Can Hippos Swim? The Answer Will Surprise You

Written by Colby Maxwell
Updated: March 21, 2023
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Hippos are almost always pictured in water, but does that mean they can swim? It’s almost a given that hippos can swim, at least in the public eye, but that may not actually be the case! Today, we are going to take a look at these water cows and determine if they’ve been pulling a watery ruse this entire time. Let’s find out: Can hippos swim? The answer will probably surprise you!

Can Hippos Swim?

Can Hippos Swim? The Answer Will Surprise You

Hippos, contrary to popular belief, cannot swim.


Hippos are known for their massive size, powerful jaws, and aggressive behavior. However, many people are often surprised to learn that hippos cannot swim in the traditional sense.

Despite their aquatic disposition, hippos are so dense that they cannot float, and they must walk or run along the bottom of the riverbed to move in the water. Essentially, the sheer CHUNK of a hippo keeps it from properly swimming in the water. Its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness! Nevertheless, hippos are well adapted to their semi-aquatic lifestyle, with eyes and nostrils on top of their heads for easy breathing and underwater observation.

When you learn how big a hippo is, it starts to make a lot more sense. Hippos are massive creatures, and their weight can vary depending on their age, gender, and health. Adult female hippos typically weigh between 1,400 and 2,500 kilograms (3,100 to 5,500 pounds), while adult males can weigh between 1,800 and 4,500 kilograms (4,000 to 9,900 pounds). The heaviest recorded hippo weighed approximately 4,500 kilograms (9,900 pounds). For a creature that can weigh close to 10,000 lbs, swimming is probably off the table.

Hippos in the Water

Can Hippos Swim? The Answer Will Surprise You

Just because a hippo can’t swim doesn’t mean they aren’t nimble in the water!

©Gaston Piccinetti/

Just because a hippo can’t swim doesn’t mean that they aren’t extremely capable while they are in the water. In shallow water, using their powerful legs to propel themselves forward, they can walk or run. In deeper water, they bounce along the bottom or swim short distances by kicking their legs and gliding around like a bobbing beachball. In the water, a hippo can reach around 5 mph, but this depends on the depth of the water and how motivated they can be.

When they don’t want to move around, they can hold their breath for up to five minutes and may sit on the bottom of the riverbed. They will often sit on the bottom of riverbeds or lakes to conserve energy or escape danger. In fact, they can sleep in the water and have a subconscious ability to bounce to the top and breathe when they need it, only to submerge again, all while sleeping!

Hippos Outside the Water

Hippos may be well-adapted to life in the water, but they also spend a lot of time on land. These massive creatures can run surprisingly fast, reaching speeds of up to 30 kilometers (19 miles) per hour when they need to. Despite their weight and size, they are agile and are formidable defenders, in both the water and on land.

They most commonly venture on land at sunset as they leave the water to graze. While grazing, they can consume up to 110 pounds of grass each night. This grazing is essential to their survival, as they require a lot of vegetation to maintain their massive bodies, and grass isn’t all that nutrient dense. When they are on land, they will often poop in select areas known as “dung middens” in order to mark their territorial boundaries around the water.

Hippos secrete a reddish, oily substance from their skin that acts as a natural sunscreen, protecting them from the harsh African sun. This secretion also helps to keep their skin moist and prevent dehydration while out of the water. This oil is mistakenly thought to be pink hippo milk, which is fun, but not true.

A Dangerous Animal, Regardless of the Location

Can Hippos Swim? The Answer Will Surprise You

Hippos will aggressively defend their territory on land or in water.


Despite being herbivores, hippos are known to be extremely aggressive and territorial, both in and out of the water. Their sheer size and strength make them one of Africa’s most dangerous animals. In fact, the likelihood of dying in a hippo encounter is higher than that of lions or sharks. Although the exact number of human deaths from hippos is unknown, it is probably around 3,000 a year. Even when humans are on boats, hippos can still attack and capsize the vessels, causing injury or death.

Are hippos cute? Absolutely. Are they incredibly dangerous? Maybe even more so!

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Martin Mecnarowski/

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About the Author

Colby is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering outdoors, unique animal stories, and science news. Colby has been writing about science news and animals for five years and holds a bachelor's degree from SEU. A resident of NYC, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone about what birds he saw at his local birdfeeder.

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