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!

10 Killer Whales, or Orca Whales, Facts

Orca breaching
Killer Whale breaching photo by NOAA

10 Killer Whales or Orca Whales Facts:

1. Orca Whales are found in all the world’s oceans.

2. Orcas are apex predators and lack any natural predators.

3. Most males never leave their mothers.

4. Orcas have culture since their hunting techniques and vocalizations are passed down generations.

5. Killer Whales generate 3 types of sounds: clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls.

6. Each pod has its own dialect of calls (that only they use).

7. Orcas and pilot whales are the only non-human species in which females undergo menopause (around age 40 years) and live decades after.

8. There may be up to 4 generations of Orcas in a traveling group.

9. Orcas have the 2nd heaviest brain among marine mammals (sperm whales have the heaviest brain)

10. A female Orca gives birth to 1 calf every five years, and she averages 5 calves per lifetime.

Also see: The 200-Year-Old Bowhead Whale: The Oldest Mammal on Earth

10 Cool Facts About Narwhals

8 Surprising Facts about Orcas from Treehugger

Book Review: Beautiful Whale by Bryant Austin

book Beautiful Whale
Beautiful Whale by Bryant Austin

If I had to describe Bryant Austin’s book, “Beautiful Whale,” in one word, it would be *amazing*. Just looking at the photographs of whales up close is enough to make you go wow, but his accounts of how he got the pictures are just as awe-inspiring.

Austin’s visually stunning oversized coffee table book is based on the life-sized pictures he takes of whales. Taking photographs so close and in so much detail is much easier said than done. He must be within 6 feet of a whale, and he patiently waits for the whale to come to him. He also uses a large state-of-the-art 50 megapixel Hasselblad camera.

Austin’s epiphany to photograph whales came after a female humpback whale gently tapped him on the shoulder with her 15 foot, 2 ton pectoral fin (front flipper). Austin had been interacting with her calf and the ever-watchful mom wanted Austin to know that she was watching him. Austin describes the moment as seeing the “calm mindful expression of a whale’s eye looking into my own eyes.” Little did that whale know the path she would send Austin down!

In perusing the book the first time, I was awestruck by the details in each picture. Not only were the eyes soulful, but every pockmark, birthmark, and scratch told their own story about that whale. Austin covers 3 different kinds of whales in this book: the humpback whale, the sperm whale, and the minke whale.

I was privileged enough to attend Austin’s gallery showing of “Beautiful Whale” at the Museum of Monterey in Monterey, California (it runs until September 2, 2013). Although I could have spent hours staring at his life-size and length whale photographs, I only had a few minutes to indulge them with 2 young children in tow. I did take a picture of them with Enigma, a sperm whale, and of course I couldn’t get the whole 20 foot long whale in one frame!

The most amazing part of Austin’s encounters with the whales is that he waits patiently until they approach him. The results are worth his patience, but there are not many among us that could wait weeks to get the prize-winning shots.

I had first heard of Austin when I read about how he first showed his work in whaling countries like Japan and Norway. His work was well received, and this speaks volumes for the power Austin’s photographs have.

If you are a whale or animal lover, you must check out this book. Even if you are neither, I promise that at least one picture in his book will move you.

Check out Bryant Austin’s website

Visit Austin’s exhibit at the Museum of Monterey (MOM), open until January 2, 2014

Buy now from

10 Endangered Ocean Animals: Happy Endangered Species Day!

Hector's Dolphin
Maui's Dolphin photo by WWF/Will Rayment

10 Endangered Marine Animals

1. Maui’s Dolphin: found off of New Zealand, only 55 individuals remain

2. Northern Right Whale: found in Atlantic Ocean, only 350 individuals remain

3. Vaquita: small dolphin found off of Baja Peninsula, Mexico, 500-600 remain

4. Mediterranean (less than 400 remain) and Hawaiian Monk Seals (approximately 1100 remain)

5. Sea Turtles: 6 or the 7 species of sea turtles are endangered (Green, Hawksbill, Kemp’s Ridley, Leatherback, Loggerhead, and Olive Ridley)

6. Staghorn Coral: has declined by 98% in the Caribbean since 1980

7. Beluga Sturgeon: hunted for their caviar (eggs), 1100 remain in the Caspian Sea

8. Coelacanth: an ancient order of fishes, considered the most endangered order in the world

9. Southern Sea Otter: up to 2,300 individuals remain

10. Bluefin Tuna: as few as 25,000 mature individuals remain

Disclaimer: There are hundreds of ocean species that are endangered (1,000’s if you consider the animals and plants we have yet to discover). I chose the top ten endangered species that I felt people might have heard of.

UPDATE: As of May 2015 less than 100 Vaquita remain

Sources: allaboutwildlife.com
marineinsight.com
World Wildlife Fund
wonders-world.com
Smithsonian Ocean Portal

Sperm Whales Adopt Deformed Dolphin

Sperm Whales Adopt Deformed Dolphin into Family
Sperm Whale Pod adopts dolphin with deformed spine: photo by Alexander D.M. Wilson/Aquatic Mammals

Hi, I am a sperm whale, and no my name is not Moby Dick, nor am I all-white! I’m not sure whether I should laud Herman Melville for putting sperm whales at the pantheon of literature, or if I should curse him for making us look as lovable as a mosquito.

In any case, sperm whales have been in the news lately. First because humans have filmed a live giant squid in the ocean for the first time (see previous post), and recently the footage was shown on national TV. Humans seem to associate giant squid with us sperm whales. Our epic battles with giant squid are highly romanticized by humans, but we don’t mind! I have a few battle scars, but let me tell you, sperm whales win almost all the time. Squid may be intelligent for an invertebrate, but they are not a highly intelligent mammal. They also don’t have foolproof echolocation like I do!

The other reason sperm whales are in the news is because my pod recently “adopted” a dolphin with a deformed spine. I am not sure why his dolphin pod rejected him, but we are happy to have the fellow around. He is quite playful and joyful, and the calves enjoy his company. The calves especially like spending time with him when the adults go on deep dives to feed. Usually the calves are left at the surface with only one adult sperm whale.

We allow him to rub against us, as it means the same socially for sperm whales as it does for dolphins. In fact, dolphins technically are just small whales.

So why did we let this dolphin hang out with us? Well, life in the open ocean can get lonely and a bit monotonous as all we do on a daily basis is swim through open water, and dive deep to find food. So we make friends wherever we go, whether it is just in passing, or for longer terms, like with this dolphin fellow. We socialize a lot more than humans think, and just because they have never seen us do it doesn’t mean we don’t do it regularly!

Hmm, I’m getting hungry. Time to dive and dine!

This post based on this article