Dolphins are incredibly fast, intelligent, and emotional aquatic mammals. These animals are known for their capacity to learn, desire to play, and ability to swim amazingly fast. Exactly how fast can a dolphin swim? The answer depends on which species of dolphin, and there are many! In fact, there are 49 extant species of dolphins and porpoises from six different families. An extant species means a living species, one that has not gone extinct. With 38 species, the oceanic dolphin family (Delphinidae) is the largest family of dolphins. The oceanic dolphin family also contains the two fastest species of dolphin. The common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) is the fastest, with a top speed of 37mph. Orcas (Orcinus orca), also called killer whales, are the second-fastest species with a top speed of 35mph. The common dolphin is also the most abundant species of cetacean, the infraorder that includes dolphins, porpoises, and whales.
In this article, we dive deeper into the question of how fast dolphins can swim and explore other interesting facts about them. This guide covers four species of dolphins: the common dolphin, the common bottlenose dolphin, the orca, and Hector’s dolphin.
How Fast Can Dolphins Swim
Dolphins are able to swim fast and for long distances because their bodies are hydrodynamic. In fact, the skin of dolphins has evolved to reduce drag and friction in water. Dolphins shed their outermost layer of skin every two hours, and as a result their skin is incredibly smooth at all times. The fastest dolphins in the world are common dolphins and orcas, with top speeds of 37 mph and 35 mph, respectively. However, dolphins cannot maintain these incredible speeds for very long. Like humans, the speed dolphins can comfortably maintain for longer distances is much lower than their top speed. For longer distances, dolphins typically swim around 8-10 mph.
In addition to being speedy, dolphins are also incredibly acrobatic. Dolphins are known for both breaching, which means jumping out of the water, and lobtailing, which means hitting their tails onto the surface of the water.
There are 38 extant species of oceanic dolphins, six extant species of porpoises, and five extant species of river dolphins. In this section, we will explore four dolphin species and facts that make them unique.
Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis)
Common dolphins, as their name suggests, are incredibly common. There are around six million common dolphins in the world, making them the most abundant cetacean. Science has gone back and forth on whether these dolphins are one species or two distinct ones. At first, common dolphins were considered one species. Then, in 1994, they were separated into two species: the short-beaked common dolphin and the long-beaked common dolphin. However, since new research has emerged, the common dolphin is now categorized as one species and divided into four subspecies.
Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncates)
The common bottlenose dolphin is generally the most easily recognizable species of dolphin. They are widespread, living all around the world except in polar water, and they also commonly live in captivity in marine parks. As a result, when a person imagines a dolphin, it will often be a bottlenose dolphin. These dolphins are highly social and intelligent. Incredibly, common bottlenose dolphins are the only cetaceans who have been observed to use tools. In Shark Bay, Australia, these dolphins wear sponges on their beaks to protect them from the sharp coral as they forage in the reefs.
Orca (Orcinus orca)
Orcas are the largest members of the oceanic dolphin (Delphinidae) family. These huge creatures can grow up to 26 feet long and weigh more than six tons (12,000 pounds). Although orcas are commonly known as killer whales, they are actually dolphins. Orcas live in oceans all over the world, including the Arctic and Antarctic. They also have incredibly long lifespans, living up to 90 years. Orcas are highly intelligent and have complex social structures, comparable to primates and elephants. The social structures of orcas are matriarchal, and all orcas live with their mothers for the duration of their lives. Orcas have been kept in captivity for breeding and human entertainment since the 1960s, but this practice is becoming increasingly controversial due to ethical concerns about separating the animals from their family groups.
Hector’s Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori)
Hector’s dolphin is the smallest dolphin species, with a maximum length of 5 feet 3 inches and maximum weight of 132 pounds. These dolphins are endemic to New Zealand, meaning they do not live anywhere else in the world. Hector’s dolphins are an endangered species, the subspecies Maui’s dolphin is critically endangered. The main threat to Hector’s dolphins is fishing, and conservation efforts are focusing on banning certain fishing practices that threaten them.
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