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Dolphins are excellent swimmers and are often seen swimming at high speeds. Dolphins have some fantastic adaptations to allow them to swim effortlessly.

Dolphins usually swim at speeds of 6.8-7.8 mph although speeds of over 20 mph have been seen over short distances.. Dolphins have very little hair, few external appendages, a layer of blubber that helps them float, as well as powerful tails and short flippers to propel themselves forward.

Dolphins are some of the best swimmers in the ocean. If you want to know more, please read on.


How Fast Do Dolphins Swim? 

Dolphins can reach remarkable speeds when necessary. To escape danger or pursue prey, they can attain speeds of up to 15.5 miles per hour (25 kilometers per hour) and maintain this pace for distances of approximately 0.93 miles (1,500 meters). For routine activities, such as hunting or social interactions, dolphins typically swim at a more leisurely rate of 7-8 miles per hour.

Researchers have observed that dolphins employ energy-saving techniques when they need to travel at a sustained pace. They can cruise at a consistent speed of 6.8-7.8 miles per hour (11-12.5 kilometers per hour) for extended periods. Interestingly, dolphins have a unique way of achieving greater speed while minimizing energy expenditure. They engage in leaping behavior, breaching the water’s surface and then re-entering. This strategy reduces water friction and allows them to conserve energy when striving for increased speed.

Bottlenose dolphins are known for their impressive speed, capable of reaching speeds of up to 12.7 miles per hour (20.5 kilometers per hour). Common dolphins are known to be even faster swimmers, with recorded speeds of 21.2 miles per hour (34.1 kilometers per hour).


Dolphins have several adaptations that have earned them the title of acrobats of the sea. These adaptations not only allow them to swim at great speeds but also enable them to catch fish easily.


Dolphins have very little hair on their bodies. The smooth and hairless skin of dolphins is an integral part of their streamlined design. This streamlined physique reduces drag and minimizes water resistance as they move through their marine habitat.

A dolphin’s smooth skin creates less water resistance while swimming. The body of a dolphin has little hair to disrupt or hinder water movement around its body.

The absence of hair on their bodies means that dolphins can navigate through water with remarkable precision. They can make rapid turns, execute intricate maneuvers, and even ride the pressure waves created by boats or other dolphins with ease. The lack of hair-related drag allows them to respond swiftly to changes in their underwater environment.


Dolphins have relatively few appendages which could slow them down as they move through the water. While they have a dorsal fin and two pectoral flippers, these help propel them through the water.

The lack of external ears on a dolphin keeps their heads streamlined, and the pointed shape of their heads helps minimize disturbances in the water, ensuring that they encounter minimal resistance while swimming.

The dorsal fin, located on the dolphin’s back, plays a crucial role in maintaining stability during swimming. It helps prevent rolling and keeps the dolphin upright as it glides through the water.

Dolphins have two pectoral flippers, one on each side of their body. These flippers are incredibly versatile, serving multiple functions. While they aid in steering and maneuvering, they also provide additional thrust when needed. Dolphins adjust the angle and position of their flippers to control their direction and speed effectively.


The tail fluke, located at the end of their streamlined bodies, plays a central role in their locomotion, agility, and precise movements. The tail of a dolphin is filled with powerful muscles. These muscles allow the body to move up and down in a smooth motion. As a result of the movement, dolphins move forward through the water.

Dolphins swim differently from fish. While fish will move their bodies from side to side to propel themselves forward, dolphins move their bodies up and down to be able to swim.

The strength of the tail determines how fast the dolphin will swim. If the dolphin moves its tail quicker, it will glide through the water more quickly. Dolphins use the tail fluke to control their direction while swimming. Dolphins need precise control over their direction to navigate, and they achieve this by adjusting the angle and orientation of their tail flukes during each stroke. By tilting the fluke slightly to the left or right, or by varying the degree of the upward or downward movement during the stroke, they are able to steer in any direction.

Dolphins also use their head to change direction as well. They will swim up by tilting their head to swim toward the water’s surface, and down to dive downwards.


Dolphins have a layer of fat called blubber which assists them in becoming buoyant. This buoyancy is primarily due to the blubber layer, which has a lower density than water. As a result, dolphins can effortlessly float at or near the water’s surface, conserving energy and reducing the effort required to stay afloat. This buoyant quality also contributes to their streamlined hydrodynamics, allowing them to glide smoothly through the water with minimal resistance.

Another crucial function of blubber is its role in helping dolphins resurface rapidly. The ability to float enables them to get to the surface quicker before they run out of air. Dolphins are mammals and need to breathe oxygen from the air. 

The buoyancy provided by blubber allows them to ascend quickly, minimizing the time spent at deeper depths where they might use more energy. This rapid ascent ensures that they can take a breath and return to their underwater activities efficiently.

Did you know there are 16 species of dolphins in North America? Find out what they are here.

How Do Dolphins Swim So Fast?

Recent research has unraveled the mystery of how dolphins swim at remarkable speeds, a question that has puzzled scientists since the 1930s. Marine biologist Frank Fish of West Chester University in Pennsylvania, along with a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, shed light on this topic.

The study involved two retired Navy dolphins, Puka and Primo, swimming through air bubbles. By observing how these bubbles moved in response to the dolphins’ movements, researchers concluded that a dolphin’s tail or fluke possesses the capability to generate sufficient thrust for high-speed swimming.

This revelation highlights the fluke’s role as an adaptable and crucial component in enabling dolphins to maintain excellent swimming abilities across a wide range of speeds, with the dolphins able to control fluke stiffness by adjusting tendon tension in their tails.

Can Dolphins Swim Backwards? 

Among all the diverse species of dolphins that inhabit our oceans and rivers, the Amazon River dolphin is the only species capable of swimming backward.

When they swim in reverse, it’s often to catch their prey. The Amazon River dolphin, also known as the Boto or Pink River dolphin, resides in the intricate waterways of the Amazon Basin. In these densely vegetated and sometimes murky environments, swimming backward can provide them with a distinct advantage.

Their ability to reverse their swimming direction allows them to navigate through tight spaces, and intricate underwater vegetation, and potentially surprise their prey. By swimming backward, they can methodically explore these complex habitats while minimizing the risk of becoming entangled or disoriented in the underwater foliage.

If you want more information on why dolphins jump out of the water, I have written an article. You can find it here.


Do Dolphins Swim Upside Down? 

While it’s a less common behavior among dolphins, some species do swim upside down, and the Commerson’s dolphin is notably one of them.

Commerson’s dolphins exhibit an unconventional swimming pattern, often opting for erratic and unpredictable movements rather than straightforward, linear swims. This unusual behavior is closely tied to their feeding habits. These dolphins have the remarkable ability to feed while swimming upside down, which provides them with distinct advantages in capturing prey.

One of the key advantages of swimming upside down is the element of surprise. By approaching prey from below, they can effectively trap their quarry between themselves and the water’s surface. This positioning allows them to create a barrier that prevents prey from escaping.

Swimming upside down also grants Commerson’s dolphins enhanced visibility of their prey. With their eyes positioned above their mouths, this orientation allows them to closely monitor and track potential meals swimming above them.


Why Do Dolphins Swim Alone? 

It is rare to see dolphins alone, as they often travel in the company of others in large pods. However, sometimes, dolphins swim alone when traveling or migrating.

Swimming to the water’s surface is a strategic move employed by dolphins to minimize the energy expended while swimming. When submerged, the water’s friction can significantly impede their movement. By frequently returning to the surface, dolphins conserve precious energy resources. This practice allows them to maximize their efficiency while swimming, a crucial aspect of their daily lives.

Coming to the surface helps dolphins orient themselves to their surroundings. The surface provides a unique vantage point from which they can assess the water’s conditions, including temperature, current patterns, and the presence of potential threats or prey. This behavior aids in maintaining spatial awareness, which is vital for their survival and social interactions.

How Deep Do Dolphins Dive?

While our knowledge of the diving depths of dolphins is limited due to the relatively few species that have been extensively studied, there are some remarkable insights into the capabilities of certain dolphin species, particularly the bottlenose dolphin found in the United States. These studies have revealed their extraordinary ability to explore extreme underwater depths.

Among the dolphins that have undergone thorough investigation, the bottlenose dolphin has emerged as a species capable of remarkable deep-sea excursions. Records from these studies indicate that bottlenose dolphins can dive to staggering depths of up to 300 meters, equivalent to approximately 990 feet. This astonishing feat was documented in 1965 through the remarkable exploits of Tuffy, a bottlenose dolphin with a unique role as a member of the US Navy’s specialized team.

Tuffy’s exceptional abilities extended beyond mere depth exploration. He was extensively trained to serve as a vital asset in underwater missions, demonstrating remarkable intelligence and adaptability. One of his primary functions was locating lost divers and assisting them in returning safely to the surface. Additionally, Tuffy played a crucial role in conveying messages and delivering essential tools between the underwater habitat known as Sealab II, positioned 200 feet (approximately 60 meters) below the ocean’s surface, and the world above.

Want to know why dolphins swim alongside boats? Find out here in an article I have written.

References And Further Reading

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises – Carwardine, M.

Mark Carwardine’s Guide to Whale Watching in North America – Carwardine, M.

Whales, dolphins, and seals  – A field guide to the world’s marine mammals – Hadoram Shirihai, Jarrett, B., Graeme Cresswell, and Kirwan

The illustrated Encyclopedia of Whales and Dolphins – T. Martin

Walker’s mammals of the world – R.M. Nowak and E.P. Walker

The Smithsonian book of North American mammals – D.E. Wilson