The warmth and luxurious caress of sunlight on human skin can be a wonderful treat to us Brits, accustomed as we are to rain, wind, cloud and cold dominating our weather regardless of season. Under normal circumstances, many of us are avid sun-seekers, travelling overseas in search of that all-important vitamin D fix on our holidays. We are notorious along the Mediterranean coast for the range of pasty – pink – raw red and very occasionally – tanned spectrum of the British tourist as we descend on beaches during holiday seasons, sticking out like Wally the Walrus in Wales.
However, as National Sun Awareness Week reminds us, caution is required when exposing ourselves to the sun. Even at home in Great Britain, the sun can cause severe tissue damage to the human skin unprotected by sun-screen, UV-resistant clothing and/or shade. After all, if the Scottish sun can scar the skin of a dolphin – tough enough to withstand the stinging tentacles when playing with jellyfish – then what chance does our fragile human skin stand?
Photo credit: P. Anderwald.
Spirtle is a Bottlenose Dolphin who was stranded along the Cromarty coast of Scotland in May, 2016. Aged 4, the unfortunate young female became stuck on mudflats for 24 hours, beyond reach of the water and exposed to the Scottish sun. By the time she was successfully refloated by animal welfare officers and concerned members of the public, she was suffering from dehydration, UV damage and extreme sunburn. Marine scientists were uncertain about her survival prospects given her youth and the extent of her injuries… but survive she did!
Sightings and monitoring throughout the following two years witnessed a remarkable recovery as Spirtle’s sun-damaged skin lesions slowly healed to scar tissue – the deep raw pink gradually granulating and fading into white. Perhaps it was because she beat the odds; perhaps people admire a survivor whose scars bear witness to the suffering they have withstood; perhaps her horrendous experience touched the hearts of anyone who has ever suffered from sunburn or been caught out by the elements and had to endure physical hardship as a result, but Spirtle became somewhat of a superstar among the cetacean community of the Moray and Cromarty Firths and beyond.
She is certainly one of the most distinctive and easily recognisable dolphins around Britain and many a tourist and whale-watching day-tripper have shared an encounter with Spirtle as the highlight of their experience. Indeed, so well-documented was her story and appearance that the Lighthouse Field Station – the University of Aberdeen, were able to track Spirtle’s Irish adventures in the summer of 2019. Her distinctive scarring allowed Spirtle to be recognised visiting North Kerry, Ireland. At that point, this was the furthest any of the Moray Firth regulars had been tracked. You can watch North Kerry Irish Whale & Dolphin Group’s video of Spirtle here (c) Joanne o Brien.
Photo Credit: Rebecca Gibson
When the British Sun puts his hat on and comes out to play, we are often so excited that we neglect the basic safety precautions we automatically take when abroad. But take it from Spirtle on this World Sun Awareness Day, our elusive sun can still cause horrific damage to the skin and tissues beneath if not enjoyed in moderation and with respect for the harmful power of those all-too-soothing sunbeams.
If you spot Spirtle or any dolphins, whales and porpoises in British waters, please send us your photos along with a Sightings Form via our website. Alternatively, you can download the Sea Watcher app for easy sighting submission on the go.
Fran Feature Blogger Education & Outreach Assistant
- “Update on “Spirtle”, a Scottish bottlenose dolphin in Ireland” – IWDG 18/08/2019
- “We’ve been surprised this summer to hear of not one but two international sightings of dolphins we regularly see in the Moray Firth, Scotland…” Lighthouse Field Station – University of Aberdeen Facebook post 24/07/2019
- “Sunburned Moray Firth dolphin spotted off Ireland” – BBC News 16/07/2019
- “Our first sighting of ID#1143 Spirtle in 2017” – Barbara Cheney, University of Aberdeen Lighthouse Field Station 30/05/2017
- “Things are looking up for Spirtle the sun-burned dolphin” BBC Scotland Facebook Post 22/09/2016
- “Sunburned dolphin spotted in Moray Firth” – BBC News 22/07/2016