Fins and Flippers: What’s the Difference?

By: Gabriella, Guest Kid Blogger

Note: The following is from Gabriella, a guest kid blogger who wants to work with animals at SeaWorld when she grows up. She wants to learn everything she can about animals and where they live in the ocean. She likes sharing what she learns at SeaWorld with her friends and readers like you! She's hopes you'll join her in protecting our marine animal friends together.

Fins and flippers are different parts of marine animals that help them move in the water and on land. It’s easy to tell them apart when you see them but you might not already know how they are different.

Fins help animals that live in the water swim fast. They also help some animals navigate, that means decide where they are going, and some fish use fins for defense when they are in danger.

Flippers are on animals that live in water and also on animals that spend some of the time in the water but also need to be able to move on land. They are usually on marine mammals that have a skeleton with bones.

Over many years different animals have adapted with fins and flippers. That means they have changed from how they were in the beginning. Some animals that used to live only on land now live in water so they needed to change to be able to move quickly in the water too.

Some animals with fins are sharks, fish and whales. A lot of animals have both fins and flippers. Whales actually have flippers too.

Sharks are able to swim very fast because of their fins. Different shark species have different fins and the size and shape of fins helps determine the speed of the shark. Hard big fins with defined angles like big triangles are on sharks that swim really fast. Slower sharks that live on the bottom of the water have smaller soft and round fins. The great white shark has a very large dorsal fin but the wobbegong shark’s dorsal fin looks very different.

You can see a lot of different kinds of sharks at SeaWorld to look at their different fins. My favorite view is above the Shark Encounter tunnel at SeaWorld San Diego. You can look up at the sharks inside the tunnel too.


Penguins, sea turtles, sea lions, walrus and lots more animals have flippers. Flippers are kind of like modified fins and also help animals swim in the water. Animals with flippers live both in and out of the water. When I met Clyde at SeaWorld San Diego, he showed me his flippers and taught me all the neat things they help him do.


Some surprising animals have fins and flippers too like water reptiles. They have fins because they also need to swim in the water.

This summer my friend Gary, a dolphin behaviorist, taught me all about dolphins. Their flukes are very different than sea lion flippers! A fluke isn’t really a fin or a flipper but dolphins do have fins that help them swim too. Flukes do not have a skeletal structure so that kind of makes them like caudal fins. Those are the fins at the end of fish.


Not all animals that live in the water or are sometimes in water have fins or flippers. Webbed feet aren’t fins or flippers so think about animals like otters or birds. They go in the water a lot but don’t have either.

Fins and flippers are very helpful and some animals rely on them for different things. Sea lions use their flippers to help them walk on land. Dolphins and sharks use their fins to help them move quickly in the water to hunt for food.

Now you know!

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