Humpback whales use sandy ocean floors for exfoliating ‘spa day,’ researchers find

Humans have discovered ways to get rid of old, dead skin cells – and it turns out humpback whales have made this self-care advancement, too. 

Whales will roll around in sandy, shallow bay areas to remove dead skin cells and barnacles, a new study from Griffith University found

Certain tagged whales were caught performing this routine on high-definition video in Queensland, Australia.

The whales were seen "performing full and side rolls" in water that was up to 160 feet deep and lined with fine sand or rubble, according to Griffith University. 

The video was captured between August 2021 and October 2022 during the whales’ southern migration to cooler waters. 

"On all occasions of sand rolling, the whales were observed on video to be slowly moving forward with their head first into the sand followed by rolling to one side or a full roll," said marine ecologist Dr. Olaf Meynecke.

Meynecke added that researchers most commonly saw the whales’ sand rolling in the context of socializing, such as following courtship or competition. 

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Whales can remove some dead skin and barnacles through surface activity such as breaching, according to Meynecke, but sand rolling also plays an integral role – especially in removing barnacles. 

Barnacles need to be addressed frequently so they don’t lead to drag and energy loss. 


Fish seen feeding on a whale's dead skin cells. Credit: Griffith University/Dr. Olaf Meynecke via Storyful

Skin from the whales was observed to be falling off during the process of all identified rolls, the university said, and some smaller fish were even seen feeding from the whales’ skin.

This story was reported from Detroit.