The first time I can across the sargassum (also known as seaweed) was on a trip to Punta Cana in 2014. It wasn't extreme at this time but the locals were definitely talking about how there was an increase. On a trip to Riviera Maya in 2015 the sargassum had started to make it's appearance in this area. And although some seaweed is normal it was causing concern as resorts along the Cancun/Riviera Maya coast were seeing amounts that exceeded normal and there were hopes it would soon stop coming. Fast forward to today and much of the Caribbean has been effected by this unsolved mystery.
From the Dominican Republic to Mexico to Barbados, countries across the Caribbean are struggling to deal with the unusually large amounts of sargassum seaweed that is being washed up on many beaches. Some destinations are experiencing very little while other destinations are overwhelmed by it.
Although the strong-smelling rotting seaweed arrives most years in many countries, the volume this year – reportedly up to three to four feet high in some locations – is so great that normal efforts to clean beaches are proving ineffective on many coastlines. the clean up of the sargassum is a never ending battle.
Where does it come from and what causes it?
As the name implies, the sargassum seaweed comes from the Sargasso Sea. This is an ecologically important warm water area located in the mid-Atlantic where traditionally masses of seaweed have been encountered. Much less clear is why the quantity has been so bad and so widespread this year and exactly what can be done to deal with it.
There has been exploration on whether there are nutritional uses for the seaweed if processed, as well as issues related to the danger of ecological damage to beaches if heavy mechanical equipment is used to remove it, but there are no easy or rapid answers. To complicate matters the seaweed may have ecological advantages for beaches and its removal can damage wildlife habitats. There are also issues of cost and who pays for any clean up.
The unusual increase in sargassum has been noticed since 2014 and continues to steadily increase, leaving many beach areas covered with the sulfur-stink of the decaying biomass. The seaweed is not all bad as it provides food to certain fish species, turtles and even birds. It’s actually an important habitat for marine life: “Floating rafts of sargassum can stretch for miles across the ocean". This floating habitat provides food, refuge, and breeding grounds for an array of critters such as fishes, sea turtles, marine birds, crabs, shrimp, and more.
However, when the sargassum production becomes out of control it can become a danger to marine species. Besides depriving species of oxygen, turtle nests and hatchlings become affected by the seaweed. Larger fish such as sharks and rays have difficulty in mobilizing due to the thick sections of the sargassum. All in all, the waters become toxic, causing the demise of native marine species that cannot survive in the hydrogen sulfide and sulfur producing habitat.
While it can vary from year-to-year, in some cases it will last a few weeks or even months and there really is no set sargassum season or accurate forecast to notify people about its migration in the same way hurricanes are tracked.
Many experts say the warmer water ocean temperatures along with nitrogen fertilizer and sewage waste run offs are making the seaweed flourish. With the gradual yearly increase in the presence of sargassum leads experts to believe this may be the new norm.
Here is a list of the places that are having problems with sargassum seaweed:
What you can do?
1. Make the best of it.
2) Go somewhere else: While there are pros and cons to changing your plans, it might be a good opportunity to try a different destination. The west coast of Mexico (Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita, Manzanillo, etc.) and Costa Rica don’t have the seaweed problem.
3) Be prepared: Have a look at beach cams, read through TripAdvisor forums and local news, and Google the destination you plan on visiting to stay up to date. While there is no way to predict how much seaweed there will be and where exactly, it helps to know there is a risk. This is something that is out of anyone's control and it is very important to manage your expectations accordingly.
Have you experienced sargassum seaweed? Did it ruin your vacation? Will you be making travel plans to visit a destination with the sargassum problem?