Can whales and dolphins get sunburn?

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Whales migrate over long or small distances. Humpback whales and Southern Right whales come up from Antarctic waters during the southern hemispheres winter to give birth and breed. They also migrate to get away from the winter storms, but will face a larger problem in our waters (the sun). Whales can get sun burnt, so can Pigs, Elephants and Rhinos. Most other animals e.g. birds and lizards are protected by feathers and scales and mammals by their fur. Pigs, Elephants and Rhinos protect themselves with mud and clay. Whales can’t use this.

For a long time it was believed that whales don’t get sunburned, but researchers started seeing blisters on them and decided to look into it.  They collected skin samples of blue whales, fin whales and sperm whales. 95% of the samples had “sunburn cell” or skin cells damage by ultraviolet radiation.  This study was done over a few years and the amount of “sunburned cells” increased throughout the years. This indicated that the whales get more sunburned nowadays and this can be due to the thin ozone layer and/or cloud cover. Another factor that needs to be taken into consideration is how much time the whales spend on the surface. Sperm whales will rest up to 10 minutes recovering from a dive, and socialize for hours on the surface. The darker pigmentation in the sperm and fin whale is better adapted to protect them then pale blue skin of the blue whale.

An animal that have adopted to handle sun burn is the hippopotamus. Hippos excrete a pinkish liquid that wells up in droplets on their faces or behind their ears or necks. These drops have red and orange pigmentation that absorbs light in the UV range and prevents sunburn.

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