What Fish Can Swim Backwards? Can They?

Have you ever noticed some fish able to swim backwards in your aquarium? While most fish propel themselves forward using their tails and fins, certain species possess specialized abilities allowing them to reverse direction with ease.

In this guide, you’ll discover what fish can swim backwards and how they achieve this unique method of motion. Understanding backward-swimming fish can help you make the most informed choices when stocking your fish tank.

Why Do Some Fish Swim Backwards?

Most fish swim forward by contracting muscles on one side of their body, which causes their tail to swing that direction. Repeating this motion propels them forward through the water.

Backward-swimming fish have extra control over their maneuvering. They can move forward, reverse, and change direction with more agility. This helps them navigate tightly confined spaces in coral reefs and kelp forests. It also aids escaping predators or lunging after prey.

Having diverse swimming skills provides an advantage in complex environments. Interestingly, most backward-swimming species thrive around reefs and aquatic vegetation. Their unique mobility helps them survive in these locations.

How Do Fish Swim Backwards?

Special fins and muscular structures allow certain fish to swim backwards. Depending on the species, they may use different methods to achieve reverse motion.

Caudal Fin Control

Fish like clownfish and damselfish have excellent control over their fan-shaped caudal fins. Most fish can only open or close their caudal fins for forward propulsion. Backward-swimmers can manipulate each half of the fin independently.

By reversing the normal fin motion, they can generate backwards thrust. The angular caudal fin provides precise maneuverability. This allows the fish to reverse or change direction instantly.

Paired Fin Movement

Other fish like surgeonfish and parrotfish use their paired pectoral and pelvic fins to swim backwards. Most fish only use these fins for stabilization. Backward-swimmers have specialized musculature enabling them to flap their paired fins to propel in reverse.

Undulating Body Movements

Certain eels and blennies lack rigid fins altogether. Instead, they rely on undulating body movements to swim in all directions. Powerful muscles all along their elongated bodies allow them to ripple back and forth. This lets them swim forward, backward, and even sideways with ease.

Which Fish Can Swim Backwards?

Now that you understand how backward swimming works, let’s examine some fish species with this ability:


Clownfish are among the most popular backward-swimming fish. Native to tropical reefs, they use their caudal fin to maneuver precisely between anemones and corals. If startled, they can dart backwards to safety in an instant. Their ability to rapidly reverse makes clownfish excellent tank inhabitants. They thrive around live corals and rocks.


Surgeonfish inhabit reefs across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They employ rapid pectoral fin movements to swim backwards away from danger. Their razor-sharp spines provide additional protection from predators. In an aquarium, provide plenty of space for surgeonfish to utilize their unique swimming style.


Parrotfish patrol coral reefs searching for food. They scrape algae off rocks using beak-like jaws. While foraging, parrotfish rely on their pelvic and pectoral fins to reverse across the reef. In a tank, they need a substrate to graze on and space to exhibit their backward swimming.


Small but feisty damselfish thrive around coral structures. If alarmed, they retreat backwards into reef holes. Their caudal fin shape lets them scoot backwards before most predators can react. Damselfish feel secure with numerous hiding places. Give them rocky overhangs and cervices to dart into.


Seahorses anchor themselves upright on kelp and seagrasses. They ambush prey that swims by. If needed, seahorses can release their tail grip and swim backwards to safety. In an aquarium, provide seahorses with anchoring sites and moderate current they can face into.


Slim pipefish resemble miniature seahorses without the curled tails. They hang vertically on underwater plants, scoping out food with tiny eyes. When threatened, pipefish detach and undulate their long bodies to swim backwards. Live vegetation for anchoring allows them to exhibit their reverse swimming.

Moray Eels

Moray eels hide among reef holes and rocks. At night, they emerge to hunt small fish with lightning-fast backward strikes. Morays swim backwards into crevices dragging captured prey. In a tank, give morays caves and tubes to occupy. Open space lets them demonstrate their backwards mobility.


Blennies perch on coral heads or rocky bottoms. They dart into small openings when scared. Using whole body flexing, blennies can rapidly swim tail-first down a hole. Ensure your aquarium blennies have an overhang or decor they can quickly reverse into.


Though not true backward swimmers, many gobies can hop backwards across the bottom. They press their pelvic fins down to launch themselves reverse. In an aquarium, gobies appreciate a fine sandy bottom they can hop back into shallow burrows with.

What Fish Cannot Swim Backward?

You’ve likely seen fish effortlessly gliding through water, propelling themselves forward, backward, up and down with ease. However, not all fish possess the ability to swim backward. Several species of fish lack sufficient back fin muscles or tail symmetry to propel themselves in reverse.

The ocean sunfish is one well-known fish that cannot swim backward. With their truncated, rigid back fins and abbreviated tail, sunfish rely on the motion of their large side fins to push through the water. While they can steer slightly left or right, they cannot generate enough backwards thrust to overcome their natural forward momentum. This physical limitation means sunfish must keep moving forward at all times.

Other fish hindered in backward motion include pufferfish, angelfish, and triggerfish. Most lack the tail vertebrae necessary for side-to-side sweeping motion. Their fins simply act as stabilizers rather than propellers. These species spend most of their time slowly drifting along ocean currents, with only occasional need for burst swimming motions to capture prey or escape predators. They maneuver by turning their pectoral and other fins. For them, the ocean is essentially a one-way street.

What To Know About Keeping Backward-Swimming Fish

When keeping fish with backward-swimming abilities, tailor their habitat to their needs:

  • Provide ample room for free swimming and reversing. Avoid overcrowding.
  • Include structures they can retreat into like rocky overhangs, reef holes, and small caves. This gives security.
  • For fish that anchor vertically like seahorses, supply kelp, coral branches, or decor they can cling to.
  • Sand substrates accommodate fish that hop backwards like blennies and gobies.
  • Plants and driftwood create obstacles for backward-swimmers to navigate around.
  • Moderate water flow and currents let them demonstrate their maneuvering skills.
  • Tankmates should be peaceful and not overly competitive. Backward-swimming fish need room to reverse.

While backward-swimming fish have special needs, their extraordinary mobility makes them truly fascinating to own. When provided appropriate conditions, they will thrive and showcase their unique abilities in your aquarium.


Why do some fish swim backwards?

Backward-swimming allows fish to navigate confined spaces, escape predators quicker, and precisely maneuver while hunting prey. The extra agility provides an advantage in complex reef and vegetation environments.

What fish can swim backwards?

Some popular backward swimming fish include clownfish, surgeonfish, parrotfish, damselfish, seahorses, pipefish, moray eels, and blennies. Their specialized fins or muscular bodies enable reversing motions.

How do fish swim backwards?

Depending on the species, backward-swimmers may manipulate their caudal, pectoral, and pelvic fins to generate reverse thrust. Eels and blennies undulate their whole bodies in wave-like motions to swim backwards without rigid fins.

Is backward swimming difficult for fish?

Backward-swimming comes naturally to fish adapted for this ability. Their anatomies and reflexes are wired for easy maneuvering in reverse. It does not present any difficulty or stress when needed.

What aquarium conditions do backward-swimming fish need?

Provide ample swimming room, structures for retreating into, anchoring sites, appropriate substrates, decor for navigating around, moderate currents, and peaceful tankmates. Meet species-specific needs for backward-swimmers to thrive.


Backward-swimming fish possess specially adapted fins and physiques enabling them to reverse direction. Clownfish, surgeonfish, and eels exemplify species able to swim backwards. This agility aids navigation through complex reef and vegetation environments.

When keeping backward-swimming fish, cater tank conditions to their needs. Provide anchoring sites, hiding places, free swimming room, and appropriate substrates. Though they require special care, backward-swimming fish will reward you with stunning aquatic acrobatics if their needs are met!

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