Can Gorillas Swim? [No! 5 Reasons Why Not]

Photo: Jos Timmerman / Shutterstock

A trip to see the gorillas at the zoo will show you that there is a moat of water around their living area. This is an effort to contain them in their manmade habitat.

Apes, in general, prefer land, avoid water, and dislike rain.

While some gorillas may learn how to swim, in general, they do not. Gorillas are not born with an innate ability to swim. Their weight and bone density, body fat to muscle ratio, and length of limbs make it challenging for gorillas to successfully swim. Gorillas often do not need water sources, getting their hydration from food and performing waterless social grooming instead.

5 Reasons Why Gorillas Do Not Swim

Gorillas are the largest apes (Hominoidea), in the Gorilla genus, and close living relatives of humans. There are two species, eastern (Gorilla beringei) and western (Gorilla gorilla), with several subspecies.

In the wild, gorillas are typically found in tropical forests of equatorial Africa, inhabiting forests in lowlands, montane, bamboo, and highland terrain.

While bodies of water exist in these areas, gorillas do not generally use the water for swimming.

This table offers a quick breakdown of why gorillas do not swim:

Anatomy makes it difficult to swim and float

  • High bone density

  • Lower body fat to muscle ratio

  • Limbs are longer than height

Swimming is not instinctual

  • Gorillas do not automatically know how to swim and can drown.

Fear of water

  • Behaviors show that they fear or are cautious around water:

    • They will test water depths before venturing in it with “tools”.

    • They cross logs or bridges to avoid water.

    • They “freeze” in place or seek shelter when it rains.

Water is not a necessity

  • 2 reasons:

    • Hydration comes from fruits, leafy vegetation, and morning dew.

    • They do not bathe and opt for physical grooming of themselves and each other.

Read on to learn more in detail about why gorillas do not swim.

1. Gorilla Anatomy: Body Considerations

Combining the length of limbs, weight of muscles and bones, and lower body fat, gorillas are less likely to be able to float in water.

Weight And Body Fat

Male gorillas are more than twice as heavy as females. Males’ weights range from about 374 to 484, and females 158 to 176 pounds.

Gorillas in captivity may be heavier since there are plentiful food sources.

Humans in comparison, have a much greater percentage of adipose tissue, (body fat) than apes. More body fat and less muscle contribute to increased buoyancy. 

Gorillas have low body fat and more muscle, making them heavy in the water.


In a study of lowland gorillas, they had an average of 37.3% muscle-related body mass, with a body fat range of 19.4% to 44%. 

Males have heavier forelimbs, deltoid, trunk-binding, and back muscles than females. Dense and thick muscles contribute to heaviness in water.

Bone Density

Gorillas have dense bones as compared to humans, making them weigh more overall. Dense bones make apes, such as gorillas, less buoyant in water.

Length Of Limbs

Gorillas are quadrupedal, walking around on four limbs. 

Adult gorillas have arms that are 15% to 20% longer than their shorter and stockier legs. 

Their arm span is longer than their height, helping them to climb, gather foliage, defend themselves, and navigate their habitats.

These lengths proportions make it difficult for swimming coordination.

2. No Innate Ability

Animals, such as ducks, otters, and fish are born with the ability to swim. This is not the case with gorillas. 

There is a theory that gorillas are unwilling to swim in the water seeing it as a source of drowning and death. Therefore, they will avoid water and not swim in order to survive.

Humans learn how to swim, and there have been some very rare evidence that gorillas can as well if they can overcome physical limitations and fear. 

The rare sightings of gorillas swimming show them diving down to get things from the bottom of a pool of water, using a breaststroke with a frog-like kick.  

3. Fear Of Water

Since gorillas do not naturally swim, they are cautious around large and deep bodies of water such as rivers or lakes.

However, gorillas will play near water, and will only cross it if the water level doesn’t surpass their waists. Gorillas may also cross a fallen log “bridge” to avoid getting wet. 

While not common, gorillas have been seen playing in and splashing up water near the edges of water but no higher than their waists.

Gorillas will remain static, motionless, in rain, if they cannot find a cave or other shelter during a downpour.

Gorillas have also been seen putting a stick into the water as if to measure the depth, before venturing into it in search of food, such as aquatic plants.

These behaviors demonstrate that gorillas fear, do not like, or are cautious around water.

4. Water Sources Come From Food

Gorillas do not need to drink from bodies of water. Their hydration comes from foods, such as leafy shoots, fruits and leaves, and the morning dew that sits on them. 

While gorillas eat primarily vegetation as their main source of food and protein, they may also eat insects such as termites, larvae, and ants. 

These insects make up a very small percentage of their diet. Gorillas develop their strength by fermenting bacteria in their large gut and very long intestines. This process creates protein to build muscle.

5. Water Is Not Needed For Bathing

Gorillas do not use water for bathing. 

Instead, they groom each other and themselves, with fingers and teeth, freeing their fur of debris, insects, and more. 

Grooming also creates and strengthens social bonds between the members of a troop.

In Conclusion 

Gorillas are very rarely seen swimming.  

They do not have a natural ability to swim. If they venture into the water, it is typically not higher than their waists.

Gorillas’ heavy weight, dense bones, low body fat, and muscular bodies make them less buoyant in the water. 

Additionally, their long forelimbs and stocky back legs make it difficult for them to have coordinated strokes in the water.

Gorillas seek water sources for hydration from foods, such as fruits and morning dew on vegetation. They do not bathe, grooming each other with fingers and teeth for social bonding purposes instead.

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James Ball

James has had a lifelong passion for animals and nature, tracing back to his childhood where he first began fostering intimate knowledge and connection with pet frogs and snakes. He has since honed this interest into a career as a trained Wildlife Biologist, specializing in Biogeography, sustainability and conservation. In addition to his professional pursuits, James maintains an active lifestyle, regularly indulging in outdoor activities such as hiking, and musical pursuits like playing piano and swimming.

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