We have surveyed the biologically harmful radiation penetrating the water column along a transect in the western Gulf of Mexico using dosimeters consisting of intact viruses or naked calf-thymus DNA (ctDNA). The indigenous marine bacteriophage PWH3a-P1, which lytically infects the heterotrophic bacterium Vibrio natriegens (strain PWH3a), displayed decay rates for infectivity approaching 1.0 h−1 in surface waters when deployed in a seawater-based dosimeter. The accumulation of pyrimidine dimers in ctDNA dosimeters provided a strong correlation to these results, with pyrimidine dimers representing more than 0.3% (up to ca 3800 dimers Mb−1 DNA) of the total DNA in dosimeters exposed to sea surface levels of solar radiation. The results demonstrate a strong correlation between the dimer formation in the DNA dosimeters, the decay rates of viral infectivity and the penetration of UVB radiation into the water column. The decay of viral infectivity attenuated with depth in a manner similar to the decay of solar radiation and was still significant at 10 m in offshore oligotrophic water and at dimer frequencies less than 0.1% (ca 200–300 dimers Mb−1 DNA).