Give Now

A Moment of Science

Do Hippos Swim?

Hippos hang out in the water most of the time, but are they good swimmers?

A close-up of a hippo's face

Photo: Art G. (flickr)

Hippos may not swim, but they do get around in the water pretty well.

After elephants, Nile hippos are the largest land animals, weighing up to eight or nine thousand pounds. Unlike elephants, however, hippos spend their days in the water, which might make it seem silly to ask: Can hippos swim?

Given their size, one might answer “no” because hippos seem too heavy to swim. But that’s wrong. A hippo’s fat makes it buoyant enough to float very well. On the other hand, if you said “no” you are quite right. Hippos do not really swim. Their method of travel is very simple: they walk underwater.

Like many people, hippos enjoy resting in cool water and can let themselves float or sink by controlling their breathing and body position. Once sunk, hippos don’t swim back up to the surface: they walk along the bottom till they reach shallow water. Unlike people, hippos can hold their breath for minutes at a time.

Far from the lumbering giants they seem to be, hippos can trot, jog and run at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour, with spurts as fast as 30 miles per hour. Although poachers hunt hippos and sell their teeth as an alternative to elephant ivory, you still might see one if you’re lucky enough to travel to sub-Saharan Africa. Just don’t get too close: they are more agile than they appear.

Read More:

  • Hippo’s ‘Magic Sweat’ Explained (BBC)
  • Pet Hippo Kills Its Owner (ABC News)
  • Erik

    very wrong- i just saw a viral video that has a hippo chasing a speedboat in water. This hippo was NOT touching the river floor and was staying with the speedboat. It was going at least 40 mph.

  • WaltHayes

    The boat was not going anywhere near 40. And it is not known how deep the water was, though likely no more than 10-12 feet max since hippos have to propel themselves by pushing their legs against underwater objects – hence ‘running’ underwater.

  • afc

    Is it possible the video is fake anyway?

  • Vee

    That is what i was wondering, was it special effects?

  • mike

    . No special effects, water maybe 7ft deep, and by the looks of it he’s about 6k or 7k and can run across the bottom like a tank!!! , make no mistake this stuff is as real as it gets in the wild.

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from A Moment of Science:

Support for Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science

Search A Moment of Science