Biomimicry of Humpback Whales

Water shot up from the ocean in the horizon. It was the moment we were waiting for.

“Hold onto the bars. We’re going fast. We’ve got to catch it,” our skipper Stephen shouted from the back of the Ocean Odyssey motorboat.

I braced myself, one hand gripping the bar tightly, and the other hand protecting my camera under my jacket from the saltwater. Our motorboat surged forward, Steven professionally navigating the strong waves. I felt as though I was floating on a magic flying carpet. I definitely did not want to fall off. Thinking about that even now only makes me shiver.

One water spout again. We were getting close. Just seconds later, another water spout metres away from the other. There were two of them! We twisted our bodies to the right, cameras out. We sat excitedly in silence with eyes peeled open. The cold ocean breeze brushed our faces and crashing waves played for our ears. I was on hypersensitive mode.

3…2…1… The humpback whales peeked out of the ocean surface! I held my breath, taking in the enormity of these marvellous creatures. Even though they may be gentle giants, their sheer size was sufficiently intimidating. The size of our boat was barely that of their heads. My mind played scenes of the whales coming from beneath us and overturning our boat. It would have been a traumatic experience if it did happen, but nothing short of awesome if we lived to tell the tale.

Disappointingly, the two humpback whales did not showcase their acrobatic skill of breaching – leaping and rotating out of the water – which they are well known for. Nevertheless, one of them raised its tail as if waving to us, and then slapped it into the water – a behaviour known as lobtailing. At least it seemed as though they acknowledged our presence. Soon after, they disappeared into the deep and vast ocean. Steven informed us that humpback whales are usually not that shy. “It could be that the female is pregnant,” he added.


As our whale watching came to an end, Steven casually shared a piece of wisdom; “There are so many inventions by man that were inspired by nature.” Biomimicry, or biomimetics, is the application of nature’s time-tested organic technologies. Scientists and engineers are turning to nature “as the template for improving mechanical devices and operations, and developing whole new technologies” (Fish, Weber, & Howle, 2011, p. 203). Perhaps the most famous bio-inspired invention is the airplane. Birds’ wings were a characteristic that people attempted to emulate, and succeeded, thus resulting in a revolutionary outcome in the transportation industry. However, a more recent and less known attempt at biomimicry has to do with humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae).

Marine biologists have often marvelled at humpbacks’ spectacular ability of breaching. They have also observed that these whales, unlike other baleen species, are highly maneuverable, thus able “to swim tight circles around its prey” (McClatchy newspapers, 2008). These can be attributed to the natural design of their bodies. Humpbacks have knobby lumps called tubercles on their heads and leading edge of their flippers. These tubercles allow humpbacks to “maneuver their flippers to a sharp angle of attack before they start to stall, which lets them develop more lift and make those fish-catching turns” (Locke, 2015). Thus, the natural design of tubercles has enabled humpbacks to be efficient fish catchers and acrobatic giants.

Some companies have been motivated to take a shot at the biomimicry of tubercles in their product designs. WhalePower Corp., led by Dr. Frank E. Fish, in partnership with Canadian entrepreneur Stephen Dewar, has been continuously studying the fluid dynamics and biomechanics of tubercles, and their application to surfaces such as fan blades and wind turbines (see Fish, Weber, & Howle, 2011). WhalePower Corp. has been the culmination and manifestation of the research. The corporation has partnered with industrial and agricultural fans manufacturer EnviraNorth Systems Ltd to produce Tubercle Technology High Volume Low Speed (HVLS) fans.

The innovation aims to achieve an effective application of the tubercle design. “A [HVLS] model with a 24-foot diameter of five blades is reported to be 25% more efficient and consumes 20% less electricity to operate than a 10-blade configuration” (Fish, Weber, & Howle, 2011, p. 210). Moreover, the HVLS fans generate more electricity at moderate wind speeds than previous, unmodified designs (p. 210).

Another company, Fluid Earth, has also applied tubercles in their design of surfboard skeg’s leading edge (Fish, Weber, & Howle, 2011, p. 209). Some studies have also considered the application of tubercle technology on aeroplane wings, airfoils, hydrofoils, and helicopter blades (Hamilton, 2008; McClatchy newspapers, 2008).

It is exciting indeed to see where biomimicry will take us. Harnessing organic technologies may be the way forward to driving innovation. But what I am more eager to know is what else nature has to teach us. It goes to show that there is so much we humans have yet to discover about our planet and its inhabitants.

References:

Fish, F. E., Weber, P. W., Murray, M. M., & Howle, L. E. (2011). The tubercles on humpback whales’ flippers: Application of bio-inspired technology. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 51(1), 203-213. doi:10.1093/icb/icr016

Hamilton, T. (2008). Whale-inspired Wind Turbines. MIT Technology Review, 6 March. Retrieved from: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/409710/whale-inspired-wind-turbines/

Locke, C. (2015). Humpback whales solve a big problem for wind turbines. WIRED, 19 November. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/2015/11/whales-wind-turbines/

McClatchy newspapers (2008). A whale of a turbine. The Guardian, 24 June. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2008/jun/24/animalbehaviour.usa

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