Can Sharks Swim Backwards?

When you observe sharks swim in the aquarium or you go for cage diving, it is normal to wonder if these creatures can even swim backward. This is because they only move forward and go all the way around to swim in the opposite direction with a forward motion.

Sharks can’t swim backward because their body design does not allow them to. Great white sharks ram into cages on its way destroying the cages mostly because they can’t back up. They just keep moving forward. Adding that many shark species need to keep swimming to breathe further justifies why they can’t stop swimming forward to swim backward.

Sharks do not have the capacity to swim backward, but why is it so? Let’s find out.

Why Can’t Sharks Swim Backwards?

Sharks can’t swim backward because their pectoral fins can’t curve upwards to allow for a backward movement.

This is just like the mechanism of an airplane where air flows from the front to the back. As airplanes can’t fly backward so are most sharks.

While swimming, water flows from the front to the back.

A shark may fall backward depending on gravity. This is not swimming as they do not move their fins. If a shark decides to move backward, water flows in through its gills causing interference to the process of breathing. This would lead to the death of the shark.

Fishermen sometimes applied this concept to kill sharks by dragging them back toward the shore.

Another reason that sharks can’t swim backward is their mode of swimming. That is, for most shark species such as the Great White Shark, they propel themselves by flipping their tails. Others do so by moving their bodies in a wriggling manner using their fins to gain balance.

As a result of this swimming process, sharks can only propel themselves forward. Moreover, any backward movement can be lethal to the shark involved.

How Do Sharks Swim?

How sharks swim is dependent on their body build and species. For the millions of years sharks existed, they have evolved a streamlined body adapted to swimming effortlessly in the water.

Among the various ways sharks swim, there are cruisers, floaters, wrigglers, undulators, and flappers.

Generally, sharks have a common movement of using their tails to move their bodies forward. This means that the tails of sharks play very important roles in the movement of these sea creatures.

For the sharks that move by the sideways motion of their bodies, they maintain balance with their fins.

All these designs contribute to the only-forward motion of sharks.

Is There Any Advantages of Sharks Inability to Swim Backwards?

Certainly, while sharks are only able to swim forward, it helps them maintain their default breathing process. Water flows through their open mouth and pumps out through their gills where gaseous exchange occurs.

As we already pointed, swimming backward only reverses the process of breathing for sharks. Thus, it will let water in through the gills leading to the shark’s eventual death.

Is There Any Way that Sharks Can Move Backwards?

Sharks are designed for only forward motion. However, there may be an exception to this rule.

Have you heard of the “walking shark”?

The Epaulette shark is the shark popular for its ability to “walk” across reefs, along the seafloor, and even on land.

This shark species also has the exceptional ability to “walk” backward. Epaulette sharks can swim very well just like other shark species but may choose to walk between points with the help of their fins.

Walking implies moving in an undulating and crawling motion.

Remember, even epaulette sharks do not swim backward, they only “walk” backward. And, this is different from swimming.

These sharks breathe like every other shark species using their gills for gaseous exchange. This means they still need to be in the water to breathe, though, they have the capacity to survive in areas with very low oxygen.

They even such longer outside water especially while walking between tidal pools.

What Happens If Sharks Swim Backwards?

Swimming backward will make water flow through the gills of the shark instead of out of the gills. This is simply a reverse in the respiratory process. In all, if a shark swims backward, it will sink to the bottom of the ocean and die.

This implies that swimming backward is dangerous to sharks. Hence, the reason sharks don’t bother trying but maintain their forward motion.

Well, not like sharks have a choice, their body build doesn’t allow for swimming backward after all.

Can Sharks Suddenly Stop Swimming?

Sharks can’t suddenly stop swimming due to the same reason they can’t swim backward. They are able to dodge objects in their way by changing direction.

Faster sharks such as the great white sharks that cannot change direction soon end up destroying the objects in its way. A good example is when they destroy cages.

Of course, if they could suddenly stop swimming or back up, why won’t they?

Do Sharks Need to Keep Swimming to Stay Alive?

That sharks can’t suddenly stop swimming doesn’t mean that they keep swimming all the time. There are certain shark species that can pump water over their gills while lying without moving on the seafloor.

Examples of such sharks that do not have to keep swimming to breathe include the nurse shark, reef sharks, and even the epaulette shark.

These sharks can choose to rest motionless and still pump water over their gills.

Meanwhile, others such as the great white sharks still need to swim in order to breathe.

Hence, not all shark species need to continuously swim to stay alive. It all depends on the species.

Can the Red Tailed Shark Swim Backwards?

Red tailed sharks are freshwater tropical fish that can swim back and forth. Thus, the answer is yes! These fish can swim backward.

However, the red tailed shark is not a true shark irrespective of the name! These are fish in the same category as carps and minnows. They only got the “shark” attached to their name due to the presence of dorsal fin that makes them appear like a true shark.

Therefore, when we say that sharks can’t swim backward, we do not include shark look-alikes such as the red tailed shark. We mean actual sharks found in the ocean!

If a Shark is Pulled Backwards Can They Actually Drown?

Yes, if you pull a shark backward, the shark will “drown”. However, suffocate would be a more appropriate word than drown.

A shark would stop breathing once you start pulling it backward. They do not have the capacity to process water flowing through their lungs in a negative direction.

Therefore, pulling a shark backward would quickly exhaust it as it can no longer get oxygen. The shark eventually suffocates and dies.

Sharks are different from other fish because they can’t hold on while being pulled backward. But some other fish can process water in a reverse direction to extract oxygen through their gills. So, fish like this would require extra effort to suffocate by pulling backward.


Now that we know sharks can’t swim backward and why they can’t, it is important to discourage putting these creatures in such a difficult situation.

In other words, sharks should just be left to maintain their natural swimming direction. While the direction of the movement isn’t what affects shark, it makes them lose oxygen. This is what actually leads to their death.