The current consensus among scientists is that “the top swimming speed of the Great White is at least 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour.”
Figuring out exactly how fast a great shark can swim has proved challenging for scientists.
The most common method of measuring the speed of ocean creatures is by comparing it against the known velocity of a boat. This approach is neither straightforward nor particularly accurate.
For many years, researchers believed that “dolphins could swim faster than ships.”
They’ve since discovered that the pressure wave that forms in front of the ship pushes the dolphins forward, enabling them to “surf-ride the slope of a breaking bow wave” and reach faster top speeds than they would naturally.
How Fast Can a Great White Shark Swim?
A study conducted in the waters around Seal Island, off the coast of South Africa, never established a top burst speed for these oceanic predators.
However, the data they collected indicates that these great whites regularly reach “in-water burst speeds around 11 m/s” – the equivalent of 39.6kph.
Are Great White Sharks Fast?
Great white sharks are fairly sluggish most of the time. As Yuuki Watanabe, a researcher at the National Institute of Polar Research in Japan, notes great whites don’t have as “great of a swimming performance” as many people believe.
As sharks need to conserve energy, they spend the majority of their time drifting around the ocean at speeds of just 2.4kph or 1.5mph.
How Long Can a Great White Maintain its Top Speed?
The great white can only maintain its maximum speed for a few seconds. In 2019, biologging techniques enabled researchers to measure the “costs and benefits of feeding.”
Their data shows that great white sharks accelerate quickly in pursuit of prey and take just “7 to 16 seconds” to travel from a depth of 20m to the surface.
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It’s unlikely that the great white can maintain their top speed for much longer than this, so they’ve adapted their hunting techniques accordingly.
Watanabe’s observations suggest that, although great whites can “sustain high speeds… they save energy by swimming slowly when aggregating near seal colonies.”
In this sense, Watanabe suggests, the great white is similar to the cheetah, which uses ambush and acceleration to secure its prey while minimizing energy consumption.
Although a great white can’t sustain its top speeds for long, it still holds the record for the “fastest return migration of any known marine animal.”
According to a report published in 2005, a great white named Nicole traveled 12,400 miles from Africa to Australia and back, in just nine months.
Are Great Whites Faster in Cold or Warmer Water?
There seems to be little scientific evidence to suggest that a great white swims faster in warmer water.
The only study my research uncovered focused on how temperature regulates “coastal abundance and swimming performance of tiger sharks.”
While this research confirmed that a tiger shark’s “swimming performance” is highest at “~22°C,” it gives us little insight into the optimal conditions for a great white.
The great white is one of a handful of warm-bodied sharks. As such, it can self-regulate its body temperature, keeping it higher than the surrounding water.
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It is, therefore, logical to conclude that the great white would reach faster speeds in warmer water, where it would require less energy to maintain its body temperature. It could then use that excess energy to accelerate and sustain high speeds.
How Fast can a Great White Shark Swim When Chasing Prey?
During a high-speed pursuit, great white sharks regularly reach speeds of 20kph or more.
Although there is little evidence to prove it, many believe the great white can perform short bursts of speed during which it reaches speeds of up to 40kph.
One research paper estimates that the great white has a “maximum sustained swimming speed” of 10.1kph but a “maximum burst swimming speed [of] 58.6kph.” As it’s impossible to prove the accuracy of this statement, it’s safer to err on the side of caution and assign the great white an average top speed of 40kph.
As great whites prey on dolphins that reach a top speed of 24.1kph, it stands to reason that the shark travels faster than that when in pursuit of this high-speed prey.
What is the Fastest Recorded Speed of a Great White Shark?
During a contest between Olympic swimmer and world record-holder Michael Phelps and a great white shark, the shark’s “top speed was recorded as more than 26 miles per hour.”
The average speed of the great white is around 5mph or 8kph, which is, incidentally, about the same as Michael Phelp’s top speed (7.6kph)! However, when it attacks, the great white can reach speeds of up to 30kph!
In this footage, photographer Matt Larmand struggles to keep up as a great white shark dashes off into the open water at around “20 mph (32kph).”
It’s unclear why this shark decides to speed off into the great beyond, as there are no signs of any prey species or potential threats.
Why Are Great Whites So Fast?
There are several anatomical reasons for the great white’s turn of speed.
How Does A Shark’s Anatomy Help It Swim Faster?
The structure and movement of the great white’s tail give it “the most thrust with least drag.”
The great white has a tapered tail, or caudal fin, that resembles a crescent moon.
Known as a lunate tail, this gives the shark its propulsion. The great white’s tail is thicker than those of the fastest sharks, the shortfin mako sharks because they’re intended for short-range power, rather than long-distance speed.
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With their torpedo-shaped bodies, great white sharks move through the water with minimal resistance or drag. From its lunate tail, the great white’s body tapers into the caudal peduncle – the area between the tail and body.
This shape minimizes drag but still provides enough room for the muscles that drive the tail into action.
By moving the tail in a lateral direction or side to side, a great white disrupts the layer of water against its skin, reducing drag even further.
Skeletal and Skin Structure Contribute To the Shark’s Velocity
Research performed on the skin of the great white found that the presence of small, toothlike scales, known as denticles helps to propel the animal forward by reducing drag, while simultaneously increasing lift.
The internal anatomy of the great white also contributes to its speed. For one, great whites have no bones in their skeletal systems – only cartilage.
Cartilage is less dense than bone, so this adaptation enables the shark to move faster. It also gives them the “flexibility to accelerate and change directions quickly.”
How Do A Shark’s Blood Vessels Make It Faster?
Warm-bodied sharks like the great white have a network of tiny blood vessels called rite Mirabile. This network acts as “a countercurrent heat exchanger” in which blood vessels carrying warm blood transfer their heat to cooler ones as they return from the shark’s extremities.
Being able to warm their muscles in this way enables the great to “sustain high swim speeds and migrate great distances.”
How Fast is a Great White Compared to Other Sharks?
With a top speed of approximately 40kph, the great white is one of the fastest shark species in the world. It can’t compete with the “champion speedster,” the shortfin mako, however, which has been “reliably clocked at 31 miles (50 kilometers) per hour.”
The mako shark also holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest shark, “with recorded swimming speeds exceeding 56kph (34.8 mph).”
There are even claims that one particularly fleet-finned mako managed a top speed of 74kph, but I could find no evidence to support this.
Figuring out which shark comes closest to the mako’s impressive turn of speed is challenging, but the great white would certainly give every other species a run for its money.
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Not all shark species are speedsters, by any means. The whale shark rarely galvanizes itself to move faster than about 4.8kph, while the ancient Greenland shark prefers a steadier pace of around 1.2kph.
How Fast is a Great White Shark Compared to its Prey?
The bottlenose dolphin is one of the great white’s fastest prey species, but even this doesn’t give the shark much of a challenge.
With a top speed of around 24kph, the dolphin has little chance of outswimming the great white as it speeds along at 30 to 40kph.
With a top speed of just 20kph, the seal relies on its agility to evade a great white.
Unable to outswim its number-one predator, the seal “has tactical advantages in terms of reduced turning radius.” These techniques enable the seal to leap away from the shark’s jaws and towards its back.
Great whites also feed on Californian sea lions, which are the fastest seals in the sea.
By “porpoising,” or gliding on the surface of the water, the sea lion can reach burst speeds of up to 40kph, giving the great white a real run for its money.
How Fast is a Great White Compared to a Human?
The average human swims at a speed of around 3.2kph, so has little chance of getting out of the way should a great white decide to attack.
Even Olympic swimmers struggle to compete with the great white, as Michael Phelps discovered a few years ago.
In 2017, the Discovery Channel pitted the most decorated Olympian of all time against the hammerhead and great white sharks.
Phelps wore a “monofin to simulate a shark’s movements [and] maximize his speed.” The race took place off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas, with scientists using a special device to entice the shark and record its swimming speed.
The hammerhead went first, swimming the 50m course in just over 15 seconds. Phelps was up next and, while he didn’t beat the hammerhead, his 18.7-second performance was enough to push the reef shark into third place.
For the race against the great white, the team doubled the distance. Phelps was confident of success, saying, “I’ve always been an endurance swimmer, and hopefully that will work in my favor.”
However, the great white had other plans and took an impressive victory by completing the 100m swim in just 36.1 seconds – two seconds faster than Phelps.
The great white might beat a swimmer, but what about the fastest human on earth? Usain Bolt recorded an average ground speed of 37.58kph and a top speed of 44.72! Even the great white would struggle to compete with that.
How Fast is a Great White Compared to the Fastest Fish?
The great white is fast, but not when compared with the fastest fish in the sea.
That accolade goes to the Black Marlin, which is believed to achieve lightning-fast speeds of 129kph! The sailfish isn’t too far behind, with a top speed of 110kph.
With a top speed of 40kph, the great white is one of the fastest shark species. It doesn’t quite get into the top 10 of fastest fish in the sea, but it’s not far behind.
Everything about the great white is built for speed, from its lunate tail to its cartilaginous skeleton, which explains why this shark is such a successful predator.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.