Lesson #230: Plane Gazing Penguins

Every once in a while, something completely ridiculous will pop into my head and it will be my new goal to find out the answer.

Today, for absolutely no reason, I thought ‘I wonder how many people are killed by hippos every year.’

And that was a fantastic question that set me to finding out an answer (300+ is the best answer I could find that wasn’t totally ridiculous), which in turn led me to a page that linked to the following question: “Do penguins topple over when gazing at airplanes?”

Naturally, I needed to learn the answer to this question. Because, honestly, who doesn’t need to know the answer to that question?

The simple answer is no, but the awesome answer is: the British Navy were banned from flying low over penguin colonies and in November 2000, the British Antarctic Survey actually did a study on the subject.

The origins of the toppling penguin date to the Falklands War in the early 1980s.* Naval pilots began telling stories about how the penguins would look up to find the source of the noise and fall over on their backs. So despite there being only anecdotal evidence, the Royal Navy banned planes from flying low over the colonies. Twenty years later, someone got the idea to test the validity of this and so the Royal Navy and the British Antarctic Survey launched a five-week study. To test the validity of the flyover problem, the Royal Navy flew 17 missions in a helicopter at heights between 2000 and 400 metres (6500 to 1650 feet) from different directions.** The study entitled ‘Ecological Effects of Helicopter Overflights on King Penguins’ and released in late winter 2001, unsurprisingly, found that the presence of low-flying aircraft may well disrupt the penguins, but it doesn’t cause them to topple over.***

*Argentina wanted them back, Britain needed them for strategic sheep purposes.

**That information is here.

***I was able to find the title of the report, but all links to it are no longer valid. The Telegraph article on the report is here. The Snopes page on the penguin myth is here.

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