Top 8 Fastest Water Animals

Written by Dana Mayor
Updated: June 8, 2023
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Key Points

  • While water is much denser than air, certain sea creatures have evolved to move at speed through it.
  • Their methods vary, including oily secretions, aerodynamic forms, specialized muscles, and unique scales.
  • Some are even capable of imitating winged predators in search of prey while others are actually capable of taking to the air themselves if only for a while.
Pilot whales are actually a species of dolphin and rank right behind the orca as the second-largest dolphin species in existence.

As the fastest animal on land, the incredible metabolisms and honed musculature of the cheetah allow them to hit maximum speeds of at least 61 miles per hour and to accelerate to that speed in just three seconds. As the fastest animal in the sky, peregrine falcons can achieve speeds of 240 miles per hour in the state of free fall they achieve while diving after prey.

Comparatively, it can seem as if aquatic animals might have trouble competing. You might be surprised. The higher density of water is enough of an impediment, but the animal kingdom continues to surprise. The fastest water animals have spent millions of years developing aerodynamic and expertly designed bodies in an arms race of predator vs. prey. But whether they’re the hunter or the presumed dinner, these animals employ a variety of different forms of mobility to navigate through the water. Here’s everything you’d ever want to know about the 8 fastest water animals.

#8. Bluefin Tuna: The Most Endangered Fast Fish

Top Speed: 43 Miles Per Hour

Fastest Water Animals
Their specialized body shape, fins, and scales enable some species of tuna to swim as fast as 43 miles per hour.


The typical bluefin tuna can weigh up to 1,500 pounds — but the exceptional engineering that’s gone into their body ensures that they make the most of that weight. Their physiology resembles that of a submarine torpedo, with retractable fins that allow them to maximize their aerodynamics and front-facing eyes that transform them into terrifying predators. This speed helps them chase prey like eels and mackerel, but it, unfortunately, hasn’t kept them safe from predation themselves. Sharks and killer whales constitute two of the few genuine threats to the bluefin tuna, but their biggest threat is easily humans. Aggressive fishing practices have caused their population to dwindle to roughly 1.6 million.

There are actually three different bluefin tuna species, and you can discover more about them here.

#7. Flying Fish: A Fast Fish With Great Airtime

Top Speed: 43 Miles Per Hour

Fastest Water Animals
Flying Fish have the remarkable ability to build up speed, leap out of the water, and glide through the air, sometimes at distances of more than a thousand feet with the right tailwind, to escape their predators.

© bowman

Considering that the flying fish’s predators are some of the fastest and deadliest in the water — including dolphins, marlins, and tuna — it makes sense that they’d need to adapt their own ability to achieve high speeds. But their unique physiological design goes one step further by allowing them to briefly abandon the water altogether. The developed pectoral muscles of these fish and their unique wing shape allow them to glide over the surface of the water in much the same way that flying squirrels do. With enough acceleration, flying fish can clear distances surpassing 1,000 yards. It’s a tactic that’s apparently successful, as there are currently over 70 species of flying fish in existence.

Flying fish are typically found in tropical and subtropical waters, and you can learn more about their habits here.

#6. Mako Shark: The World’s Fastest Shark

Top Speed: 46 Miles Per Hour

Fastest Water Animals
One major factor in how mako sharks are able to move so fast is the unique structure of their skin, especially around the flank and fin regions of their bodies.

© De Maddalena

Jaws may have made you scared to get into the water, but the mako shark might actually be more frightening than the titular great white shark. Their ability to reach top speeds of nearly 50 miles per hour is thanks to bodies that are designed quite similarly to tuna fish. Bluefin tuna is actually a preferred meal for the mako shark, which possesses muscles near the backbone of the shark that can operate like a piston and let this shark achieve some incredibly high-speed acceleration. But they have another secret weapon as well: uniquely designed scales that reduce water resistance as they swim.

You can discover more about makos and the various other shark species here.

#5. Pilot Whale: The Fastest Sea Mammal

Top Speed: 47 Miles Per Hour

Fastest Water Animals
Pilot whales are among the largest of the oceanic dolphins, exceeded in size only by the orca.


As is the case with killer whales, pilot whales are actually a species of dolphin — and rank right behind the orca as the second-largest dolphin species in existence.

Known as Globicephala, i.e., Latin for “round head”, their bulbous heads, as well as their curved dorsal fins, are their main distinguishing features.

Pilot whales can be found in coastal waters or far out to sea. A family-oriented species, they hang around their mothers for life, regardless of gender, and older females help younger nieces nurse and care for their young.

While these aquatic mammals can reach weights approaching 3,000 pounds, they also use their strong sense of acceleration for deepwater hunting. In the same way that a falcon will dive for its prey, pilot whales will plunge over 3,000 feet beneath the surface of the sea in pursuit of giant squid. This is atypical of whales and dolphins that hunt in deep waters, as operating at slower speeds is usually a more efficient way of conserving oxygen.

Pilot whales aren’t the only large dolphins in existence, and you can learn more about their brethren here.

#4. Mahi-Mahi: A Delicious Speedster

Top Speed: 57 Miles Per Hour

Fastest Water Animals
Mahi-mahi (also known as the common dolphinfish or dorado) are some of the most impressive swimmers of the ocean.



Found throughout the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean, mahi-mahi can use their incredible speeds to cross nearly 2,000 miles in the course of a month. And while these fish may be fast swimmers, they’re also fast growers. The typical mahi-mahi can live for seven years, but they achieve sexual maturity in just three months. During this period, they can grow anywhere from 1.5 to 3 inches per week. These social fish employ their speed not just to avoid prey but also to complete their extensive mating migrations. Fortunately, these prodigious growth rates allow the mahi-mahi to maintain comfortable populations despite being one of the more prized fishes for eating. Also known as the common dolphinfish, the mahi-mahi can ultimately grow to weigh as much as 50 pounds.

#3. Swordfish: Streamlined For Speed

Top Speed: 60 Miles Per Hour

Fastest Water Animals
With a hydrodynamic rapier for a nose and over 1,000 pounds of fin-pumping muscle, the swordfish can reach speeds of over 60 miles per hour —making it one of the fastest fish on Earth.


The pointed bill sported by the swordfish can constitute nearly half of its overall body length, and it’s also an effective weapon for hunting. But rather than using its trademark sword to spear potential prey, the swordfish chases its ocean prey and slashes them to slow them down. Few fish species could keep away from this speedy fish even without that deadly weapon, but their exceptional sense of speed is achieved through an unusual evolutionary adaptation — natural oils.

A gland positioned on the swordfish’s face actually extracts a greasy substance that makes them more hydrodynamic and capable, hunters. That’s not the only strange adaptation in their face either. Organs positioned by their eyes keep them warm while also improving their vision. The speed and ferocity of swordfish ensure that they have few predators apart from humans. Mako sharks and killer whales are functionally their only reliable threats in the ocean.

#2. Marlin: The Contender For Fastest Water Animal

Top Speed: 68 Miles Per Hour

Fastest Water Animals
Marlins are among the fastest marine swimmers, reaching ~110 km/h (68 mph) in short bursts.


The four species of marlin are recognized as some of the fastest swimmers on earth, but they also come equipped for endurance. These fish will typically swim at a steady clip of 10 miles per hour, but they can reach speeds up to seven times that when pursuing prey. Like the swordfish, the marlin’s sharp bill helps it slice more readily through both the water and through smaller fish. The fastest out of all the marlin species is the black marlin, thanks in part to their deeper bodies and their wider bills. Oddly enough, black marlins are missing one speed-enhancing feature that appears in all other marlin species: retractable dorsal fins that help them minimize resistance while swimming through the water. How natural selection bred this feature out of the black marlin is an open mystery.

There are plenty of characteristics of the black marlin that aren’t so mysterious, and you can dig deeper here.

#1. Sailfish: The Defending Champion for Fastest Water Animal

Top Speed: 68 Miles Per Hour

Fastest water animals
At top speeds of nearly 70 mph, the sailfish is widely considered the fastest fish in the ocean.

©A Cotton Photo/

While the actual speed of the black marlin and sailfish are too close to determine a clear winner, both of these fastest water animals are billfish with bodies designed for carving their way through the water with the least amount of resistance. But the addition of a massive dorsal fin that resembles a ship’s sail could give the sailfish a slight edge in terms of versatility. This sail serves an important role in regulating body temperature, but it would be a liability in terms of speed, as the sail is believed to increase this fish’s drag by as much as 18% when deployed. Fortunately, the sail can be retracted and extended at will. By extending their dorsal fin, sailfish can stop more quickly — ensuring that their speed isn’t a liability when chasing after fish that may be lacking in raw top speed but have an abundance of maneuverability.

You can learn more about how the sailfish differs from the similarly designed swordfish here.

Summary Of The Top 8 Fastest Water Animals

RankWater AnimalSpeed (MPH)
5Pilot whale47
6Mako Tuna46
7Flying fish43
8Bluefin tuna43
Summary Table Of The Top 8 Fastest Water Animals

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

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About the Author

I love good books and the occasional cartoon. I am also endlessly intrigued with the beauty of nature and find hummingbirds, puppies, and marine wildlife to be the most magical creatures of all.

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