How Fast Can a Shark Swim?

Speed depends on the type of shark

Shortfin Mako shark(Isurus oxyrichus)underwater,South Pacific
Darryl Torckler/The Image Bank/Getty Images

How fast can a shark swim? This question may pop into your mind as you calmly watch a shark video or more urgently as you are swimming or scuba diving and think you may have spotted a fin circling you. If you are fishing, you may wonder whether the shark will be able to outpace your boat.

Sharks are built for bursts of speed as they attack their prey, much like lions and tigers on land. They need to be able to swim fast enough to pursue their prey for short distances, then make the lunge for the kill. The speed of a shark also depends on the species. Smaller, streamlined species are capable of higher speeds than larger, bulkier sharks.

Swimming Speed of the Average Shark

The general rule of thumb is that sharks can cruise at about 5 mph (8 kph)—roughly the same speed as the fastest Olympic swimmer. If you're just a good swimmer, they have you beat. But often they are swimming around at a slower speed of about 1.5 mph (2.4 kph).

But these fish are predators. Sharks can swim much faster over short bursts when they are attacking prey. At these times, they can reach about 12 mph (20 kph), the speed of a running human on land. A person in the water facing a shark in serious attack mode has little chance of swimming fast enough to escape.

Although shark attacks on humans receive great publicity, the reality is that we are not a preferred food for sharks. Most attacks occur when a swimmer either looks or smells like a common prey species. Swimmers in black wetsuits in water where seals are found may be at some risk, as are spearfish divers carrying speared fish. It is relatively rare for sharks to attack a swimming human being, and even in cases of massive shipwrecks, later analysis usually shows that when sharks feed on humans, it is usually after they are dead.

Fastest Shark: The Shortfin Mako

In a race among different types of sharks, the shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) will be the winner. It is the cheetah of ocean-going predators. This robust, streamlined shark is reported to have been clocked at 31 mph (50 kph), although some sources say it can reach speeds as high as 60 mph (96.5 kph). This is a shark known to chase and catch even faster fish, such as the sailfish and swordfish, which can reach speeds more than 60 mph when leaping. The mako can also perform giant leaps of up to 20 feet (6 m) out of the water.

Researchers in New Zealand found that a young mako could accelerate from a dead stop to 100 feet (30.5 m) in just two seconds, which puts its speed at more than 60 mph over that brief lunge. Luckily, the mako is rarely encountered by swimmers and divers, as it normally lives far offshore. When it does encounter human beings, it rarely attacks.

Some predatory fish species such as the shortfin makos and great white sharks are able to conserve their metabolic heat in a manner unique to cold-blooded creatures. In essence, this means that they are not completely cold-blooded and can, therefore, generate the energy necessary for bursts of considerable speed.

Species' Swimming Speeds

Here are some speeds of some common shark species:

  • The great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is thought to have a top swimming speed of 25 mph (40 kph), perhaps with short bursts of 35 mph (56 kph). Their swimming speed is 10 times faster than the typical human swimmer.
  • The tiger shark (Galecerdo cuvier) achieves speeds of about 20 mph (32 kph).
  • The blue shark (Prionace glauca) has been clocked at 24.5 mph (39.4 kph).
  • The whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the largest of the sharks, is a fairly gentle giant that cruises at about 3 mph (4.8 kph) and is capable of short bursts of about 6 mph (9.7 kph). If you encounter one of these in the water, it's best to simply enjoy the rare experience.