We’ve seen a video of penguins rocketing out of the water as if powered by jets, but we’ve never seen it happen from underwater… until now. In this National Geographic clip, photographer Paul Nicklen captures how these emperor penguins use air bubbles to launch themselves out of the water. From NationalGeographic.com:
When an emperor penguin swims through the water, it is slowed by the friction between its body and the water, keeping its maximum speed somewhere between four and nine feet a second. But in short bursts the penguin can double or even triple its speed by releasing air from its feathers in the form of tiny bubbles. These reduce the density and viscosity of the water around the penguin’s body, cutting drag and enabling the bird to reach speeds that would otherwise be impossible. (As an added benefit, the extra speed helps the penguins avoid predators such as leopard seals.)
The key to this talent is in the penguin’s feathers. Like other birds, emperors have the capacity to fluff their feathers and insulate their bodies with a layer of air. But whereas most birds have rows of feathers with bare skin between them, emperor penguins have a dense, uniform coat of feathers. And because the bases of their feathers include tiny filaments—just 20 microns in diameter, less than half the width of a thin human hair—air is trapped in a fine, downy mesh and released as microbubbles so tiny that they form a lubricating coat on the feather surface.
Keep in mind that emperor penguins are often almost 3.8ft (115cm) tall and weigh 66lbs (30kg). That’s a lot of rocketing penguin.
You can see more of Paul Nicklen’s nature photos at National Geographic.com or on his site. On this site, watch more videos about feathers and more penguin videos, including The Best Bloopers from Penguins – Spy in the Huddle and Penguins can’t fly, but they can jump.