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Watching birds fly across the sky is a common but awe-inspiring sight. When you stop to analyse the gravity-defying feat these animals engage in every day above and around us, watching a bird fly across your path can be a truly fascinating experience. But did you know that the skies are not the only place birds engage in flying?

Some coastal birds, including penguins, cormorants, puffins, murres, and guillemots, have adapted their method of movement to force their way through the waves and swim underwater. Birds that fly underwater primarily swim to catch fish and crustaceans.

In this article, we will look at the interesting case of the alcid aquatic coastal birds, which can fly through the ocean depths with a speed and agility that they cannot replicate in the skies.


Can birds fly underwater?

Most birds cannot fly underwater, as their body shapes and wingspan are not conducive to quickly moving through the waves. However, some ocean-dwelling birds have been able to adapt their flying behaviour to move below the depths quickly.

You may already be aware of the incredible agility the non-flying penguin displays when underwater, using wing propulsion to force their way down beneath the surface. Similarly, coastal birds such as cormorants are well known for their diving abilities, where they kick their webbed feet to push themselves deeper into the ocean depths.

But these are not the only aquatic bird species that can quickly make their way beneath the waves.

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What types of birds fly underwater?

Studies of alcid sea birds within the Northern hemisphere, such as puffins, guillemots, auklets, and murres, have shown that they engage in “flying” behaviour underwater, using their wings in a typical flying motion to propel themselves under the waves.

Fascinatingly, these aquatic birds have been able to adapt their wing behaviour so that it is well suited to their ocean habitat and allows them to pursue their available food sources.

To pursue underwater prey, these sea birds will flap their wings, much as they do when flying through the air, to reach a speed up to 4mph. These species have reached depths of over two hundred feet whilst “flying” through the water and are known to fold in their wings while flapping to streamline their path through the sea.

Why do birds fly underwater?

Birds will fly underwater in pursuit of prey that lives in the sea, such as small fish and crustaceans. Their clever adaptation of the flying motion has enabled them to flourish in an ocean environment, increasing their chances of nourishment by allowing them to pursue their food source to incredible ocean depths.

How do birds fly underwater?

In the air, a bird’s wings will be fully extended to cover as much surface area as possible to generate enough lift to support the bird’s body mass. This splaying of the wings makes for a great flying mechanism but does not provide a streamlined shape for efficient swimming.

Penguins and alcid birds generally have a smaller wing mass compared to their body size than other species and will fold these wings underwater to reduce resistance. At the same time, they flap quickly to push themselves beneath the depths.

While their muscled barrel-like torsos and small wings mean they struggle for the agility more sprightly birds experience, they are uniquely suited amongst birds to flying underwater.

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Can birds use their wings underwater?

Coastal birds will flap their wings vigorously under the waves, using them in the same way we use paddles to push themselves further down into the ocean’s depths quickly.

This adapted flapping motion allows them to move quickly through the water and reach enough speed to give them the agility to pursue fish.


Can birds breathe underwater?

Although many sea birds can swim to impressive depths, they are not capable of breathing underwater and will have to resurface to gain more oxygen. The time they can hold their breath will depend upon the species and lung capacity.

Aquatic birds have particular adaptations that will allow them to hold their oxygen for an impressive amount of time while they hunt under the waves. Birds that swim underwater have been found to contain larger volumes of blood within their bodies than other birds. This allows them to hold an increased amount of oxygen in their system while they are underwater.

Some will also decrease their heart rate by as much as 50% while in the water, allowing them to tolerate a reduced oxygen level for longer.

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How deep can birds fly underwater?

Although not able to breathe underwater, alcid aquatic birds can still reach impressive depths before they need to return to the surface. Studies of these underwater flyers have shown they can typically reach depths of up to two hundred feet when pursuing their prey and can build up speeds of up to four miles per hour.

However, in particular cases, they have been spotted flying even deeper. The Common murre, for example, has been recorded to reach a depth of 550 feet.

While this is undoubtedly impressive, the emperor penguin has these depths beat as they have been recorded diving up to 1,850 feet in the Antarctic Ocean.


The sheer breadth and variety of bird species and their ability to adapt to their environments continue to fascinate bird and animal lovers across the globe. Ongoing studies mean that more incredible adaptions and skills will continue to come to light. As studies continue, we can expect to discover new information about how birds have been able to adjust their behaviours to flourish under challenging habitats.

Although small-winged alcids such as puffins may seem ungainly in their movements on land, these birds can use their smaller wingspan to fly underwater and display agility and grace to rival that of the more accomplished fliers in the sky.

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