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10 Birds That Swim Underwater (With Pictures)

Written by Garrett Hayes

Last updated on Mar 23rd, 2024
penguin - featured image

As a bird lover, you may have encountered the phrases "aquatic birds" or "water bird" at some point in your life. Well, aquatic birds or water birds are unique types of birds that reside around or on water. These birds depend on the marine ecosystem for their nutrition.

While most of these creatures live near/in water bodies, only a few bird species can actually swim underwater. These birds have mastered the skills of swimming underwater while searching for food.

Discover 10 Birds That Swim Underwater

Generally, all the birds that swim underwater have some unique features that help them dive underwater. For instance, some of the birds that swim underwater have webbed feet, while others have tubular nostrils that help them breathe underwater.

Some of these birds that can dive underwater include:

1. Diving Petrels

Diving petrels are seabirds known for their exceptional ability to swim and dive underwater in search of food. These birds can dive to a depth of up to 34 meters and stay submerged for over 15 minutes.

These birds have a streamlined body shape and powerful wings, which allow them to "fly" underwater to catch their prey. Their wings have pointed tips that come in handy when swimming. They use their webbed feet and wings to navigate underwater in pursuit of their prey.

Unlike penguins, these diving birds use their wings to "fly" underwater rather than using their feet for propulsion. 

They exhibit a flying motion underwater, which helps them catch prey efficiently.

Like most of the birds that swim underwater, these bird species have specialized adaptations to aid their underwater foraging aquatic vegetation. They possess tubular nostrils, which help them breathe while their head is submerged.

These are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night when searching for food. This behavior helps them avoid competition with diurnal (daytime-active) seabirds that target similar food sources like small fish.

These amazing birds feed on various marine organisms, including fish, squid, krill, and other small marine invertebrates. Diving petrels are opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of available food sources, which can vary depending on the region and the season.

2. Boobies

Unlike the Diving petrels, Boobies are known for their exceptional swimming and diving abilities. These aquatic creatures come with exceptional feathers on their bodies and wings that help them remain submerged for an extended period.

Like the gannets and most birds that dive underwater, Boobies are skilled plunge divers. 

They can spot their prey from the air and dive into the water from considerable heights to catch fish. Once underwater, they use their wings and webbed feet to swim and pursue their prey.

Boobies are carnivorous birds, and their diet mainly consists of fish. They are agile hunters and can perform impressive aerial maneuvers to catch fish near the ocean's surface.

These birds are colonial breeders, meaning they nest in large groups on islands and coastal cliffs. Therefore, there are a few birds looking out for prey underwater. So when they spot a prey, they will dive and snatch it and then return to the surface.

But the sight of them diving and swimming underwater can be quite breathtaking. When foraging for food, they often choose remote and isolated locations to minimize the risk of predation.

There are several booby species, with the most popular one being the Blue-footed booby. This booby is famous for its charismatic courtship displays, during which males show off their bright blue feet to females. The more vivid and intense the blue coloration, the more attractive the male is to potential mates.

3. Diving Ducks

Diving ducks are a group of waterfowl that are adept at swimming and diving underwater to forage for food. Diving ducks have adapted to a more aquatic lifestyle than dabbling, which primarily feed on the water's surface or by tipping their bodies to reach underwater vegetation.

These birds swim underwater to find food. These ducks can hold their breath while diving to the base of the river or lake for a few minutes. They can swim for an extended period thanks to their ability to close their nose and ears.

Diving ducks have strong and robust bodies, which makes them well-suited for diving. They use their feet, which are positioned farther back on their bodies compared to dabbling ducks, to propel themselves underwater. Their wings also help them swim efficiently while submerged.

These ducks feed on aquatic plants, small fish, crustaceans, and other aquatic invertebrates. When they dive, they can stay underwater for varying lengths of time, depending on the species and the availability of food.

Diving ducks have a specialized gland called the oil gland, located near the base of their tail, which produces waterproof oil. They use their bills to spread this oil over their feathers, which helps maintain buoyancy and keeps them dry while diving.

On top of that, Diving ducks have dense plumage that provides insulation against the cold water temperatures they encounter during their dives. 

Therefore they can dive up to a depth of about 200 ft to look for food.

4. Shearwaters

Like the other birds that swim underwater on our list, Shearwaters can dive to a depth of up to 70m and swim for about 15 minutes. Shearwaters are a group of seabirds known for their excellent swimming and diving abilities.

They can dive from the surface to considerable depths in search of fish, squid, and other marine prey. Their long wings and streamlined bodies allow them to navigate underwater with ease.

Similar to diving petrels, shearwaters use their wings to "fly" underwater. This technique, known as "wing-propelled diving," enables them to move efficiently and catch prey.

Shearwaters are renowned for their long-distance migrations. Some species undertake epic journeys, traveling thousands of miles between their breeding and feeding grounds. They are known to migrate from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere and back as the seasons change.

Many shearwater species are nocturnal feeders, meaning they are most active at night when they hunt for food. This behavior helps them avoid competition with diurnal seabirds that feed during the day.

Shearwaters often breed and nest in large colonies on remote islands and cliffs. These colonies can be home to thousands of individuals and provide important breeding and nesting sites for these birds.

Shearwaters have a well-developed sense of smell, which they use to locate food at sea. 

Their keen olfactory senses enable them to detect the scent of prey, such as fish and krill, from the air.

5. Grebes

Grebes are a group of water birds known for their exceptional swimming and diving abilities. These birds can dive to a depth of 20ft. for about 30 seconds in search of food. They use their feet, which are lobed and located far back on their bodies, as powerful paddles to propel themselves through the water.

These birds have dense, waterproof plumage that helps them stay buoyant and dry while swimming. They also have a unique ability to control their buoyancy, allowing them to adjust their position in the water or even sink lower for diving.

During the breeding season, grebes are known for their elaborate courtship displays, which often involve synchronized swimming and elaborate postures.

6. Loons

Besides the unique calls, these birds are exceptional swimmers, and they can stay underwater for up to 5 minutes.

Loons are a group of water birds that are highly skilled at swimming and diving underwater. They belong to the family Gaviidae and are known for their distinctive calls and remarkable diving abilities. Loons are primarily found in North America, Eurasia, and parts of northern Africa.

These exceptional divers can swim underwater for extended periods. 

They use their strong legs and feet positioned far back on their bodies to propel themselves underwater. 

This anatomical feature is an adaptation for swimming and diving.

To remain submerged while diving, loons have solid bones, which reduce their buoyancy. However, this feature makes them less agile on land and requires them to run across the water's surface to take flight.

Many loon species are migratory and undertake long-distance journeys between their breeding and wintering grounds. They travel to open water bodies, such as lakes, rivers, and coastal areas, for the breeding season.

7. Cormorants

Cormorants are water birds known for their exceptional swimming and diving abilities. The aquatic birds are known for diving up to 45 meters deep and even spend about 70 seconds underwater.

They have long necks and bodies, which allow them to reach considerable depths while foraging for fish and other aquatic prey. In fact, they locate their prey by diving below the water's surface, using their excellent underwater vision to catch fish.

Compared to other aquatic birds, Cormorants have less buoyancy thanks to their dense plumage, which is not entirely waterproof. After diving, they often perch on rocks or other elevated surfaces with their wings spread wide open to dry their feathers.

These strong flyers tend to fly relatively low over the water. 

They fly with their necks extended during flight, unlike other water birds like ducks and geese.

They're skilled underwater swimmers and divers; they have been both celebrated and occasionally viewed as pests in some areas due to their impact on fish populations and interactions with fisheries. Proper management and conservation efforts are necessary to ensure a balance between the ecological role of cormorants and the interests of human activities in their habitats.

8. Penguins

Penguins are birds that are highly adapted to swimming and diving underwater. They are famous for their unique and efficient swimming technique, which allows them to be powerful and agile swimmers in their oceanic habitats. They're the only birds that swim underwater that can stay underwater for 30 minutes.

Penguins use their flipper-like wings to "fly" underwater, a technique known as "wing-propelled swimming." 

This allows them to reach impressive speeds and maneuverability while chasing prey underwater.

These birds have solid, heavy bones that reduce buoyancy, making it easier for them to stay submerged while swimming. Penguins have streamlined bodies, which minimize resistance in the water and enable them to move smoothly through their aquatic environment.

When swimming at the water's surface, penguins may engage in a behavior called "porpoising," where they leap out of the water periodically. This movement allows them to breathe and quickly re-enter the water to continue swimming.

Some penguin species are exceptional deep divers, capable of diving to great depths to catch fish and squid. The Emperor penguin, for example, can dive to depths of around 500 meters (1,640 feet) in search of food.

Penguins have a counter-shading coloration, with dark backs and light-colored undersides. This adaptation helps them avoid predators while swimming by blending in with the water when viewed from above and the sky when seen from below.

9. Puffins

Puffins are birds that are adept at swimming and diving underwater. Belonging to the family Alcidae and are known for their distinctive and colorful appearance, with their large, brightly colored bills and striking plumage.

Puffins are excellent swimmers and use their wings to "fly" underwater, similar to penguins and other wing-propelled divers. 

They use their webbed feet to propel themselves through the water and can reach impressive speeds while chasing fish.

These birds are capable of diving to significant depths in search of prey. They can dive to depths of up to 197 feet and stay underwater for around a minute, though dive durations may vary among individuals and species.

They catch their prey by diving underwater and using their specialized bills to grasp and hold the fish. Puffins are migratory birds and undertake seasonal migrations between their breeding and wintering grounds. During the non-breeding season, they spend most of their time at sea, far from land.

10. Anhingas

Anhingas are fascinating birds with unique adaptations for their aquatic lifestyle. They're known for their exceptional swimming and diving abilities. They belong to the family Anhingidae and are also commonly referred to as "snakebirds" or "darters" due to their long, slender necks and underwater foraging behavior.

Anhingas are primarily piscivorous, meaning they feed on fish. They are skillful divers and use their long, flexible necks to dart underwater and catch fish with their sharp bills.

Unlike ducks and other water birds with waterproof feathers, anhingas have wettable feathers. After their underwater foraging sessions, they perch on branches or rocks with their wings spread wide open to dry their feathers in the sun. This behavior is necessary because their feathers become waterlogged during dives, and they need to dry out before they can fly effectively.

Besides their long necks, anhingas have pointed bills that are ideal for spearing fish underwater. 

Their webbed feet are set far back on their bodies, which allows them to swim efficiently.

They frequently stretch out their wings to dry and sunbathe, which is a characteristic behavior observed in these birds. Common examples of anhinga species include the Anhinga anhinga, also known as the American anhinga or the Anhinga darter.

Anhingas are fascinating birds with unique adaptations for their aquatic lifestyle. They play a vital role in maintaining the balance of freshwater ecosystems by regulating fish populations and contributing to nutrient cycling.

Conclusion

Most birds that feed on fish can dive into the water to catch their prey, but very few can swim underwater. In fact, some bird species have been known to stay underwater for over 15 minutes. Other birds can attain a maximum depth of 600ft while catching fish.

For instance, Penguins are the best divers that can stay underwater for over 15 minutes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which bird species stay underwater the longest?

The Emperor penguins hold the record for the deepest dive. These birds can dive to a depth of about 530m and even stay submerged for over 15 minutes.

What's the fastest bird species underwater?

The world's fastest diving bird is the Gentoo penguin. This penguin species can easily dive over 600ft. deep and attain a top speed of 22 miles per hour.

Can ducks swim underwater?

Most duck species can easily swim underwater for extremely short distances. But the best species that can dive underwater include mergansers, long-tails, and eiders.

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