Pelicans dive into the ocean all the time. They hunt by spotting fish from high in the air before zeroing in and dropping down into the water dozens of feet below. While they make it look like no big deal, it’s a dangerous maneuver. From 40 feet up, if they hit the surface of the water wrong, it’s like slamming into a brick wall.
PBS’s video series Deep Look recently took a dive into how brown pelicans manage to pull this off without breaking their necks, going blind, or otherwise maiming themselves. Part good form, part physiology, it’s an impressive feat. The muscles around their back tighten to protect their spine, a membrane flashes over their eyes to protect their vision, and their sword-shaped bill slices through the water.
And once they hit, they’ve got a built-in life vest that keeps them floating along the surface of the water instead of plunging down into deeper waters. When the pelican takes a deep breath as it dives, air rushes into special sacks under their skin and in their bones, called pneumatic foramina, that act like a cushion against the water. Their signature gular pouch doesn’t just hold fish, either. It acts like a parachute to slow the bird down, only inflating with liquid instead of air (it catches up to three gallons of water in the process).
Watch the full video to find out more.
If you’re really into pelicans, you can also experience a GoPro view of a pelican learning to fly.