On Whales and Sunburn


Don’t be surprised if Shamu looks a little pink the next time you see him. Whales are suffering from sunburn at an alarming rate—well, the real alarm is that whales get sunburn. (There are numerous problems with whales and sunburn. How much sunscreen would a whale need? What SPF works best? How does one apply it to these aquatic creatures? The logistics are a nightmare.)

From 2007 to 2009, Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, a postdoctoral fellow at the Zoological Society of London, examined whales swimming in the slender body of water between Mexico and Baja, California. This sliver of water is close to tropical latitudes; cancer rates are five times higher in theses regions. Acevedo-Whitehouse took photographic surveys, and using a stainless steel dart, she collected skin biopsies of blue, fin, and sperm whales. The majority of the samples exhibited abnormal cells associated with UV damage to DNA—better known as sunburn.

The researchers discovered sunburn on the lowest layer of the whales’ skin, indicating the beasts suffer from severe damage. When the whales surface for air, they expose their skin to UV rays, leading to sunburn. Unlike other animals with feathers or fur (or the ability to move into shade), the whales have no natural way to protect themselves from overexposure. And much like humans, lighter-skinned whales suffer from sunburn more often than their darker skin relatives, the authors write in the paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

All joking aside, Acevedo-Whitehouse notes there is little to be done to prevent whales from sustaining the sting of a burn. "I do not believe we would be able to do very much to reduce the damage to whales caused by sun exposure," Acevedo-Whitehouse told Discovery News.