Whale Movement: Can Whales Swim Backwards?

can whales swim backwards

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Whales in their present form began appearing about 30 million years ago and during this time they’ve adapted exceptionally well to life in the ocean.

They can be found in all oceans across the world and have useful navigation tools such as echolocation that helps them make sense of their surroundings.

Whales are exceptional swimmers that can dive to record-breaking depths in search of food and breach high out of the water in a spectacular display. But “can whales swim backwards?

For the most part, whales can NOT swim backwards. However, there are two unique species that have mastered underwater gymnastics and CAN swim backwards.

Let’s take a closer look…

Can All Whales Swim Backwards?

Very few whales have the acrobatic skills needed to swim backwards. As far as we know, there is only TWO whale species that have mastered this ability.

Some whale species are more acrobatic than others, breaching out of the water to help rid themselves of parasites and communicate with one another.

can whales swim backwards
Image: Darien and Neil via Flickr

Humpback whales love to breach and slap their fins and flukes on the surface.

They do so for a number of reasons which includes attracting the attention of other humpbacks as a way of flirting.

Why Can’t Most Whales Swim Backwards?

Most whales are unable to swim backwards as they are simply not built for doing so.

Whales are GIANTS that are designed for forward motion with their streamlined bodies and large flukes.

They have long, sleek builds which are perfect for moving forwards through the water. Their shape gives them little resistance and allows them to cut through like a bullet (only not as fast!)

They are equipped with giant tails (flukes) that can be 18 feet wide as well as fins and flippers.

A whale’s giant fluke is used for propulsion through the water. It moves up and down in a vertical motion to push water out of the way, propelling them forward.

Combined with their fins which also move vertically, whales’ fins and flukes can push even the largest whales through the water at 20mph.

These giant animals simply have no need to swim backwards, their bodies can weigh as much as 150,000 and they use baleen to scoop up prey in bulk, there is no need to be agile.

A whale swimming backwards would be like an elephant doing a handstand, there’s just no reason for it (as awesome as that would be!)

Whales have eyes at the front of their heads, therefore, if they were to swim backwards they would not be able to see where they are going.

An animal of this size swimming blind is never good and would not only make them vulnerable to predators but be a giant ocean hazard.

What Whales Can Swim Backwards?

Swimming backwards is a luxury that most whale species simply don’t have. But there are two species that have unique adaptations to allow them to do so.

Below are the two whale species that CAN swim backwards:

Beluga whales

Belugas are the gymnast champions of the ocean and are capable of swimming backward, sideways, and even upside down!

They are among some of the only marine species that can do so thanks to a unique feature that most whales don’t have.

The vertebrae in a beluga whale’s neck are not fused together, meaning they have the ability to turn their heads up, down, and side to side.

Unlike many large whales, belugas feed on a varied diet of octopus, squid, crabs, sandworms, crabs, and more.

These critters can be extremely quick and agile in the water, so belugas also need to be agile in order to catch them.

The beluga whales’ ability to swim fast and be agile in the water also helps them avoid predators looking for a whale snack.

Humpback Whales

This may come as a surprise to some, but despite their enormous size humpback whales are also able to swim backwards.

The reason they are able to do so is that they have giant pectoral fins that are nearly a third the size of their whole body.

Humpback whale fins are responsible for the graceful movement that these whales are notorious for.

Fins allow these whales to glide through the water effortlessly as well as be highly flexible when needed.

Thanks to their pectoral fins, humpbacks can swim backwards and turn on a dime if need be.

Most whales don’t have the luxury of giant fins that allow incredible maneuverability.

Image: Flickr (Na Pali Riders)

Why Might A Whale Swim Backwards?

There are very few reasons why humpbacks or belugas would need to swim backwards as it offers very few advantages for them.

In fact, swimming backwards leaves whales exposed and vulnerable to attack from predators and it could mean they accidentally bump into a vessel.

Just like driving backwards without looking in your mirror is dangerous, so is swimming backwards for these giants, especially humpbacks.

Belugas, on the other hand, are more nimble and have the ability to move their heads, so they’re not as blind as a humpback is when swimming backwards.

These white whales have been observed swimming backwards for the fun of it, but it could come in handy when chasing down slippery prey such as octopuses or stingrays.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you now have a clear answer to “can whales swim backwards” and why most simply don’t need to.

The whales that can swim backwards have unique adaptations that most others don’t, but even they rarely find the need to swim backwards.

After all, whales’ eyes are at the front of their heads, so swimming backwards means they are essentially blind.

Belugas can sometimes be seen swimming backwards purely for the fun of it, maybe their training for the whale Olympics? Who knows.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and learn more about these amazing animals.

See you in the next one!