinal benefits. The fishermen gather a lot of incentives by selling shark fins. Some of them prefer to sell only the fins as it’s more valuable.

The shark finning caused many problems for the marine ecosystem as these sharks help keep the ecosystem in balance. Many species of sharks are in trouble with extinction because of shark finning. Sharks like the hammerhead sharks.

Pulling Sharks Backwards

I’m not sure if drowning was the right word to use here. But if you pull a shark backward it alters its breathing and the shark suffocates. When pulled backward the process of breathing in the shark will be interrupted and the shark can suffocate and die.

Apparently, you can refer to this as drowning.

Turning A Shark Upside Down

Turning a shark upside down can lead to “Tonic immobility” often called, Animal hypnosis. Tonic immobility is the natural state of paralysis in an animal. In certain animals like sharks, it can be related to mating.

This phenomenon has been exploited by scientists to study sharks’ behavior. These sharks can be placed in a tonic state and it remains in this state of paralysis for up to 15 minutes.

The great white shark is popular for not being responsive to tonic immobility as other species in the wild. There was an eye witness off the coast of California, apparently the first eye witness of great white predation. A female orca whale was seen holding a great white shark upside down to induce tonic immobility. It kept the shark upside down for 15 minutes and the shark suffocated and died.

Other cases reported have the orca whale facing upside down before attacking a species of fish and turning themselves back up quickly. This will then induce tonic immobility and when the fish goes into paralysis, it’s definitely an easy meal for the orca whale.

How Do Sharks Breathe in Water?

Sharks’ ability to swim around the water is a special adaptation for survival. Sharks have the ability to move around at varying depths of the water, unlike bony fish that mostly stay restricted to a certain depth. While sharks swim, they pump water over their gills.

In constant swimming, they help some sharks keep oxygen rich water flowing through their gills. While other sharks are able to pass water through their respiratory system by a pumping motion of their pharynx.

However, a popular idea that when sharks stop swimming, they drown. This speculation emanated by comparing sharks to bony fish.

Let’s have a rundown of how sharks breathe in water. To breathe, sharks must extract oxygen from the water. By doing so, they allow water to enter through their mouth and flow over their gills.

Inside their gills is feathery gills filament. In turn, each filament has thousands of leaflike lamellae or flaps. These leaflike filaments contain blood vessels that help absorb oxygen from the incoming water. Excess water now flows out of the shark’s body from the gill slit. Depending on the species, sharks have about 5 to 7 gill slits.

Apparently, scientists came up with the idea that sharks necessarily need to move to breathe. This speculation was from the fact that bony fish are less equipped than these sharks. With that, they expect sharks to move always to grab oxygen from the water.

This study doesn’t tend to take account of the sharks that don’t seem to swim at all. Examples are Nurse sharks and Angel sharks that you can regularly see at aquariums. It turns out that not all sharks need to stay moving to breathe.

Which Sharks Need to Keep Moving to Breathe?

Most sharks didn’t have to constantly keep moving to breathe or stay alive, especially ancient sharks. They mostly breathe by pumping water over their gills and extracting oxygen from the water. The method is known as “Buccal pumping” named for the buccal or the sharks or the muscles that pull water into the mouth and over the gills.

Meanwhile, as sharks evolve, they become more active and the method of pumping water over their gills become subsequent to pumping water over its gills. This is simply because it’s more energy efficient to take in water while swimming.

The process of swimming and ramming water Over its gills and letting it out through its gill slits is called the “Ram ventilation”.

Some sharks have lost the buccal pumping ability. They will clearly drown if they stop moving and ramming water. They are known as obligate ram breathers (also obligate ram ventilators).

Only about 2 dozen of the identified 400 shark species are required to stay in a forward swimming motion to breathe. Examples of these sharks are the great white sharks, the mako sharks, the salmon sharks, and the whale sharks, etc.

Can Sharks Attempt Both Buccal Pumping and Ram Ventilation?

Most shark species can switch back and forth between buccal pumping and ram ventilation depending on what they are doing and their energy. An example of a shark that can alternate between buccal pumping and ram ventilation is the Sand Tiger shark.

Do Sharks Sleep?

Some sharks need to move to breathe while others can pump water to their gills. This situation gave rise to thoughts such as if sharks do sleep or not.

Well, sharks do sleep. Although they do not sleep as humans do, they oscillate between an active and restful period of sleep.

Robotic surveillance footage tracked a female great white shark as it swam at night. It swam around Guadalupe island near Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.

It is the first time the great white was caught on camera in a sleep mode. As night fell, the shark swam close to the shore in shallow waters. Then it will face the oxygen-rich currents with its mouth wide open. Most likely so that the water will constantly flow over its gills with a little amount of physical and mental effort from the shark.

Can Sharks Hold Their Breath?

Yes, sharks do hold their breath, maybe not as quite as long but they do. They do so by clamping their mouth or shutting their gills.

Sharks don’t have lungs but they need to breathe oxygen to stay alive. Therefore, they extract oxygen from the surrounding water with their gills, unlike land animals that get oxygen from the air with their lungs.


Sharks can drown although they swim and breathe inside the water. The cause can be both natural and man-made. Just like land animals can suffocate with a lack of oxygen, sharks will also drown in the water without oxygen.

Humans through shark finning contribute greatly to the death of so many sharks by drowning. When sharks drown, they sink to the bottom of the ocean. Sometimes, while sinking, other sharks or predators feed on the shark before reaching the bottom.