Dolphin Dreamtime

I wonder what a dolphin dreams about when they sleep…

I mean, dolphins do sleep. It’s actually pretty incredible how they accomplish this, too. In fact, dolphins provide an important lesson to all of us on the necessity of sleep. Because if there was ever an animal to evolve with the ability to not sleep, it would be dolphins. But sleep they do, just like every. other. animal. on the planet.

First, as it is National Dolphin Day, I want to talk a little about dolphins. And their amazing ability to sleep in the ocean.

How is sleeping so amazing for dolphins? Well, dolphins, being mammals, have to breathe air. No mammal on earth can breathe underwater. However, many mammals, including humans, are unconscious breathers. When we fall asleep, we are unconscious, yet we continue to breathe automatically. We breathe without a second thought (unless we’re meditating and focusing on our inhale and exhale). Dolphins, on the other hand, are what we call conscious breathers. This means they have to be fully awake in order to breathe.

Dolphins breathe out of their blowhole (that’s the only way they can breathe, not through their mouths like we can). Their blowhole is a flap that is opened by contracting a muscle. We can’t flex muscles without the brain working to tell a muscle to contract.

So, if a dolphin has to contract a muscle to breathe, and has to be awake to contract that muscle, how do dolphins sleep?

Mother Nature is amazing, truly amazing. Instead of opting out of sleep, dolphins found a way around their predicament. These marine mammals developed two ways to sleep: catnaps and auto-pilot.


Dolphins do have to breathe air, but they can hold their breath for a super long time. While the average for dolphins is about 2-4 minutes, they can hold it for 20-25 minutes. Most scientists agree that during these long stretches of holding their breath, dolphins take quick catnaps, probably lasting between 8-12 minutes.

Now, if you know animals, 8-12 minutes isn’t enough rest to fully recuperate and recover, so dolphins could potentially do this several times throughout the day, but that’s broken up sleep, which isn’t very productive. Even animals that have very short sleep cycles (elephants and their 4 hours of sleep a night comes to mind) still have unbroken stretches of sleep for their rest.

So, how do dolphins get a full night’s rest?

Going On Auto-Pilot

Scientists have been able to study dolphins in human care, and we discovered their secret to sleeping success. Instead of relying on catnaps, dolphins do take long rests every night. In order to maintain breathing functions, though, they can’t shut down their brain. Or at least, they can’t shut down their WHOLE brain. Not all at once.

Cetaceans (the order of mammals that includes all whales and dolphins) actually shut down half their brain to give it a long complete rest, perhaps two hours at a time. Then they switch sides and give the other side of their brain a chance to get some rest.

When dolphins have been observed in their sleep cycle, scientists noticed two distinct things: 1) the dolphins have only one eye open, the other eye closed, indicating one side of the brain is active and the other shut down. And 2) the dolphins swim in a fixed pattern– coming up to breathe at the same time interval, and in human care, usually around the same area of their habitat.

Helping a Sister Out with Sleep

When I worked with dolphins and whales, I got to observe them overnight occasionally. Often, these were night watches after a calf was born. We never put a mother-to-be in the Nursery pool alone; there was always a companion dolphin with the expectant mother. We called these companions “Aunties” and they acted as a baby-sitter for the mother as well.

When calves first enter this world, they can swim (better than most of us), but they aren’t very good at steering or stopping. The baby swims under their mother, in what we call their “slip stream,” getting pulled by the mom’s momentum. So, the mother must “just keep swimming” for the sake of her baby. That means she isn’t able to get the proper rest she requires…for as long as two weeks.

Thankfully, the Auntie can step in…um, I guess that’s swim in– and give the mom a break. I saw this on my overnight calf watches. The entire group– mom, baby, and Auntie– would begin breathing at exactly three minute intervals, and their swimming would become so consistent that all of them would come to the surface at the exact same place every three minutes.

I knew one of them had woken up and taken over looking after baby when the pattern would break, all three would swim a rapid lap around, and then they’d settle again, slipping into their sleep pattern.

Importance of Sleep

Now that I’m a resiliency and well-being coach, I think back to this awesome lesson. There are some people who claim that they can get by with 4-5 hours of sleep. However, you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning—twice—than you do of getting by on less than 8 hours of sleep.

If an animal that must be awake in order to breathe and swim constantly throughout the night still finds a way to get a full night’s sleep, then sleep must be pretty darn important.

And it is. Science tells us a good night’s sleep improves memory function and focus, enhances your mood, helps with weight loss, staves off cravings, reduces stress, increases your willpower, and decreases cortisol. Sleep allows recovery and relaxation, resetting the day and giving you the energy to start anew (that’s why sometimes when I’m having a “bad day” I take a quick nap and hit the reset button—it’s like a new day within the day). There is even research to show that dreaming (whether you remember your dreams or not) helps our minds recover and compartmentalize emotions.

Getting Better Sleep

For National Dolphin Day, let’s remember the amazing ability dolphins have and the lesson they share. Let’s get a great night’s sleep and drift off to a dolphin dreamtime.

Want some help getting a good night’s rest? Follow these suggestions:

  1. Develop a sleep schedule. Sleeping in or staying up late on weekends causes “weekend jetlag” and makes it hard for your brain to know when it’s time to go to bed or wake-up. Try going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning.
  2. Create an ideal sleep environment. For most people, the ideal sleep environment is somewhere cool, quiet, and dark. If you can manage it, sleep with a mask on. Keep the temperature cool. Keep all electronic devices out of the room. If noise is a must for you to fall asleep, use a white noise machine or nature sounds.
  3. Speaking of electronics– turn yours off at least an hour before going to bed. Our phones, televisions, and computers emit blue light, which stimulates our brain and keeps it more alert, tricking it into thinking it’s daytime. Turning off electronics long enough for your brain to feel the night time helps you get to sleep faster.
  4. Meditate. I know it sounds new age, but meditation is not what you think. And science shows that meditating just 15 minutes in the morning can help you fall asleep 30 minutes faster at night! Win-win!
  5. Fast for sleep. It’s hard to have break-fast if you haven’t fasted very long. Many people report a better night’s sleep when they go to bed on an empty stomach. You don’t have to fast all day for these perks, just try as little as three hours before going to bed, stop eating. If you want to experiment, try four or five hours. My husband’s sweet spot is 3.5 hours. Mine is about 4 hours. What’s your fast time?

Let me know how you are improving your Dolphin Dreamtime. Did you learn something cool? Curious if changing your routine a little can make a bigger impact on your energy throughout the day? Let me know and keep living green and training positive!

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