Birds That Dive Into Water: A Deep Dive

For centuries, humans have marveled at the sight of birds gracefully diving into bodies of water. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: the main types of birds known for plunging into water are seabirds, waterfowl, kingfishers, and some raptors.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about diving birds, from how they enter the water to why they do it and what they hunt for once submerged.

In this detailed article, we will explore the various species of birds adapted for diving, how their body design enables them to dive efficiently, the different techniques they use to enter the water, and the purposes behind their dives, such as catching prey or escaping predators.

We’ll also discuss some of the most common diving birds around the world and share interesting facts about their impressive diving abilities.

Bird Species That Dive Into Water

There are several bird species that are known for their impressive diving abilities. These birds have evolved specialized adaptations that allow them to plunge into water in search of food or to escape from predators. Let’s take a closer look at some of these fascinating bird species.


Seabirds are a diverse group of birds that spend a significant portion of their lives at sea. Many seabirds, such as gannets, terns, and pelicans, are skilled divers. They have streamlined bodies and long, narrow wings that enable them to dive into the water with great speed and precision.

These birds use their keen eyesight to spot fish swimming near the surface, and then they fold their wings back and plunge headfirst into the water, often from impressive heights. The plunge diving technique of seabirds is truly awe-inspiring to witness.


Waterfowl, including ducks, geese, and swans, are another group of birds that are adept at diving into water. While they are primarily known for their ability to swim on the water’s surface, many species of waterfowl are also capable of diving to search for food.

For example, the common merganser is a diving duck that can stay underwater for up to a minute in pursuit of fish. These birds have specialized bills and webbed feet that help them navigate underwater, making them efficient hunters in aquatic environments.


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Kingfishers are well-known for their remarkable diving skills. These small, colorful birds have a unique hunting strategy – they perch on a branch or a wire overlooking water bodies, such as rivers or lakes, and then dive headfirst into the water when they spot a fish.

Kingfishers have long, sharp beaks that enable them to snatch fish out of the water with precision. They are incredibly agile in flight and can change direction in an instant, making them formidable hunters in their aquatic habitats.


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While most raptors, such as eagles and hawks, are known for their soaring and hunting abilities in the air, some species are also capable of diving into water. The osprey, also known as the fish hawk, is a prime example.

These birds have specialized adaptations, including reversible outer toes and sharp spiny scales on their feet, which help them grip slippery fish underwater. Ospreys are often seen hovering above water before plunging feet-first to catch their prey, emerging with a fish firmly grasped in their talons.

Adaptations That Enable Diving

Many birds have evolved remarkable adaptations that enable them to dive into water with ease. These adaptations encompass various aspects of their anatomy and physiology, allowing them to excel in their aquatic hunting endeavors. Let’s take a closer look at some of these adaptations.

Streamlined Bodies

One of the key adaptations for diving birds is their streamlined bodies. These birds have elongated, torpedo-shaped bodies that minimize drag when they enter the water. This streamlined shape allows them to move swiftly through the water, enabling them to catch their prey with agility.

Species like the Atlantic Puffin and the Common Loon are known for their sleek bodies that facilitate their diving prowess.

Vision Adaptations

Diving birds also possess vision adaptations that assist them in locating prey underwater. Their eyes are able to adjust quickly to changes in light and focus on objects both near and far. This enables them to spot fish or other prey hiding beneath the water’s surface.

Additionally, birds like the Osprey have a unique second set of eyelids called nictitating membranes that protect their eyes while diving, allowing them to stay focused on their target.

Feather Waterproofing

Feathers play a crucial role in a bird’s ability to dive into water. These diving birds have specialized feathers that are tightly packed and coated with waterproof oils. This waterproofing prevents the feathers from becoming waterlogged, which would impede their ability to fly and stay buoyant.

Penguins, for example, are known for their dense, waterproof feathers that allow them to dive to great depths and spend extended periods underwater.


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Leg and Foot Modifications

Another important adaptation for diving birds is the modification of their legs and feet. Many diving birds have webbed feet, which act as paddles to propel them through the water efficiently. This webbing increases surface area, providing more thrust with each stroke.

Additionally, some species, such as the Northern Gannet, have specialized hind toes that are positioned farther back on their feet. This arrangement helps them to steer and maneuver underwater, much like a rudder.

Diving Techniques

Birds that dive into water have developed various techniques to catch their prey and survive in their aquatic environments. These diving techniques can be categorized into different types based on the bird’s behavior and approach.

Plunge Diving

Plunge diving is one of the most common diving techniques used by birds such as pelicans and gannets. These birds spot their prey from above and then dive straight down into the water, using their streamlined bodies and strong wings to propel themselves into the depths.

Plunge diving allows them to reach greater depths and catch fish that are swimming below the water’s surface.

Aerial Diving

Some birds, like the Osprey, are known for their aerial diving technique. These birds hover above the water, scanning for fish. Once they spot their prey, they plunge feet-first into the water to catch it.

The Osprey is equipped with specialized toes that can grip fish tightly, ensuring a successful catch. Aerial diving requires precision and agility, as the bird needs to accurately judge the location and depth of the water before diving.

Pursuit Diving

Pursuit diving is a technique employed by birds such as the Common Loon. These birds swim on the water’s surface, using their strong legs and webbed feet to propel themselves forward. When they spot a fish, they dive underwater and chase it, using their wings to propel themselves through the water.

Pursuit diving requires both swimming and diving skills, as the bird needs to swim after its prey and maneuver underwater to catch it.

Walking/Floating Dives

Some birds, like the Pied Kingfisher, have adapted to catch prey by walking or floating on the water’s surface. These birds hover above the water, looking for fish. Once they spot their prey, they dive into the water headfirst, using their beaks to catch the fish.

Walking/floating dives are less common among diving birds but are effective for birds that inhabit shallow waters or have a preference for catching prey near the water’s surface.

It is fascinating to observe the different diving techniques employed by birds to survive and thrive in their aquatic habitats. These adaptations have allowed them to become efficient hunters, utilizing their physical attributes and instincts to catch their prey underwater.

Reasons for Diving

Birds that dive into water do so for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s for foraging, escaping predators, preening, or simply playing, these birds have adapted unique abilities to navigate underwater environments. Let’s explore each of these reasons in more detail:


Diving birds, such as cormorants and loons, dive into water to catch their prey. These birds have streamlined bodies and powerful wings that enable them to propel themselves underwater in search of fish, crustaceans, and other aquatic organisms.

By diving, they can access food sources that are not available to birds that rely solely on surface feeding. Some diving birds can dive to impressive depths, reaching up to 200 feet or more!

Escaping Predators

For some birds, diving into water serves as an effective escape strategy when faced with predators. When pursued by predators like birds of prey or land predators, diving birds have the advantage of being able to quickly submerge themselves underwater, making it difficult for their pursuers to catch them.

This ability to dive and swim away provides them with a layer of protection that can save their lives.


Another reason birds dive into water is for the purpose of preening. Preening is an important part of a bird’s grooming routine, as it helps to maintain the health and condition of their feathers. Water birds, such as ducks and swans, will often dive into water to wet their feathers before preening.

Wetting their feathers makes it easier for birds to align and clean each individual feather, removing dirt, parasites, and oils that may have accumulated.


Believe it or not, some birds dive into water simply for the sheer joy of it. Take the Atlantic puffin, for example. These adorable birds are known for their playful behavior, and diving into the water is just one of the many ways they express their exuberance.

While it may not serve a specific purpose like foraging or escaping predators, playing in the water allows these birds to exhibit their natural instincts and have a great time in their aquatic habitat.

Whether it’s for foraging, escaping predators, preening, or playing, diving birds demonstrate remarkable abilities that allow them to navigate underwater environments. Their unique adaptations and behaviors make them a fascinating group of birds to study and appreciate.

Notable Diving Birds Around the World

When it comes to birds that dive into water, there are several notable species found around the world. These birds have adapted to an aquatic lifestyle and have developed unique characteristics that allow them to dive and swim underwater in search of food.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these fascinating diving birds.


Gannets are large seabirds that are known for their spectacular diving abilities. These birds can plunge into the water from great heights, reaching speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. With their long wings and streamlined bodies, gannets can dive to depths of around 30 meters in search of fish.

They have keen eyesight, which helps them spot their prey from above the water’s surface.


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Cormorants are another group of diving birds that are found in various parts of the world. These birds have dense, waterproof feathers that allow them to stay submerged for extended periods. With their strong legs and webbed feet, cormorants are excellent swimmers and can dive to depths of up to 45 meters.

They use their sharp beaks to catch fish, which they swallow whole.


Loons are diving birds typically found in freshwater lakes and ponds. These birds have sharp, pointed beaks and strong legs, which make them efficient hunters underwater. Loons can dive to depths of up to 80 meters and stay submerged for several minutes.

They primarily feed on fish and use their powerful wings to propel themselves through the water.


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Penguins are perhaps the most well-known diving birds, primarily found in the Southern Hemisphere. These flightless birds have adapted to life in the ocean and are excellent swimmers. Penguins can dive to depths of up to 100 meters or more in search of fish and krill.

Their streamlined bodies and flipper-like wings enable them to navigate through the water with ease.


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Pelicans are large water birds known for their distinctive pouches. While they are not specialized divers like some other birds on this list, they do engage in shallow dives to catch fish near the water’s surface.

Pelicans plunge into the water from a height, using the force to stun and catch their prey. They then scoop the fish into their expandable pouches before swallowing them whole.


Auks are a family of diving birds that include puffins, razorbills, and murres. These birds have short wings, which make them excellent swimmers. Auks can dive to depths of up to 60 meters and use their wings to propel themselves underwater.

They primarily feed on fish and crustaceans and are known for their agility and speed in the water.


While herons are primarily known for their wading abilities, some species also exhibit diving behavior. These birds use their long legs and sharp beaks to catch fish and other aquatic prey. Herons can plunge into the water from above or dive from a low height to catch their prey.

They are skilled hunters both in the air and underwater.


Ospreys are unique birds of prey that have the ability to dive into the water to catch fish. They have sharp talons and curved beaks, which they use to snatch fish from the water’s surface. Ospreys can hover above the water and then plunge into it feet-first to grab their prey.

They are highly skilled divers and can catch fish weighing up to 2 pounds.


Diving birds never cease to impress with their mastery of entering the water to catch prey or evade predators. Their specialized bodies and techniques reveal the wonders of evolution and adaptation. We hope this deep dive provided you with a comprehensive look at the world of birds that plunge below the surface.

Next time you see a bird dive gracefully into a lake or sea, you’ll have a new appreciation for its abilities.

In summary, many species of seabirds, waterfowl, kingfishers and raptors are equipped for diving into water through adaptations like waterproof feathers and strong legs. They employ various techniques to plunge from the air or dive from the surface.

While diving allows them to efficiently hunt prey, it also helps them escape from predators and keep their feathers preened. The next time you spot a bird disappearing below the waves, take a moment to admire the beauty of form matching function.

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