Deakin Communicating Science 2016

EES 200/101

The Bumps and the Humps in the Humpback Whale


Humpback whales are a gentle giant of the ocean. They are one of the most largest living animals and mammals on this earth. Surprisingly, they are also very agile, especially for an animal of their size. The reason for this is due to the bumps on their flippers called tubercles.

A tubercle is actually a large hair follicle containing a pocket of nerves linked to a hair. I was honestly surprised to learn that whales have hair! What these bumps are capable of doing is changing how pressure is distributed across the flipper, reducing the amount of drag and energy, as well as the amount of stall. Stall meaning when not enough water or air is flowing over the wing’s top surface, or flipper in this case. When this occurs there is a increase of drag, resulting in loss of altitude; losing lift.



You would think that a extremely smooth and straight flipper would be best for moving through water, or would require less energy. However, that is not actually the case, as having a smooth flipper would just create vortices behind it, increasing drag. This would not be efficient for the great beast of the ocean nor would they be stable while moving through the water, additionally losing their agility as well.

Now why would scientists bother to look into the bumps that whales have on their body? Well a Professor of Biology named Dr. Frank E. Fish thought that the bumps of a Humpback whale sculpture he saw, was not anatomically correct. Looking further into the matter to prove his argument, he not only discovered that he was wrong but, he also found a breakthrough in aerodynamics.


From the information he gathered from his studies and research, Fish found how tubercles on blades and wings are efficient and quieter, while also not needing much energy to run them. In fact, with this design more power can be produced at low speeds, hence less energy required. Wind powered turbines would run better, less drag, and unlike traditional turbines, even at low wind speeds power will be constantly generated.

Additionally, energy could also be generated by the tidal flow of the ocean, which is much more predictable compared to wind and solar power. Energy from the velocity of water flow can be convert into electricity. Without the tubercles this way of producing power would have been costly as well as there would be limited sites available, as these turbines would need high velocity of tidal flow to function.

Overall, we would have an easier time generating power at lower speeds of energy, with efficiency being up to 20 percent compared to traditional smooth blades. And air flow circulating would also be a lot better than before. Despite all this, it is amazing how humans can be inspired by animals and nature. Forming a different outlook into improving and creating new materials, such as fake shark skin; help reduce amount of barnacle colonies on the surfaces of ships and submarines while also increasing speed and stealth. Or even aeroplane wings and turbine blades designed similarly to that of a Humpback whales’ flipper.


Blain L 2008, Bumpy whale fins set to spark a revolution in aerodynamics, Gizmag, retrieved 05/05/16,

Gregg J 2014, unsolved Mystery: What are those weird bumps on the heads of humpback whales?, EarthTouch News Network, retrieved 04/05/16,

Hamilton T 2008, Whales-inspired Wind Turbines, Technology review, retrieved 04/05/16,

Iron-man01 n.d., Whale Thanks Friends, Moving image of a whale breaching with the caption whale hello there, cheezburger, retrieved 06/05/06,

Kleinman Z 2015, Six ways nature has inspired  tech innovations, BBC news, retrieved 04/05/16,

Orcutt M 2010, Bumpy humpback flippers inspire new tidal turbine design, a humpback whale flipper compared next to a turbine blade modelled off the whale flipper, Scientific America, retrieved 06/05/16,

Quick D 2010, Whale-inspired bumps improve efficiency of ocean turbine blades, Gizmag, retrieved 04/05/16,

Simon M 2015, Sea Lion Flippers could inspire super stealthy submersibles,  picture of a humpback whale’s flipper sticking out of the water, wired, retrieved 05/06/16,


2 comments on “The Bumps and the Humps in the Humpback Whale

  1. bnewma
    May 8, 2016

    Wow, great work! I have always wondered why the humpback whale has such characteristic notches on its flippers, and you have explained it brilliantly! It’s great to see that engineers and researchers were able to use the knowledge of tubercles to optimise technologies, especially one as important as sustainable and renewable energy. Even now we are seeing tubercle technology making breakthroughs in all kinds of fields, from Formula 1 [1] to surfboards and aerofoils [2]. It is incredible what engineers can achieve through bio-mimicry. I would love to have found out more on the phenomenal agility of the humpback whale, or more images of tubercle technology being incorporated into established fields. Fantastic post nonetheless!

    [1]: Bite Size Tech: McLaren MP4-29 NEW tubercles inspired Rear Wing – Hockenheim – SomersF1 – The technical side of Formula One,
    [2]: 2011. The Tubercles on Humpback Whales’ Flippers: Application of Bio-Inspired Technology,


  2. jenniferjt1105
    May 8, 2016

    I really liked your blog post. I think that it’s so interesting how humans find inspiration for inventions that improve our lives by looking to the natural world. I liked how you didn’t just use how humpback whales have inspired the design for turbines and plane wings, but also included how humans are trying to copy shark skin for use on boats and submarines. It was good that you included the physics behind how humpback whale fins work, I really had no idea before I read your post. Another thing that I found interesting is how whales have hair, which is something I really didn’t expect. I also liked that you included the possible future benefits of technology developed to emulate the fins of humpback whales. I’ve always been interested in biomimicry like what you were discussing in the post, especially like how we are developing new architectural designs to keep buildings at fairly stable temperatures by watching termites (Biomimicry Institute, 2015), and how we are developing new technology to the help the blind get around by observing how bats find their way in the dark (BBC, 2011).

    BBC, 2011. Bats inspire ultrasonic cane for blind. [Online]
    Available at:
    [Accessed 8 May 2016].
    Biomimicry Institute, 2015. Solutions to global challenges are all around us. [Online]
    Available at:
    [Accessed 8 May 2016].


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This entry was posted on May 8, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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