Mechanical & Materials Engineering, Department of


Date of this Version



The Journal of Experimental Biology (2014) 217, 252-260 doi:10.1242/jeb.087924


© 2014. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd


Attempts to measure the propulsive forces produced by swimming dolphins have been limited. Previous uses of computational hydrodynamic models and gliding experiments have provided estimates of thrust production by dolphins, but these were indirect tests that relied on various assumptions. The thrust produced by two actively swimming bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) was directly measured using digital particle image velocimetry (DPIV). For dolphins swimming in a large outdoor pool, the DPIV method used illuminated microbubbles that were generated in a narrow sheet from a finely porous hose and a compressed air source. The movement of the bubbles was tracked with a high-speed video camera. Dolphins swam at speeds of 0.7 to 3.4 m s−1 within the bubble sheet oriented along the midsagittal plane of the animal. The wake of the dolphin was visualized as the microbubbles were displaced because of the action of the propulsive flukes and jet flow. The oscillations of the dolphin flukes were shown to generate strong vortices in the wake. Thrust production was measured from the vortex strength through the Kutta–Joukowski theorem of aerodynamics. The dolphins generated up to 700 N during small amplitude swimming and up to 1468 N during large amplitude starts. The results of this study demonstrated that bubble DPIV can be used effectively to measure the thrust produced by large-bodied dolphins.