Top 10 Fastest Animals in the Ocean

10 Fastest Animals in the Ocean

In the animal kingdom, both predators and prey species utilize one of two things to survive—stealth or speed. Both on land and beneath the sea, those who master either evasion or capture through these methods will thrive, living to reproduce and achieve the unspoken directive of their species. While stealth—through camouflage or evasion—is common, perhaps the most thrilling feature of many of the animals we find in the ocean are the fantastic speeds that can not only be achieved, but often maintained for long periods of time.Speed represents a tremendous expenditure, an investment of energy that must be replenished via consumed calories. Therefore, any observer should marvel not only at the existence of this trait, but also at the bounty of an ecosystem and the ability of individuals to draw their needs from that system. Their existence is a reflection of the fantastic diversity and abundance of our oceans. Here are ten of the fastest aquatic animals—both predator and prey.

10.  The Orca or Killer Whale

Killer Whales or Orcas are among the fastest animals in the Ocean
Killer Whales or Orcas are among the fastest animals in the Ocean

Orcas are not related to whales at all, other than being ocean-dwelling mammals. Rather, they are close kin to dolphins. While it was believed that they were a single species, recent research indicates that they may, in fact, be comprised of several different species of Orca. You can find them in every ocean in the world, though they tend to favor the colder waters around Antarctica and the North Atlantic or Pacific. The only predator they possess is humankind. While there’s a deadly standoff between the two species, Orcas proliferate in the wild, and have an incredible life span. The males usually live as long as sixty or seventy years, while the females—who are excluded from the sometimes-violent competition for mates—may live a hundred years or more in the wild.

They’ve been observed reaching speeds of around 30 miles per hour, although some Orcas may utilize much greater bursts of speed, based upon their favored prey. Resident pods in the Pacific Northwest have shown a decided preference for salmonids—specifically, Chinook salmon. This presents a conflict with the goals of companies that rely on high yields of salmon for profit. Several communities of killer whale seem to favor beach and ice floe ambush approaches, snatching seals and walruses or even sea birds from their resting places. Others, located in the Southern Hemisphere, take up the challenge of hunting sharks in the open sea, as well as feeding on species of rays and other fish abundant in the cold southern waters.

9.  The Bonito

The Bonito, don't let his size fool you.  The Bonito is a speed demon!
The Bonito, don’t let his size fool you. The Bonito is a speed demon!

While this species of small mackerel-like fish (Sarda sarda) has been observed leaping at speeds of 40 miles per hour, the true wonder is that it is capable of swimming for long periods of time at 30 miles per hour. That makes it truly unique, given that the migration speeds of many fish of similar size are slower. It regulates the activation of fast-twitch muscles—used for bursts of speed—and slow twitch muscles—needed for long-term endurance—better than many vertebrate species.

The Atlantic Bonito spawns in tropical waters around the equator. While this may surprise some, who know it to be a fish harvested from the waters of the Black and Mediterranean Seas and the northern Atlantic waters off the east coast of North America or Europe, there’s a logic to this pattern. When Bonitos are first spawned, they are tiny—measuring only 1/8 of an inch. They require enormous amounts of food to put on the mass essential to success in the wild Atlantic waters. Those resources are abundant in the perpetually warm waters around the equator.

There are several varieties of Bonito found throughout both hemispheres, the Pacific Bonito—known as Skipjack Tuna—that schools primarily along the coasts of South America being the second most popular of these fish. However,separate species have been classified in the western Pacific and in the waters around New Zealand. Because all species of Bonito are fully mature at four years of age, they are a popular choice for fisheries of every type and level of sophistication—from traditional weirs and line fishing to highly industrialized net dragging operations.

8. The Flying Fish

Flying Fish are ridiculously fast fish
Flying Fish are ridiculously fast fish

This fish earned its name by utilizing evasion as a way to escape its predators. It bodily leaps from the ocean, reaching a speed of about 35 miles per hour and a recorded gliding time of up to thirty seconds. This can take them as far as 200 meters from their point of exit from the water, which may be far enough to escape pursuit or confuse predators. Fishermen favor these types of fish, but due to their sheer numbers in the wild, none of the 40 different species of flying fish are listed as endangered. While they can be found foraging seasonally along the outskirts of warm water reef complexes, flying fish are primarily pelagic, and favor tropical or subtropical open waters around the equator.

Subsisting mainly on a diet of plankton and small marine life, flying fish are schooling fish that hunt primarily at night. While some sources may find this counter-intuitive, given the ease with which the fish are drawn to light sources, this actually makes perfect sense. Many of the plankton and marine resources the fish favor are slightly luminescent, especially by moonlight, making them easily seen in the darkness. This also provides cover, given the coloration of the fish—blue or grey on top, silvery white on the bottom—so that they are not easily seen from above or below as they feed on the clouds of marine flora.

Flying fish generally mate during the autumn or spring, when currents are at their weakest. Females will deposit their eggs on the surface, attached to flotsam, and males will fertilize the eggs. Schools at this time can number in the millions, and constitute a major resource for species that feed on the fish. Because they only tend to live about five years in the wild, their flesh is prized for its purity—free of the heavy metals often found in longer-lived species.

7. The Yellowfin Tuna

The Yellowfin Tuna is real speedster
The Yellowfin Tuna is real speedster

This tuna is a member of the same family as the Bonito and schools in waters of both northern and southern hemispheres. Reaching an average weight of nearly 400 pounds in less than eight years, these schooling fish are popular with fishermen. Pelagic in preference, the Yellowfin is designed for long distance migrations and sustained speed. It’s been clocked at speeds of nearly 50 miles per hour for prolonged periods of time. A biological design feature makes this possible. By resting their pectoral fins in special grooves along the sides of their bodies, they present a streamlined profile to the current. This helps to reduce drag, so that their torpedo-shaped bodies cut through the water with greater ease and less loss of energy.

While they seem to favor squid and crustaceans, Yellowfins are not picky eaters. They will often forage on whatever is readily available in their vicinity. Because they put on weight quickly and grow to a respectable size of about 200 kilograms, they’re a favorite target for fishing companies. They tend to school strongly and can be found in the open tropical or subtropical waters of oceans, though they avoid the more closed environments of the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

They have been placed on a list of possibly endangered species—meaning that if culling continues apace, their numbers will soon be depleted beyond their ability to sufficiently spawn replacements. In the 1950s, purse seines were used to harvest massive numbers of Yellowfin, by exploiting the tendency for dolphins to travel with the schools. The careless tactics of fishers led to hundreds of thousands of dolphins drowning each year, due to net entanglement. Hence, both legislation prohibiting the death of dolphins and the development of dolphin safe nets was put forward several decades later.

6. The Pilot Whale

The Pilot Whale is one fast sea mammal
The Pilot Whale is one fast sea mammal

These ocean mammals are also closely related to dolphins, much like the killer whale. They exhibit advanced intelligence and social skills, making them the unfortunate targets of human whaling endeavors. Although they’re known to feast upon cuttlefish, octopus, and small fish, their favorite prey is squid. They also have fewer teeth than other members of the dolphin family—40 to 48 as opposed to the usual 120. Scientists believe that this may be an adaptation to their feeding niche—because they subsist almost exclusively on squid and related animals.

Their highly social nature is evident in the size of their living groups—up to 90 related individuals who work together to subsist—which may be found in every ocean of the world. Working together, they track and corral their prey before feasting. Because they must often travel long distances, and require bursts of speed to close in on prey species, they have been observed diving to incredible depths at speeds that seem counterintuitive. This is significant when you consider that, although both air and water are technically classified as liquid mediums, water is 750 times denser than air.

While they have been clocked at 47 miles per hour when leaping, what’s truly astonishing is that they perform bursts of speed when they close in on their prey at great depths—read that as up to 3200 feet beneath the surface. Researchers from La Laguna University in Tenerife tagged 23 short finned Pilot Whales with suction cup monitors to discover their behavior so far below the surface, and found to their amazement that the whales behaved more like cheetahs. The researchers were able to record average speeds of 19.2 feet per second, with amazing an 28.8 feet per second speed achieved just before the whales reached the deepest parts of their dives. So while these incredible speeds are not sustained, they are, nonetheless, amazing.

5. The Mako Shark

The Mako Shark is the Usain Bolt of Sharks
The Mako Shark is the Usain Bolt of Sharks

Much like their larger cousins, the Great Whites, Mako sharks are found in waters all over the world, though they are particularly well-adapted to surviving in cold water. They are known as pelagic species, which means they prefer deep ocean waters free of clutter for their travels. And travel they do, with a regular cruising speed of around 35 miles per hour, they cover migration ranges of more than a thousand miles in only a month. However, when they are hunting or feel threatened, they can execute bursts of speed in excess of 60 miles per hour. While they aren’t especially picky about what they eat, they seem to prefer schooling fish—tuna, swordfish, or herring.

Descended from a Cretaceous Era giant of the sea, the Mako of today tops out at around 500 pounds—and bears all the hallmarks of evolutionary success. They have a compact, streamlined design that makes speed on demand a possibility. Large eyes, which are even larger in the rare longfin variant of the species, render them highly successful hunters. One other evolutionary marvel that they share with Great Whites is an endothermic circulatory system—that means warm-blooded. This enables them to distribute and maintain a stable body heat even in the coldest water. While it is a mechanism employed by several fish throughout the world, it is a characteristic that has been honed to perfection by these ultimate predators of the sea.

4. The Bone Fish

Bonefish can boogie.  They're really fast
Bonefish can boogie. They’re really fast

This fish can be found in most tropical and subtropical shallow waters. It’s so named for its large number of fine bones, but it’s also one of the fastest shallow bottom fish in the world. Unlike its faster friends, the pelagic fishes, such as tuna and mackerel, this fish moves up into mud flats to feed during high tide, and has an air bladder that allows it to breathe easy during these trips. They tend to enjoy crustaceans and other creatures found in less than twelve inches of water that they crush with powerful pharyngeal teeth.

While they can live as long as 19 years, these fish are a favorite snack of both sharks and barracudas. That means they have a need for speed in order to escape capture. They can maintain flight speed of up to 40 miles per hour for long durations. Another safety tactic is their small school size—only about 100 gather together at any time, and each fish maintains a constant distance from its neighbors.

They range throughout the Caribbean Sea—as far north as the Carolinas and down as far as the lower reaches of Brazil in their Atlantic habitats. They can be found from Hawaii to Peru and up as far North as San Francisco Bay in the Pacific, but tend to shy away from ranging any farther from the equator. While they are often prized as game fish among sports enthusiasts—especially for their canny habits and maneuvers honed while outwitting natural predators—the flesh is incredibly bony. It is, therefore, not considered an important source of nutrition when other fish are available. Its other names also include bananafish, banana, and ladyfish.

3. The Barracuda

The Barracuda is a real mover.  Look how streamline this guy is.
The Barracuda is a real mover. Look how streamline this guy is.

Often called a King Fish or a Wahoo, this fish is a decidedly nasty customer. One of the most proficient predators in tropical and subtropical waters around the world, the barracuda reaches a top speed of 47 miles per hour. When paired with its distinctive and often unpredictable directional darting, what is a terror for fish is a delightful challenge for sport fishing enthusiasts. While they’re a pelagic or open-water species, they also make themselves quite at home among the formations of reefs.

In the tropics, snorkeling and diving parties are often warned to keep a sharp eye out for these unfriendly-looking fish. They aren’t in the habit of attacking humans, but they may be aggressive if they feel threatened. While they do hunt among the reefs, more often, they can be found hanging in the midst of a current, looking for all the world as if they’re taking a break. Tending to favor a diverse diet of other pelagic species and squid, they have few natural predators. However, several species of sharks and larger predatory fish find them delicious.

One fascinating aspect of the barracuda’s development is that, while most individual specimens tend to slow in growth once they’ve reached about 66 inches in length, their weight is a different matter. Specimens that live in the warmer waters of equatorial oceans and seas tend to be less robust. Weight appears to be dependent upon how cold the water becomes—the heavier specimens living in the chillier northern waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea. As well, while they are fully mature at two years of age, researchers believe that they may live to be six years old or more in ideal conditions.

2. The Swordfish


The Swordfish.  Fast and dangerousa a real double threat.
The Swordfish. Fast and dangerousa a real double threat.

A close relative of marlins, though a separate family and distinct species, the swordfish is hunted both for sport and as an expensive prestige food in many Western cultures. While these fish can be found in temperate waters around the world, including the Mediterranean Sea, heavy over harvesting has led protective agencies to place them on a list of endangered species. Indiscriminate harvesting practices have also contributed to depredations of other marine species not being directly culled—such as sea turtles.

However, while stiff fines are often appended to the catching of these fish, they still represent a strong draw for sports fishing. They have been recorded as leaping in excess of 50 miles per hour, and swimming steadily at speeds as much as 60 miles per hour. Like their much larger friends in the billfish group, they tend to prefer open water, and migrate to warmer climates during the cold season. However, unlike Marlins, they will dive up to 2,000 feet in pursuit of prey, and their swordlike bill is used more to thrash than to pierce prey.

While they once averaged 1,200 pounds in weight, growing up to 14 feet in length—the Pacific variety being the largest of the many locational variants of swordfish—years of over fishing has reduced the size of the average catch. They generally weigh no more than 200 pounds at the very best—often less—and are seldom more than six feet long. In addition to human over fishing, they continue to be occasionally hunted by Orcas and sharks. Even large tuna will sometimes prey on the immature, smaller individuals.

1. The Marlin

The Marlin is the fastest animals in the Ocean.
The Marlin is the fastest animals in the Ocean.

Although the Blue Marlin, a denizen of the Atlantic, may be the most recognizable member of this group of species, there are several that comprise a worldwide population of billfish. Marlins in general are characterized by the elongated bill, which they use to spear prey, and a rigid or semi-retractable dorsal fin that may come forward to form a type of sail or crest. They’re actually closely related to trout, and may have also presented freshwater or estuary species in the past. However, today, the Blue Marlin and the much larger Black Marlin are the two largest groups in the billfish group. The Blue Marlin can grow to nearly seven feet in length and weigh up to 260 pounds. The Black Marlin grows to 16 feet and can weight as much as 1,500 pounds. Both species average a speed of about 68 miles per hour.

Marlins are surface pelagic fish—meaning that they prefer the open ocean, but stick to the top levels of the water, and rarely dive very far for their prey. Because they also prefer to spawn and live in warmer waters, they do seasonally migrate from cooler subtropical locations closer to the equator as the seasons turn. Although the species matures relatively swiftly, the typical sexual dimorphism—when the male is larger than the female of a species—is reversed. Fully mature females can be as much as three or four times the size of their male counterparts. How much sport fishing and commercial depredations have to do with this phenomenon is unclear, though it does appear to be a trend innate to the species.

Such intense speeds are amazing anywhere, but when you consider that these animals attain and maintain these velocities in an environment with a density far greater than air, it becomes phenomenal. As our technology advances, scientists are able to observe the once-secret behaviors of animals such as the Pilot Whale, diving deep below the surface, and exhibiting behavior no one ever suspected. As well, we are now able to obtain a more accurate idea of how fast species travel beneath the waves, rather than only when they leap above them. Consider this: we know more about other planets in our solar system than we do about our own oceans and the animals that inhabit them. With a better understanding and the help of advanced technology, we will be able to study marine populations as never before, to preserve them and understand them, and well as utilize them more responsibly.