How Long Can Fish Live Out of Water

Fish have a crucial dependency on water for their survival, as it provides the essential oxygen they need to live. Like all living beings, fish are adapted to extract oxygen by consuming water.

Despite their reliance on water, certain types of fish can endure brief periods outside of it. The duration varies depending on the species, with some lasting only a second, while others can survive for extended periods, ranging from days to even months, depending on the specific characteristics of the fish.

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The primary reason why fish do not inhabit land to extract oxygen from the air, as humans do, is due to the absence of lungs. Instead, they possess gills, specialized organs that facilitate the conversion and absorption of dissolved oxygen in water.

Interestingly, various fish species, distinguished by their unique anatomies and characteristics, have the ability to absorb oxygen both from the air and while swimming in water.

Knowledgeable fish keepers and aquarists recognize that some fish exhibit mammalian traits. These unique species possess lungs and other physical features enabling them to extract and store oxygen, particularly when navigating the ocean depths.

How Do Fish Breathe in the Water?

Understanding how fish adapt to water makes it clearer why they cannot survive outside of it.

Similar to humans, fish rely on oxygen for breathing. If you’ve maintained an aquarium, you likely used aeration systems to introduce oxygen into the water, essential for the fish’s respiration.

Fish possess a unique respiratory system distinct from that of humans. Their gills serve as the apparatus for processing the water they breathe. Tiny blood vessels beneath the gill surface extract oxygen from the water while eliminating toxic waste.

The gills function akin to our lungs, but with a key difference – they absorb oxygen directly from the atmosphere, rather than separating and retaining oxygen from the various gases in the air, as lungs do.

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When an animal is taken out of the water, you’ll observe its gills expanding and contracting frequently as it attempts to breathe. Despite being in the air, the available oxygen is not sufficient for them.

The duration a fish can survive out of water can reveal distinctions among species. Some fish experience gill and respiratory system collapse within minutes, while others can endure for several days. Their ability to absorb oxygen through their skin and retain it in their bodies until they return to water allows for this extended survival.

For most fish, the critical factor is the dampness of their gills. As long as their gills remain moist, they can continue to absorb oxygen, even when out of the water. If an animal leaps out of an aquarium and lands on an absorbent surface, the body will face a quicker deterioration.

How long will a fish survive in the water?

Understanding the likelihood of fish survival in water is contingent upon the conditions they encounter. For example, if a fish jumps out of an aquarium and lands on a non-absorbent surface with some water, it can endure by extracting oxygen from the water as long as its gills remain moist.

Here are a few types of fish that exhibit prolonged survival when removed from water.

Factor That Affects the Duration of Fish Survival Out of Water

1) Species

Depending on the species and specific traits, amphibious fish can endure for varying durations outside of water—ranging from days to hours or even decades. These survival capabilities are a result of the adaptive mechanisms developed to withstand the extreme environmental conditions in nature.

In contrast, pet fish lack such adaptations and can only survive for a brief period, often just seconds or minutes, emphasizing the critical importance of returning to water swiftly for their survival.

2) Metabolic Rates

Referred to as oxygen consumption in fish, this process reveals insights into the energy needs essential for a fish’s survival. The metabolic rate of fish is influenced by environmental factors, notably temperature, which, in turn, affects their body temperature. Fish adapted to colder temperatures tend to have a slower metabolic rate, enabling them to sustain themselves on limited resources for extended periods.

3) Oxygen Demand

In addition to residing in colder climates, where their metabolic rates are lower, these fish exhibit reduced oxygen requirements and greater resilience to stress when deprived of water.

Pet Fish

Compared to saltwater fish, pet varieties like rainbowfish and goldfish are more delicate, featuring smaller bodies and gills. Their vulnerability is evident as they can quickly suffocate and die within three to four minutes without gill movement. Hence, it is essential to ensure their swift transfer to suitable water conditions to prevent any harm.

How long is it possible to keep fish from the in the water?

Keeping a fish out of water intentionally may not be the ideal approach for the well-being of your aquarium or pet fish. Prolonged deprivation of oxygen can be a distressing experience for the fish. However, if there is a need or an accidental occurrence, it is crucial to understand how long your fish can endure without water.

In the event that your pet goldfish accidentally leaps out of its bowl and lies on the ground, gasping, it is essential to assess the situation promptly.

The duration a fish can survive out of water varies depending on its species and the reason for keeping it away from water.

Additionally, some fish undergo the estivation process when exposed to a dry environment for an extended period. This involves wrapping them in a natural cocoon and burying them in mud, entering a state of dormancy that can last up to a year.

Estivation is a natural adaptation to dry seasons in the wild when water levels deplete, depriving fish of necessary oxygen. If a fish is removed from water and becomes fatigued, estivation serves as an alternative mechanism for adaptation during such challenging conditions.

How Long Can a Fish Survive Out of Water?

Let’s break it down into a few categories for the sake of accuracy.

Goldfish (and other fish species that are pet)

The duration your fish can survive out of water hinges on whether they are freshwater or saltwater species. Generally, freshwater fish are more delicate than their saltwater counterparts, attributed to their vulnerable gills and smaller bodies.

Their survival time without water is notably brief, typically lasting up to 10 minutes. In situations of panic where the fish cannot calm themselves, this time frame may be even less, potentially under one minute.

Saltwater fish typically exhibit a longer survival time out of water, yet it seldom exceeds 10 minutes. In certain instances, they might endure for up to 20 minutes, especially when placed on non-absorbent surfaces.

Large Ocean Fish

Do you recall the species of marine animals capable of breathing at the ocean’s surface? These include Blue whales with short beaks, beluga whales, sperm whales, and various other large marine creatures

. Interestingly, despite being frequently mistaken for fish, they are, in fact, mammals. Mammals, as a category, possess lung-like organs and can hold their breath underwater for extended periods.

While they can spend considerable time on land, they ultimately need to return to the ocean to support their bodies, as prolonged terrestrial exposure could lead to organ compression due to their weight.

Fortunately, this adaptation allows whales, dolphins, and certain pinniped species to showcase their abilities both in the water and on land.

Amphibious fish

Amphibious fish distinguish themselves from other fish species by their ability to stay out of water for extended periods, sometimes spending the majority of their lives on land.

An example is the Atlantic Mudskipper (Periophthalmus barbarus), which possesses unique adaptations enabling it to breathe oxygen through a specially designed lining in its throat. These mudskippers also have functional gills for underwater respiration but utilize their throat adaptations when on land, allowing them to spend significant portions of their lives outside of water.

Another amphibious fish is the Mangrove Killifish, also known as mangrove rivulus. Remarkably, they can survive for up to a month without accessing water for drinking. Research indicates that they absorb oxygen through their skin when out of water and store it within their bodies. Upon returning to the water, they release the stored oxygen from their guts.


Eels are elongated, ray-finned fish commonly observed resting on sand and rocks. They exhibit the ability to leap over obstacles, such as dams, while swimming downstream, and they have evolved breathing holes in their skin. Found in shallow oceans, these fish can also burrow into mud, sand, and seek refuge among rocks.

Aquarium plant divider

Typically, fish can survive for approximately 10 minutes outside of water, with their demise accelerated if they land on an absorbent surface. Notably, saltwater fish generally have a longer survival time, and specific types, like amphibious fish, possess unique adaptations enabling them to endure extended periods out of water.

Rockskipper Fish

Also known as the coral blenny, these freshwater fish thrive in dynamic environments with exposed habitats. Renowned for their agile behavior, they are often observed leaping or skipping between rock pools in search of mates and new habitats. These fish can spend extended periods on the ground and are commonly found in shallow waters, either hiding among rocks or navigating through rubble and breakwaters.

Climbing Perch

Fish indigenous to Asian countries, particularly China and India, share similarities with lungfish as they possess both lungs and gills. This species is invasive, capable of thriving and spreading to new areas by hitching rides on fishing boats. It is observed that they have expanded beyond their native habitats, including regions like Papua New Guinea and Australia.

These fish can endure on land for 6 to 10 hours, showcasing adaptability by moving their bodies inward to navigate challenging environments while traveling from one location to another.


Mudskippers are petite amphibious fish that spend their entire lives on land. Their skin features surface-close blood vessels, allowing them to absorb oxygen directly into their bloodstream without the need for breathing through lungs or gills.

Snakehead Fish

This species is prevalent in specific regions of Africa and Asia, exhibiting an amphibious nature with an elongated body. Referred to as predators, they follow a carnivorous diet, preying on plankton, smaller fish, and even rats.

Some snakehead varieties display the ability to stay on land for up to six days, while others can endure for months as they explore new habitats.

For those engaging in fishing activities involving this species, caution is advised when handling them for an extended period, as they may slither away and unexpectedly ensnare unwary prey.

Walking Catfish

This specific fish species possesses an extra organ that aids their gills in extracting oxygen from the air we breathe. They demonstrate the ability to “walk” or wiggle on land by flexing their muscles and utilizing their pectoral fins as propellants. After substantial rainstorms, you might observe them on roads.


A rare and distinctive species, with only six remaining, found exclusively in South America, Australia, and Africa, lungfishes inhabit freshwater environments such as rivers and lakes.

Named for their distinctive trait, they are descendants of the ancient Osteichthyes and stand out as the sole fish species capable of breathing oxygen on land.

Possessing lungs, lobed fins, and a complete internal skeleton inherited from Sarcopterygii, lungfishes rely on both lungs and gills to adapt to their habitats, which may periodically become dry.

During aestivation, a phase where their surroundings dry up, they solely utilize their lungs and can endure this stage for up to four years.

Why Do Fish Leave the Water?

For survival reasons, certain exceptional fish may stay out of the water due to the following factors: A) Evading predators; B) Steering clear of polluted waters and environments with low oxygen levels; C) Avoiding warming water conditions; D) Searching for food, mates, or adapting to a changing or drying biome.

The time of life will be dependent on the species.

Certain species have the ability to endure longer periods in the water compared to others. The crucial factor lies in the specific species, with some succumbing within minutes or seconds (like pet fish), while others, especially amphibious species, can withstand extended durations in the water.

Regardless of the situation, whether fishing or performing routine water changes for your goldfish, it is imperative not to subject them to prolonged periods without water.

Fishes That Can Breathe Out of Water

These distinctive fish exhibit the remarkable ability to live and flourish on land for extended periods. They surpass their counterparts in resilience, and although they may not be traditional aquarium pets, they undeniably captivate with their unique qualities.

In Summary

Typically, fish can survive outside of water for about 10 minutes on average, but the time can be shorter if they land on an absorbent surface. Saltwater fish generally have a longer survival duration, and specific species, like amphibious fish, possess unique adaptations that enable them to endure extended periods out of water.

The realm of fish encompasses various species, with marine animals showcasing diverse strategies for survival beyond continuous underwater habitation. These strategies include searching for habitats, mating, and seeking food.

While most of our knowledge about fish revolves around their life underwater, it’s crucial for fishkeepers to prioritize the underwater environment to preserve the well-being of their aquatic companions.

Some fish are amphibious, while others necessitate access to air, but regardless of their specific adaptations, all fish, being underwater inhabitants, rely on oxygen for their survival.

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