Discover How Fast Penguins Can Swim: Top Speeds and Interesting Facts!

Written by Stella Bouldin
Updated: October 18, 2023
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Penguins are aquatic acrobats. They slice through the water with astonishing speed. 

These speeds can vary among individual penguins and within a species. Other factors such as age, environment, and health also play a role in zipping through the water (just like for humans).

So, let’s dive into the world of these charismatic creatures and uncover the secrets of how fast penguins can swim.

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Where Can You Find Penguins?

Penguins are not just Antarctic dwellers. They inhabit diverse regions. From the icy Antarctic to the temperate Galápagos Islands, penguins adapt remarkably.

  • Antarctica: Emperor and Adélie penguins brave the harshest cold.
  • Galápagos Islands: The Galápagos penguin, the only species found north of the equator.
  • South Africa: African penguins grace the coastlines, thriving in warmer waters.

What Do Penguins Eat?

Penguins are skilled hunters. They feast on a diet of fish and krill. But the menu varies.

  • Fish: Sardines, anchovies, and lanternfish are popular choices.
  • Krill: These tiny shrimp-like crustaceans provide essential nutrients.
  • Squid: Some penguin species add squid to their diet for variety.

Speedsters: How Fast Penguins Can Swim

Emperor Penguin

The maximum speed of emperor penguins is between 6 to 8 mph, with an average speed of 2 to 3 mph. 

©Michel VIARD/ via Getty Images

Penguins are not just cute and cuddly; they’re speed demons underwater.

  • Top Speed: The gentoo penguin takes the lead, reaching speeds up to 22 miles per hour (35 km/h).
  • Aerodynamic Bodies: Streamlined bodies help reduce water resistance.
  • Strong Flippers: Powerful flippers propel them forward with precision.

King penguins have been recorded with a maximum swim speed of 7.6 mph, although they typically swim from 4 to 5 mph. 

Adélie penguins probably reach maximum burst speeds of 18 to 25 mph, but typically swim at about 4.9 mph.

The emperor penguin is the tallest and heaviest of all living penguin species and is endemic to Antarctica. Their maximum speeds are 6 to 8 mph, with an average speed of 2 to 3 mph. 

Here’s a table comparing different types of penguins with their average and top swimming speeds. 

Penguin SpeciesAverage Swimming Speed (km/h)Top Swimming Speed (km/h)
Emperor Penguin2-36-8
King Penguin1-26-10
Adélie Penguin3-510-12
Gentoo Penguin3-415-22
Chinstrap Penguin3-510-15
Macaroni Penguin3-515-24
Little Blue Penguin1-26-10
African Penguin2-312-20
Humboldt Penguin4-612-20
Galapagos Penguin2-36-8
Magellanic Penguin2-310-12

Individual penguins may swim slightly faster or slower depending on various factors, including age, health, and environmental conditions.

How Do Penguins Achieve Their Impressive Speeds?

This playful penguin colony is not shy; they swim in and around tourists in the waters of Tagus Cove on Isabela Island. The Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) are the only penguins found north of the equator; they are endemic to the Galapagos Islands. Photo was taken at Tagus Cove on Isabela Island

Penguins have perfected the art of underwater locomotion.

©Joanne Wastchak/ via Getty Images

Penguins have perfected the art of underwater locomotion.

  • Flippers: Short wings evolved into flippers, ideal for maneuverability.
  • Hydrodynamic Design: Their bodies are built for minimal drag, enabling swift travel.
  • Webbed Feet: Webbed feet act like rudders, aiding direction control.

Penguins and Their Unique Adaptations

These birds are champions of adaptation. They’ve developed some incredible strategies.

  • Countershading: Dark backs and white bellies provide camouflage from predators below.
  • Heat Retention: A dense layer of feathers trap warm air close to their bodies.
  • Salt Excretion: Glands near their eyes help expel excess salt, allowing them to drink seawater.

Penguins Are Social Birds

These birds have a knack for forming close-knit communities.

  • Colonies: Penguins gather in large colonies for safety and warmth.
  • Social Bonding: Mating pairs often engage in rituals to strengthen their bond.
  • Chick Care: Both parents share the responsibility of feeding and caring for their chicks.

Molting: A Tough Time for Penguins

Molting is a challenging period in a penguin’s life.

  • Feather Replacement: Penguins shed old feathers and grow new ones.
  • Vulnerable Phase: During molting, they can’t swim or hunt, relying on stored fat.

Penguin Predators: Life in the Food Chain

Gentoo penguin beach patterns; fleeing up slope, to the safety their colony; Magellanic penguin reflections, on wet sand; The Neck, Saunders Island, Falkland Islands

Penguins face constant threats from predators.

©Farjana.rahman/Shutterstock.com

Penguins face a constant battle against various predators.

  • Leopard Seals: These stealthy predators hunt penguins in the water.
  • Skua Birds: Skuas target penguin eggs and chicks.
  • Orcas: Killer whales are skilled hunters of penguins, too.

Penguin Species: Diversity at Its Best

Penguins aren’t a one-size-fits-all species. They come in various shapes and sizes.

  • Emperor Penguins: The largest of all, towering at about 4 feet (1.2 meters).
  • Little Blue Penguins: The smallest, standing at a mere 1 foot (30 centimeters).
  • King Penguins: Recognized by their vibrant orange neck patches.

Penguins’ Remarkable Mating Rituals

Mating rituals are a spectacle in the penguin world.

  • Gift Exchange: Male penguins often present pebbles to woo females.
  • Monogamy: Many penguin species form lifelong monogamous bonds.
  • Nest Building: Elaborate nests are constructed to protect eggs from the cold ground.

Penguins in Peril: Conservation Challenges

Penguins face significant threats to their survival.

  • Climate Change: Melting ice affects their hunting grounds and breeding sites.
  • Overfishing: Competition for food with the fishing industry puts pressure on penguin populations.
  • Oil Spills: Oil contamination harms penguins’ waterproof feathers and food sources.

Penguin Conservation Efforts

Numerous organizations work tirelessly to protect penguins.

  • Protected Reserves: Establishing marine reserves safeguards penguin habitats.
  • Research and Monitoring: Scientists track penguin populations and behavior.
  • Community Involvement: Engaging local communities in conservation efforts is crucial.

Penguins are more than just flightless birds. They are agile underwater athletes. Their remarkable adaptations allow them to thrive in some of the world’s harshest environments.

From their speedy underwater dashes to their elaborate mating rituals, penguins are truly captivating creatures. But they face growing challenges, particularly due to climate change.

To ensure the survival of these charming birds, we must continue to learn about and protect their habitats. Penguins are a testament to the beauty and diversity of the natural world, and it’s our responsibility to ensure they remain a part of it for generations to come.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © David Herraez Calzada/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Stella is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering travel and animals. She has over 20 years of professional writing experience. She holds a doctorate degree and several writing certifications. Stella is a digital nomad currently living in Mexico. As she has a passion for travel, she has also lived in China, S. Korea, Thailand, Kenya, and Ecuador in the past ten years. Stella has two rescue dogs, Paisley and Tinosa who travel with her around the world. Her hobbies include reading, quilting, and meeting new people.

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