How Fast do Whales Swim?

If there were Sea Animal Olympics there would be several species that would swim in the final heat. Whales are some of the largest sea animals but are they also the fastest? More importantly, just how fast do whales swim?

They wouldn’t get a Gold, Silver or Bronze but they might place in the top 10. Whales, dolphins and porpoises (all part of the whale group Cetacean) have streamlined bodies, are mostly hairless and have strong tail fins. Some are the shape of a torpedo! The whale group is divided into two subgroups, baleen whales (the larger whales like blue whale, fin whale and gray whale) and toothed whales (smaller whales like dolphins, porpoise and belugas). Let’s take a look at some of the fastest whales and see how they compare to some of the other fastest swimmers.

How fast do whales swim?

killer whales jumping out of water
Killer whales jumping out of water

Whales can reach speeds of a little more than 20 miles per hour over sustained periods. However, in extremely short bursts some species can travel more than 30 miles per hour! One reason dolphins and smaller Cetaceans can’t swim faster? Scientists have studied their speeds and found that a scientific phenomenon – known as cavitation – makes it extremely painful for dolphins to travel at more than 34 miles per hour. This puts a natural “upper bounds” for the speeds of dolphins and other whale species for all but short bursts.

To discover more about whale speeds, we’ll break them down into toothed whales (which are generally smaller), and baleen whales.

What are the fastest toothed whales?

Largest dolphins - Southern right whale dolphin
A toothed whale (southern right whale dolphin) cruising through the water

If you had to choose 3 whales to swim in the 800m freestyle you might want to go with these toothed whales. Similar to human swimmers, these whales have to breathe air so they come up for air 2-3 times a minute while fast swimming. They can hold their breath longer for deep dives but for distance swimming at fast speeds they need the additional oxygen for the cardio. Three of the fastest toothed whales are:

  1. Pilot whale: These whales are a part of the dolphin family and are large, resembling belugas or killer whales. They are dark gray, brown or gray and have a rounded head with a large melon. Their bodies are less streamlined than dolphins yet they have powerful tails that allow them to propel them in very short bursts at up to 47 mph! Over longer stretches pilots whales can travel at 20 miles per hour, which is still fast enough to chase down speedy prey! They live in pods of 15-30 of the same family and are very social and intelligent. Despite their intelligence they have a reputation for large groups to beach themselves, scientists still have no explanation for this behavior.
  2. Common dolphin: The common dolphin has been seen reaching speeds of about 35 miles per hour. As we noted above, dolphins are actually powerful enough swimmers to go faster than their top speeds. However, the pain from tiny bubbles forming at high speeds underwater (cavitation) prevents dolphins from going much faster than 35 mph.
  3. Orca (Killer whale): Killer whales are also part of the dolphin family and can grow to be 32 ft long and weigh 6 tons. They are the black and white whales that you may be familiar with at aquariums and Sea World. Orcas have rows of large white teeth and they hunt together, sometimes in very advanced ways. They have been known to sneak up on seals floating on ice floats and create a wave to knock them off making them vulnerable in the ocean. Orcas and dolphins have similar speeds. Dolphins tend to cruise at faster speeds 3-7mph with orcas cruising speed to be a little less, but if they need to pursue a prey quickly or escape they can have bursts of speed up to 32mph!
  4. Bottlenose dolphin: Dolphins have that streamlined body that looks like they would be fast. They can maintain fast speeds for long periods of time. They can conserve energy and swim longer at faster speeds by using a technique called “porpoising” where they swim near the surface of the water and swim up and down in a wave-like pattern. Orcas and porpoise use this technique as well. Dolphins have been recorded going speeds of 20mph over long stretches but can reach faster speeds especially when they ride the wave of passing ships which they often do in large pods (or groups of dolphins).

What are the fastest baleen whales?

humpback whale swimming just under surface level
There are more than a dozen species of baleen whales ranging from 20 to 102 feet long.

In the baleen whale division you would have a hard time choosing just one species, but these three would be some of the fastest. They are generally a bit slower than toothed whales, but with their massive size it is quite a sight to see a 80ft whale going 25 mph pass your boat!

  1. Fin whale: The fin whale is one of the fastest baleen whales and an aerial view of its long streamlined body shows how it looks like a torpedo. It has a flattened head and smooth skin unlike the barnacle covered humpback whale. One of the key factors that make the fin whale so fast is its tail fin has strong muscles that are just as effective when it pulls up as it is pushing down, creating a steady propulsion from behind. They can maintain speeds of 20-25mph and if need to find a burst of speed up to 29mph.
  2. Blue whale: Blue whales are the largest animal on the planet and can reach lengths of 100ft! That is around 30m long so if they were in a 50m freestyle their tail would still be at the half way point when they crossed the finish line (of course that would be a very, very big pool!). Blue whales can maintain similar speeds as fin whales and can have a burst of speed up to 28mph. Blue whales are baleen whales and sieve the ocean for thousands of tiny krill. Their feeding speed is around 5-10mph.
  3. Sei whale: The sei whale can grow to be 40-60ft long and are some of the fastest whales. They also can maintain speeds of 20-25mph and can travel long distances. Most baleen whales are migratory and migrate the same route from the summer to winter areas. Their top speeds can reach 50kmh (or 31mph)!

What are the fastest sea animals?

Black marlin
Black marlins are typically found in shallow water, and they are known to swim quickly to attack their prey with a fast slash of their bill.

Now that we’ve looked at how fast whales can swim, let’s take a broader view of the oceans! If whales had to compete in an open category with other sea animals they would not have a chance of keeping up. Take a look at some of the fastest sea animals:

  1. Black Marlin: The black marlin is a type of billfish that looks similar to a swordfish. If there were an ocean/land race with a cheetah, the black marlin would win. Cheetahs can reach speeds of 50-80mph and the fastest black marlin was recorded at 82mph!
  2. Sailfish: Sailfish are a little smaller and sleeker than the black marlin and have an elaborate sail as a dorsal fin that extends almost the length of their body. They use this to their advantage to reach swimming speeds of 68mph.
  3. Swordfish: Swordfish have a long “sword” that protrudes from their face and a crescent-shaped dorsal fin (they actually have two dorsal fins with the front one being much larger). Think about an average highway speed of 60mph, can you imagine a swordfish swimming alongside you at the same speed? Swordfish can swim at 60mph. Now those are some fast fish!

Related Post