It might get you wondering, what is the fastest marine animal? Next time you go out on a boat or visit an aquarium, watch and see how fast some of these animals can swim. It’s pretty eye-opening.
Key Trait in Common
Water has a lot of resistance, especially salt water. Speedy marine animals have had to adapt over time to develop features that allow them to become more aerodynamic.
Fish, dolphins, sharks, and more that need to be speedy–either to catch prey or to avoid predators–tend to have a streamlined shape. Their body is more cylindrical than, say, a blue whale.
So, who is the fastest? Let’s dive in!
Shortfin Mako Shark
Shortfin mako sharks are the fastest of the shark species. Their typical fast-moving speed is 31 miles per hour, but they can zip forward, moving at 46 miles per hour for short bursts.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has classified the shortfin mako as vulnerable. It has been heavily harvested for making shark fin soup, targeted as a prize for fishermen, and accidentally caught as a bycatch. In the US, it is currently illegal to fish for them.
Other than humans, shortfin mako sharks don’t have many predators. They tend to be apex predators, near the top of the food chain, except when they are young. The females birth live young that are up to two feet long to increase their chances of survival.
With a nickname like “cheetahs of the deep sea,” you can bet pilot whales are one of the fastest marine animals. They can reach typical speeds of up to 20 miles per hour when hunting, but they have been reported to be as fast as 47 miles per hour. They can also dive after prey like squid for 15 minutes at a time, going 3280 feet or 1000 meters deep in the ocean.
There are two species of pilot whales: long-finned and short-finned. It is hard to distinguish between the two species when you see them out in the open ocean. You can find them ranging between subpolar waters and deep temperate waters.
Pilot whales are social animals and not really whales at all. In fact, they are members of the dolphin family. While the typical pod might be 20 animals, you might find pods of pilot whales in groups of hundreds of animals. Interestingly, pilot whales may loosely associate with other animals, from different whale species to sharks.
Yellowfin tuna are torpedo-shaped fish found in warm waters around the world. While their general swimming speed is in the neighborhood of 3 miles per hour, they can reach speeds of around 30 miles per hour (and they can swim up to 46 miles per hour in bursts).
Yellowfin tuna, readily identified by their yellow fins, have a variety of adaptations to help them move quickly through the water:
- Unique scales around their head to decrease drag
- Long pectoral fins for turning
- Eyes are flush against their heads to increase how aerodynamic they are.
The marlin is another speedy fish. Several Marlin species exist, including the Pacific blue and black marlin. (As an important note, some people claim the black marlin can reach speeds of 80 miles per hour, which would make this the fastest fish, but it’s undocumented.)
Blue marlins are a deep cobalt blue along their top, or dorsal, surface, with more of a silver-white color on the bottom. Their bills are spear shaped. Fast growers, they can reach up to 2000 pounds!
Even though they’re large, they’re also fast: striped marlins have been clocked at speeds up to 50 miles per hour.
Atlantic swordfish are fast – up to 50 miles per hour fast. Their speed and large size mean they tend to be at the top of the food chain where they live in the ocean. While most caught in fisheries are only up to 200 pounds, they can grow to be more than 1100 pounds!
Swordfish have a characteristic bill that leads to their name. People also call swordfish broadbills. These fish use their bill in a slashing motion to stun and injure prey fish.
While you can most commonly find swordfish in tropical and temperate waters worldwide, they can live in colder waters. They have an adaptation for cold, deep waters: a specialized heat exchange system.
The fastest fish in the ocean is the sailfish. The sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) has two main subspecies, the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific. The fish can get as fast as 68 miles per hour in the open ocean.
You can see sailfish in warmer to temperate waters. These fish can be identified by their dorsal fin that runs the length of their bodies, their “sail,” if you will.
Sailfish typically feed in groups, where they will go after smaller fish in schools. They also feed on animals like squid and octopi.