Depth distribution of kelp species in Helgoland (North Sea) is characterized by occurrence of Laminaria digitata in the upper sublittoral, whereas L. saccharina and L. hyperborea dominate the mid and lower sublittoral region. Laminaria digitata is fertile in summer whereas both other species are fertile in autumn/winter. To determine the light sensitivity of the propagules, zoospores of L. digitata, L. saccharina and L. hyperborea were exposed in the laboratory to different exposure times of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR; 400–700 nm), PAR + UVA radiation (UVAR; 320–400 nm) and PAR + UVAR + UVB radiation (UVBR; 280–320 nm). Optimum quantum yield of PSII and DNA damage were measured after exposure. Subsequently, recovery of photosynthetic efficiency and DNA damage repair, as well as germination rate were measured after 2 and 3 d cultivation in dim white light. Photosynthetic efficiency of all species was photoinhibited already at 20 µmol photons m−2 s−1 PAR, whereas UV radiation (UVR) had a significant additional effect on photoinhibition. Recovery of the PSII function was observed in all species but not in spores exposed to irradiation longer than 4 h of PAR + UVA + UVB and 8 h of PAR + UVA. The amount of UVB-induced DNA damage measured as cyclobutane–pyrimidine dimers (CPDs) increased with exposure time and highest damage was detected in the spores of lower subtidal L. hyperborea relative to the other two species. Significant removal of CPDs indicating repair of DNA damage was observed in all species after 2 d in low white light especially in the spores of upper subtidal L. digitata. Therefore, efficient DNA damage repair and recovery of PSII damage contributed to the germination success but not in spores exposed to 16 h of UVBR. UV absorption of zoospore suspension in L. digitata is based both on the absorption by the zoospores itself as well as by exudates in the medium. In contrast, the absorption of the zoospore suspension in L. saccharina and L. hyperborea is based predominantly on the absorption by the exudates in the medium. This study indicates that UVR sensitivity of zoospores is related to the seasonal zoospore production as well as the vertical distribution pattern of the large sporophytes.