How do mermaids breathe?

Q: How do Mermaids[1] breathe?

A: Through their nose just like everyone else.

Seriously, in the world of Colony Island, that applies mainly when they are out of the water.

Many writers and artists have speculated as to just how mermaids are able to respire[2] when they’re below the surface. Some writers have given them gills located on their necks.

Mermaid with gill slits on her torso.

Mermaid with gill slits on her torso. If you read the ‘Ask Madison’ letter entitled ‘Silly Humans’, you might understand why she appears to be calling for help.

In her Mer Tales series[3], Brenda Pandos’ description of her character’s gills implies that they are large enough to actually work as intended. Other writers have given their characters gill slits that might just sustain a goldfish but nothing much larger than that.

Recognizing there is not much available real estate on the neck of a human, some writers and artists have envisioned gill slits not unlike those of a shark, along the torso. While these may be considered to be somewhat more realistic, they will require the mermaid to either be constantly swimming or to park herself in a current with her head facing upstream when she wants to sleep. If she drifts out of that current, the mermaid is likely to suffocate unless she wakes up in time.

This concept is based on the behavior of sharks that swim constantly in order to keep water moving through their gills. An exception to this is when they mate. The male will take ahold of the female and point both of them so they are facing into the current. They are thus able to breathe while the reproductive niceties are taken care of.

At least one writer has placed the gill slits further down the mermaid’s body on the fishy end. It’s an interesting concept but at the end of the day, they will still need to either constantly swim or go to sleep facing upstream in the current.

Then, there are writers like S.K. Munt[4] who give their merfolk the ability to hold their breath for long periods of time.

Finally, there are plenty of writers who have bypassed the subject entirely and marked respiration down to plain old mermaid magic.[5] Most artists have entirely ignored the respiration problem when depicting mermaids.

In the world of Colony Island, Poseidon found he was not fond of the aesthetic resulting from gills placed on the side of the neck.[6] Instead, he decided to take a page from the amphibians’ playbook and give mermaids the ability to breathe through their skin. As long as the mermaid is in the water, she can breathe whether she has her tail on or not.[7]  And as long as the mermaid’s head is above the surface – whether she’s walking on land or simply treading water – she can use her nose and lungs, just like the rest of us.

If mermaids take a deep breath before sounding, it will stay with them a good while.[8] Although they don’t really need that lung-full of air, mermaids can deliver it to a human in distress under water. This was idea was used in my short story, Dear Mom …, which can be seen on my Goodreads author page.[9]

While both oxygen and CO₂ are exchanged through the mermaid’s skin, some carbon dioxide will accumulate in the lungs and she will ‘exhale’ every now and then. This is more pronounced when the mermaid is under physical stress – such a fleeing a predator – and needs to take in as much oxygen as possible. In these situations, almost all CO₂ is expelled through the lungs.


The preceding discourse concerns is how the author envisions the merfolk of Colony Island would appear and behave. His opinions and prejudices are just that; opinions and prejudices. They are not intended to defame or belittle the vision of any reader, writer, or illustrator. Sadly, there are no merfolk around to prove or disprove our ideas and speculation.


[1] This applies to mermen as well.

[2] A technical term for breathing.

[3] Some really great YA (Young Adult) fiction, if you ask me.

[4] S.K. Munt’s Fairytail Saga is quite an interesting take on mermaids and well worth the reader’s time.

[5] The concept of mermaid magic – or lack thereof in the Colony Island series – will be discussed in another FAQ.

[6] Gods can be rather picky, you know.

[7] It’s pretty hard to drown a Colony Island mermaid.

[8] There are limits, though. Eventually, the alveoli in the lungs will take up the oxygen and replace it with carbon dioxide.

[9] Eventually, it will be added to this site along with one other short story.

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