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8 of the Most Intelligent Marine Animals

The sea’s a strange place: it’s a highly unexplored world with sσ many mysteries. But in reality, we know more about our universe and the stars above than our own oceans.

The ocean’s hugely diverse marine life is one of its most fascinating characteristics, and it hosts some of the most intelligent sea animals.

What are the Most Intelligent Sea Creatures?


No list of smartest sea animals would be complete without the dolphin. This marine mammal has captivated people for decades, with its high learning ability.

It can pass its knowledge down to fellow dolphins, too. Dolphin intelligence is remarkable: at 3.5 pounds, the species has a larger brain than humans.

How Intelligent are Dolphins?

We’ve already mentioned that a dolphin’s brain is bigger than the average human brain. But this characteristic doesn’t dictate the animal’s smarts. Dolphin brains have spindle neurons, which are specialized brain cells linked to recognition, memory, reasoning, communication, and more advanced abilities.

Their brains also feature an entire area for echolocation—a skill which allows them to use sonar waves to view their surroundings.

And of course, dolphins boast a more complex limbic system than that found in our brains. That’s why they can feel empathy and compassion for others. Dolphins have helped people get to shore when they were stranded at sea and even mourn their own dead.

Plus, dolphins are known to establish complex social systems. Making clicks and whistles are their way of interacting with other dolphins, which helps them coordinate hunting or plan their future activities.

Are Dolphins Smarter than Humans?

While dolphins can do complex tasks such as problem-solving and socializing, they still can’t use tools, do problem-solving, or make structured discussions. Sσ dolphins aren’t smarter than humans.


Vertebrates are usually smarter than invertebrates, but the octopus disputes this fact. Just like dolphins, octopi are big-brained with a vast nervous system. Simply put, they’ve got almost as many neurons as those found in dogs. Octopi brains even have a dedicated area for learning.

How Intelligent are Octopus Species?

One of the most interesting aspects of an octopus is its ability to change its skin color and texture, giving it a sense of emotional expressiveness. It’s also worth noting that the species can make eye contact with humans, reach a tentacle out to touch one’s hand, or check out an object that someone has given it. All these actions heighten the emotional expressiveness of an octopus.

As for the learning center inside an octopus brain, it becomes useful in problem-solving. History has witnessed how gifted octopi can be in this area, and Inky the Octopus is one well-known example.

This notorious invertebrate escaped from captivity in a New Zealand aquarium by slipping through a gap in its tank and sliding down a 164-foot drainpipe into Hawke’s Ɓɑy. Octopi can even squirt water at light switches and short-circuit power to switch off aquarium lights.


Orcas have “killer” in their common name, but did you know that they’re also smart? Among all sea mammals, these creatures have the second-largest brain next to sperm whales.

Orca brains are almost four times larger than the human brain, cementing their place among the smartest sea creatures.

How Smart are Orcas?

Years of scientific research have shown that killer whales are playful, curious, and great at problem-solving. They can even understand symbolic language and visual perspective, according to research.

Orcas enjoy living with family and friends and have social groups similar to elephants. You can see several generations of these creatures traveling together. And just like dolphins, older orcas pass down their knowledge to younger ones.

These creatures can communicate through unique dialects, too. Killer whales perform spy hopping and lob tailing to show different forms of body language.

Spy hopping lets orcas look around their surroundings by slightly holding their heads above water, while lob tailing involves them using their fins to thrash their tails in the water.

The gesture helps orcas grab the attention of their fellow whales or warn them of possible dangers.

Sea Otter

Sea otters are quickly rising up the list of intelligent marine animals. Their ability to use rocks to open clams is rare in the animal world.

But that’s not the only skill they’ve got: it’s also possible that sea otters are the first species to use tools, according to a recent study. This research on 100 California sea otters states that their ancestors have been using tools for millions of years.

Apart from using tools, sea otters have been observed playing basketball, stacking cups, and even going into vending machines to get goodies.


Wildlife watchers and zoo visitors have been captivated by the penguin’s fabulous looks and lively waddles. But beneath its charm lies remarkable intelligence.

While scientists haven’t reported penguin cognition as much as parrot or corvid intelligence, there are some aspects that one can use to compare the animal’s smarts to corvids.

Here’s a quick look at how penguin intelligence is similar to corvid cognition:

  • Penguins hunt cooperatively. This task enables them to process details quickly and predict where the fish are going, as well as how they can capture them.
  • Most penguins have exceptional memories.
  • When they find themselves far away from their colonies, king penguin chicks find their way back through lakes, hills, and sounds of the colony.
  • Adult king penguins can recognize the call of their mates, even in noisy colonies.
  • At least three penguin species can block unwanted noise and focus on necessary sounds, just like humans.

There’s also one famous incident that has placed penguins in the spotlight for their intelligence. A family in Japan caught one in a net, then brought it back for rehabilitation.

But this penguin decided he didn’t want to return underwater and stayed with the family that rescued him. Every day, Lala puts on his penguin backpack and walks down to the local fish market where he samples the fresh catch and brings home some dinner.

Manta Ray

Just when we thought that dolphins and orcas were the most intelligent species in the ocean, we’ve got manta rays. These aquatic giants have larger brains than any other fish species, with extensive sections for learning, problem-solving, and communication.

Manta rays can also have brains that are up to ten times larger than those found in whale sharks, despite the latter being the biggest fish underwater.

Manta ray intelligence shows itself in a variety of ways. For one, mantas are playful: they love flying, and you can see whole schools jumping together at dawn and dusk.

These creatures also get curious around humans (mantas will interact and play with them on purpose). Plus, new research claims that giant manta rays can recognize their reflection.

Some species, such as great apes and bottlenose dolphins also have this rare ability.

Sea Lion

By now, you might be wondering how sea lions got into this list of the smartest marine animals. Here’s proof: Marine researchers in the United States have concluded that these creatures are sσ intelligent, they should be given their own marine mammal program.

Through this program, the marines give sea lions training on ship and harbor defense, mine detection, and equipment recovery.

But if you’re still not convinced, experts have observed that sea lions can understand basic syntax and commands. They’re able to do sσ when trainers use artificial sign language to teach them tricks and other tasks.

Great White Shark

People often think of great white sharks as ruthless killers, but they’re actually quite intelligent and curious. Great whites behave in different ways, which show off their smarts.

When these creatures are in groups, they can open their mouths while swimming or use powerful body slams for interaction.

Great white sharks also outwit dolphins, seals, and their other prey as their brains synchronize all their senses. A few of these shark species might even hunt for food in warmer waters if they can’t find any in their current environment.