How Do Whales Avoid Sunburn?

Sperm whale with remoras
Enigma the Sperm Whale and his Remora friends: Photo by Bryant Austin

Ahh, I love basking in the sun! Up to six hours a day in between dives. Hello, I’m a sperm whale, and my name is Enigma. Scientists took a sample of my skin using a modified crossbow and arrowhead, and compared it to over a hundred other sperm, blue, and fin whales in the Gulf of California. Guess what? They found that the three types of whales had three different ways to deal with UV exposure at the surface of the ocean.

1. Fin whales have high levels of melanin, the same type of pigment that helps humans tan.

2. Blue whales tan (much like humans) in their summer feeding grounds.

3. Sperm whales have proteins that protect them at a cellular level. That is similar to humans, who produce antioxidants in response to free radicals (which can cause cell or DNA damage) produced while exposed to the sun.

So why is studying whales like me important?

1. Due to the ozone layer deteriorating, us whales are exposed to more UV light than in the past. This is causing more skin lesions and other skin problems in whales. These skin problems could potentially cause cancer too.

2. Since we spend so much time at the surface, scientists can also measure our exposure to UV light over time to measure the health of the oceans.

3. The research done on whales can help scientists better understand the aging process and cancer in humans.

Although humans have natural defenses against the sun’s damaging rays, don’t forget to use an eco-friendly and biodegradable sunscreen, especially if you enter the ocean!