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Depth charge: How penguins ‘fly’

a bird flying over a body of water

The regular footage showing penguins seemingly flying out of the water and onto nearby ice floes is always exciting to watch, particularly if they’re doing so with a hungry seal or orca close behind. But just how do they get the speed to do so?

Because of their widdly-waddly body shape penguins can’t exactly grapple up onto a jagged rock or slippery ice sheet with ease. So they get some speed underwater first, moving towards the surface in a trail of air bubbles like a torpedo shot through the water.

How they do so has only recently been properly analysed however. It’s all thanks to the BBC’s renowned Blue Planet documentary series. After thoroughly investigating the underwater footage a group of Irish biologists discovered upon how this air was created.

The air bubbles created by the penguins don’t come from their lungs, but rather from the bird’s feathers. These bubbles act as a coat around the penguins, allowing them to reach speeds up to 19km an hour underwater. This technique is the same one used by engineers to help boats across (and torpedoes through) the water.

Such momentum can carry Adelie penguins up to two or three metres out of the water. For larger birds like the Emperor penguin the maximum is about 45 cm, but it’s still enough to get them up and over shoreline obstacles.

Many of the penguins in our rescue arrive with injuries that prevent them from achieving the same physical feats as their cousins in the wild. However they’re still pretty fast diving down for a good feed each day!

Photo credit: www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/winter-2014/articles/flying-penguin