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10 Types of Birds That Swim Underwater (With Pictures)

There are approximately 18,000 species of birds in the world. Birds are known to occupy all spaces including air, land and even water. There are some birds that unluckily cannot fly, some that are restricted to a life on land or mostly restricted to the air. But in this article, we’ll be focusing on birds that have the ability to swim underwater. These birds are also known as waterbirds or aquatic birds and may be found in freshwater environments like lakes, rivers, and streams but also in the ocean, or even both! They have special adaptations that allow for them to seamlessly glide through the water.

Let’s take a quick look at some pictures of 10 birds that swim underwater and learn a little about each one.

10 Birds that Swim underwater

In this article, we’ll cover ten different types of birds that swim underwater which include:

  • Ducks
  • Cormorants
  • Loons
  • Pelicans
  • Penguins
  • Puffins
  • Coots
  • Grebes
  • Anhingas
  • Auks & Auklets
  • Dippers

1. Ducks

common mergansers
Common Mergansers (mixed group males and females) | image by David A. Mitchell via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

When you think of an aquatic bird, ducks are probably some of the first birds that come to mind. Two big categories for describing ducks are dabbling ducks and diving ducks. Dabbling ducks, like the common Mallard, tend to stick to shallow water environments. They don’t fully submerge themselves and swim underwater, rather they skim food from the waters surface or tip upside down to reach food underwater while their backside and tails remain above the water. 

Diving ducks, on the other hand, are the true underwater swimmers. Diving ducks fully submerge their bodies and swim under water to catch fish, crustaceans, mollusks or reach food deeper down. Some examples of diving ducks are mergansers, buffleheads, goldeneyes, canvasbacks and eiders.   

Where ducks can be found: Diving ducks can be found in both fresh and saltwater habitats all over the world, but tend to frequent deeper water bodies where there are plentiful small fish.

2. Cormorants

double crested cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant | image by:

If you have ever driven or walked along the coast and have seen a large, black or dark bird perched on a rock with its wings spread out, you have probably seen a Cormorant! These swimming birds often perch after spending time in the water and hold their wings out to dry off. 

Cormorants are incredible divers and move quickly through the water to feed on eels, fish, and sometimes even water snakes. They have a long, slim beak with a hook at the end, large webbed feet, and short tails. Cormorants nest in community groups on rocks or cliffs.   

Where Cormorants can be found: The Cormorant family or the Phalacrocoracidae family is a large family with up to 40 different species of Cormorants. Cormorants, in general, are Coastal birds that are found all around the world, excluding the central Pacific Islands.

3. Loons

Loons are large water birds that are commonly found in North America and Eurasia. They have a long body, long pointed bill, and often striking plumage that includes a solid head and speckled back. Their body can sit quite low in the water, giving them a distinctive silhouette. Loons are also known for their unique vocalizations, which include eerie wails and yodels.

When it comes to swimming, loons are incredibly skilled. They use their powerful legs to propel themselves underwater, where they can stay for up to a minute at a time. They are also excellent divers, able to reach depths of up to 200 feet in search of food. Their diet is primarily fish, especially small to medium-sized fish such as perch, sunfish, and trout. Loons will also occasionally eat crustaceans, insects, and other aquatic animals.

They nest on land but otherwise spend almost all their time in the water. Their legs are located near the back of their body for optimal speed in the water, but can’t hold their body weight on land so they aren’t able to walk well like many ducks can.

Where Loons can be found: There are five species of loons in the world: the common loon, the yellow-billed loon, the red-throated loon, the Arctic loon, and the Pacific loon. They can be found in North America, Europe, Asia and the Arctic. Many loons will breed in large inland lakes during the summer, then return to coastal waters in the winter.

4. Pelicans

brown pelican
Brown Pelican | image by:

Pelicans are an amazing group of waterbirds most famously known for the large pouches attached to their beaks. These throat pouches are used to help pelicans scoop up fish and then drain the water prior to swallowing their prey. Pelicans travel and often hunt in flocks or groups. Unfortunately for Pelicans, they are generally considered a nuisance by many recreational fishermen and have also been known to get entangled or hooked by fishing gear.

While pelicans are known for their excellent fishing skills, not all pelicans dive underwater. Some, like the American white pelican, are more likely to feed by swimming on the surface of the water and scooping up fish with their large bills. 

However others, like the brown pelican, are known for their spectacular diving ability. They use a unique technique known as plunge-diving, where they fly high above the water and then dive straight down, plunging headfirst into the water to catch fish. Brown pelicans are also capable of swimming and using their wings to “herd” fish into shallow water where they can more easily catch them.

Where Pelicans can be found: There are eight species of pelican in the world. The most well-known species is the brown pelican, which is found in the Americas, from the southern United States to northern South America. The other species are the Peruvian pelican, the American white pelican, the Australian pelican, the great white pelican, the pink-backed pelican, the Dalmatian pelican, and the spot-billed pelican. The American white pelican is found in North America, while the other species are found in various parts of Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

5. Penguins

Penguins are definitely one of the most well-known birds that swim underwater. They effortlessly glide through the water in a way that makes them look like they are flying. These birds split their time on land and time in the sea almost equally, catching food in the water then returning to land for nesting, preening and socializing.

Unlike the birds we have talked about so far, penguins cannot fly. Penguins have streamlined bodies, flipper-like wings, and webbed feet that make them expert swimmers, allowing them to catch fish and other prey underwater. While they are not able to fly, penguins are still able to move quickly on land, using their wings for balance and to help them “jump” over obstacles.

Penguins expertly chase down their marine prey which includes animals like fish, krill and squid. They can stay underwater for a few minutes at a time, up to 20 minutes for larger species. On average, most penguin species can swim at speeds of around 4 – 7 miles per hour. However, some species are capable of swimming much faster. For example, the gentoo penguin can swim at speeds of up to 22 miles per hour, making it one of the fastest swimming birds in the world.

Where Penguins can be found: Penguins are found in the Southern Hemisphere. There is debate within the scientific community about how many species of Penguins there are, but the number is between 17-20 different species. Penguins are typically associated with Antarctica, but many species live in warmer, more temperate climates like South Africa and South America.

6. Puffins

Puffin swimming underwater

Puffins are small birds with distinctive black and white plumage and brightly colored bills that are used for catching fish. They are excellent swimmers and divers, using their wings to “fly” underwater and catch fish with their bills. They are also capable of diving to depths of up to 200 feet in search of food.

Puffins primarily eat fish, including sand eels, herring, and capelin. They can catch and carry multiple fish in their bills at once, allowing them to bring back plenty of food for their young. Puffins are also known to eat crustaceans and other small marine animals.

They typically breed on rocky cliffs and islands, where they dig burrows in the soil to lay their eggs and raise their young. Puffins are popular among birdwatchers and tourists, who can observe them in their natural habitats during breeding season. If you’re in the United States, head to Maine where you can find boat tours that take you to the rocky islands where puffins are nesting.

Where puffins can be found: There are three species of puffins in the world: the Atlantic puffin, the horned puffin, and the tufted puffin. The Atlantic puffin is the most well-known and widespread species, found in the North Atlantic Ocean, from Iceland and Norway to the eastern coast of North America. The horned puffin is found in the North Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to Siberia, while the tufted puffin is found in the North Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to Japan.T

7. Coots

american coot
American Coot | image by fletchershauna via Pixabay

Coots are small to medium-sized water birds that are found in wetlands and other aquatic habitats around the world. They have dark plumage and a chicken-like body shape, with a distinctive white bill and forehead shield. They have large feet with lobed toes, rather than the webbed feet of a duck. Their toes allow them to both swim and walk well on land and through wetland vegetation.

Coots are omnivores and eat a variety of plant and animal matter. They feed on aquatic vegetation, as well as insects, crustaceans, and small fish. They can dive, but don’t typically swim underwater for extended periods of time. Instead, they use their lobed toes to paddle through the water and dive briefly to catch fish and other aquatic prey.

The lobed toes of coots are specialized adaptations that help them swim more efficiently. The toes have flaps of skin between them that act like paddles, providing extra surface area for propulsion through the water. Coots are adaptable birds and can be found in a variety of freshwater habitats, including lakes, ponds, marshes, and rivers.

Where Coots can be found: There are several species of coots in the world, including the American coot, the Eurasian coot, the African coot, and the red-gartered coot. The American coot is found throughout North America, while the Eurasian coot is found in Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa. The African coot is found in sub-Saharan Africa, while the red-gartered coot is found in South America. 

8. Grebes

eared grebe breeding
Eared Grebe (breeding plumage) | image by Ingrid V Taylar via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Grebes can vary in appearance from small brown ducks to medium sized, elegant looking birds with long necks and slender bills.  Grebes are excellent swimmers and divers, using their feet to propel themselves through the water and their wings to “fly” underwater in pursuit of small fish, crustaceans, and insects.

Grebes are diving birds that are far more comfortable in water than on land. They can also fly, but only do so in short bursts, covering small distances. Unlike many other aquatic birds that lay their eggs on land, Grebes actually construct floating nests from reeds and other vegetation. Grebe hatchlings are able to swim immediately.

Some species, such as the western grebe, are known for their elaborate courtship displays, which involve intricate dances and rituals that help to establish pair bonds and ensure successful breeding.

Where Grebes can be found: There are several species of grebes in the world, including the pied-billed grebe, the western grebe, the Clark’s grebe, and the red-necked grebe. Grebes are found in a variety of freshwater habitats, including lakes, ponds, marshes, and rivers. Some species of grebes are also found in saltwater habitats, such as estuaries and coastal lagoons. There are 22 species of Grebes, with several species occurring on all continents excluding Antarctica.

9. Anhinga

Anhinga drying its feathers image by:

Anhingas are a type of aquatic bird found most commonly in shallow, sheltered freshwater environments with trees, tall grasses and shrubs, such as mangroves, wetlands, swamps, and lagoons. 

These birds are distinguished by their black bodies with white wing accents, and long snake-like necks. They often swim through the water with only their long neck showing above the surface, giving them the nickname “snake bird”. They have a second nickname, “water turkey”, due to their long turkey-like tail feathers. Anhingas can reach a length of 3 feet and a wingspan of 3.7 feet.

Their main diet is fish, which they catch by slowly swimming underwater, then stabbing them with their sharp bill. Despite all the time they spend in the water, they do not have waterproof feathers like ducks. After they are done swimming, they will stand on the shore and stretch out both wings to dry. 

Where anhingas can be found: The Anhinga is found in freshwater habitats throughout the Americas, from the southeastern United States to Argentina. In the U.S. look for them in Florida and along the Gulf coast.

10. Auks & Auklets

parakeet auklet
Parakeet auklet | image by Lisa Hupp/USFWS via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Auks and auklets are both members of the family Alcidae and share many similarities in their adaptations to life in the ocean. These seabirds are adapted to swimming and diving, with dense, waterproof feathers to help them stay warm and dry in cold ocean waters. Their webbed feet help them speed through the water, chasing after their prey of fish and small marine animals. 

Auks are larger, with straight, pointed bills for catching fish. Auklets are smaller birds with shorter and thicker bills that have a more rounded tip that helps them catch small prey like krill and copepods. Auklets often have brightly colored facial feathers and crests or plumes on their head, while most auks don’t.

Both auks and auklets are adapted to living in cold, open water environments and are able to dive to great depths in search of food. They typically breed in large colonies on rocky islands or cliffs near the coast, where they can find suitable nesting sites and access to the ocean for feeding.

Where auks and auklets can be found: Auks and auklets are found in the Northern Hemisphere, primarily in the cold waters of the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans.

11. Dippers

american dipper
American Dipper | image by Glacier National Park via Flickr

Dippers are small, plump birds found in fast-flowing cold and clear streams and rivers in North America, Europe, and Asia. Unlike most birds on this list, they look much more like a non-water bird, and don’t have webbed feet. 

Dippers have short wings and tails. Their wings have good muscles that they can use as flippers when in the water. They have dense, waterproof feathers that help them stay dry and warm while swimming. Their long legs and toe claws help them hold on to stream-bed gravel and not get swept away by the water.

You can probably tell by their shape they don’t glide underwater like a penguin. When swimming, dippers use a unique “bobbing” motion, dipping their heads and bodies underwater repeatedly as they move upstream. This allows them to search for food in the fast-flowing currents, and they are able to hold their breath for up to 30 seconds while diving.

Dippers feed on a variety of aquatic invertebrates, including mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies, as well as small fish and fish eggs.

Where can dippers be found: In North America, the American Dipper is found along the western coast, from Alaska to California, as well as in the Rocky Mountains and other mountainous regions in the western United States. There are also other dipper species found in Europe, Asia and South America. 


There are many species of birds that have mastered swimming and diving. Some can fly and dive, while others can’t fly at all. Some have an easy time walking around on land, while others struggle and prefer to swim most of the time. These animals prove just how truly dynamic and impressive our world’s birds can be.