Dolphins' Surprising Power Output

Cruising speed is 1.4 times the power a cyclist can sustain for an hour

Jan 16, 2014
Outside Magazine

2.27096e+007    Getty Images/Ingram Publishing

A dolphin can produce as much as 5,400 watts of power; that’s roughly ten times more than the most fit human athletes produce, according to a study by the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Previously, dolphins were thought to power through the water using a trick of fluid mechanics that enabled them to outswim boats moving at high speed. This theory held for the past 60 years until a researcher named Frank Fish had an idea: "Let's see how much power a dolphin can produce."

Using hydrodynamics models to look at the way a dolphin’s fluke propels it through the water, Fish discovered the secret to their speed. Using little more than a SCUBA tank and a garden hose, Fish measured power output as the dolphins swam through the corresponding bubble vortex.

The dolphins’ cruising speed produced a surprising 549 watts. That’s 1.4 times the power a cyclist can sustain for an hour. When the mammals accelerated, that output jumped to 5,400 watts.

When asked what’s next, Fish responds, “If I can do it for a dolphin, can I do it for a whale? Can I do it for a manta ray?”

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