What is Beach Seaweed?

What is Beach Seaweed?

beach seaweed above water

Beach Seaweed is a natural phenomenon

*Updated September 2

Beach seaweed has been problematic this year, but don’t stress if you are expecting travel to the south. Some of the white sand beaches and crystal clear waters of the Caribbean are darkening with an influx of decaying sargassum.

Brown-coloured seaweed, with small pods attached – also known as sargassum – are washing up on many beaches in Mexico, as far north as the Dominican Republic, and the eastern shores of Barbados, and reportedly smelling like rotten eggs. The decay and rate of sea weed found on the beaches has been so bad in recent years it has become a global issue, being blamed for everything from Rhode Island’s explosions in the sand to disrupting beach developments in West Australia. Sargasasum is a real nuisance this year, and has been a growing problem since 2011.

The Associated Press reported officials calling for an emergency meeting of the 15-nation Caribbean Community and the impact this beach seaweed may have on tourism in the coming months. The costs associated with removing the seaweed are high, and even when the seaweed is cleaned up, the smell can still remain. So what is the takeaway from this news? Is this a natural disaster or an inconvenient part of the natural cycle of ocean life?

Mexican authorities have told the CBC that they will hire over 4,000 temporary workers and spend close to $9.1 million to clean up beach seaweed along the coast, as well as research methods to collect sargassum before it hits the sand.

Here is what you need to know about seaweed in the Caribbean.

Why does beach seaweed wash up?

Sargassum grows and floats in open water in the mid-North Atlantic Ocean, called the Sargasso Sea. This long, stringy seaweed plays an integral role in ocean life, often a great nursery for sea turtles and other marine life. Small amounts of this washed up seaweed appear naturally every year from currents and the natural flow of the ocean, but scientists are unclear about why so much is burying the white sands of the Caribbean this year.

underwater seaweed

Marine life relies on sea weed for shelter and as a source of food.

Some researchers are suggesting rising ocean temperatures and climate change are to blame, while others blame an increase of pollutants and nutrients from the Amazon interacting with the warmer waters.

Since sargassum is a breeding ground for marine life, when it washes ashore, that life dies, causing a chemical reaction and a rotting smell. The beached seaweed in the Caribbean then becomes a breeding ground for sand fleas.

Beach seaweed alert! What does this mean for my trip?

There has been no official declaration of natural disaster or issue regarding visiting the Caribbean islands affected by the Caribbean and Mexico seaweed problem. WestJet has released an advisory, stating hotels along affected beaches are using a range of methods in cleaning up their beachfront properties, but states that some activities in destination may be limited due to the lack of waterfront property and mounds of seaweed. The washing up of seaweed in the Caribbean does not affect all islands, or all beaches on the affected islands, at the same time. To date, the problem has been seen in Barbados, Tobago, the Dominican Republic, and the highest amounts of washed up seaweed have been seen at Mexico resorts.

underwater seaweed

Marine life camouflage in seaweed to avoid predators

Should I cancel holidays or delay booking because of beach seaweed?

The influx of sargassum on beaches is considered a “force majeure,” meaning it’s weather-related and can not be fixed or changed. Seaweed in the Caribbean is a natural phenomenon that occurs annually, but this year, it is happening at a much faster pace and quantity. Since there is no advisory in place, regular terms and conditions regarding cancelling trips, with any applicable fees at the hand of the traveller.

The travel agents at tripcentral.ca have not yet received major complaints from clients, however, we are doing our best to keep agents aware of the issues. For travellers looking to book a vacation, we recommend proceeding with your plans, with the understanding that your vacation will still be safe and can include pool-side sunshine. Hotels in the affected areas are working to clean up the beaches, to allow for beach-goers to fully enjoy their vacations. With ocean currents and changes in the wind, the seaweed in the Caribbean is regularly changing course; meaning one resort could be affected one day, and not the next; the issue can move further down the beach.

beach seaweed

Underwater seaweed keeping the ocean happy

How does sargassum affect the environment?

Sargassum can cause a large mat of algae that blocks sunlight for coral reefs, as well as settling out over coral life and smothering the reefs. Baby turtles may have difficulty hatching and getting through the the thickness of the seaweed, causing issues for hatch-lings. Positive uses of the Sargassum seaweed can be used as a bio stimulant to promote and enhance growth in plants. This includes organic mulch, organic fertilizer, animal feed and other uses in Caribbean agriculture. The seaweed is not limited to a tourism issue, and contributes to recreational usage by the residents that are dealing with this issue locally. Cleaning the beaches can potentially hurt the organic life that relies on the seaweed and is not just an issue for tourism in the Caribbean islands.

Beach seaweed is everywhere! When will it be cleaned up?

Unfortunately, we don’t know. Hotel and resort staff where the surge of seaweed is washing ashore are working to clear this, although due to marine life, machinery is not being used to protect the beach and not disrupt vacationers. Travellers should be advised that although this is an inconvenience, it is out of your travel agent or tour operator’s control and is being acknowledged and worked on in the affected areas.

Remember that beach seaweed is a natural occurrence, and despite the minor disruptions that come with the smell of the sand, there are still many ways to enjoy a vacation. Utilize the resources at the resorts, enjoy the comforts of the pool and don’t let this natural phenomenon distract you from having a great vacation. The seaweed provides shelter and nourishment for marine life.

seaweed shelter

Beach Seaweed provides shelter for marine life.

Beach Seaweed resources and videos:

If you’re interested in learning more about sargassum, its effects on the environment and possible benefits such as fertilizer, here are some resources for further reading and research:

Videos:

Resources:

List of affected areas, as of September 2, 2015:

Dominican Republic:

  • Hard Rock Punta Cana
  • Sanctuary Cap Cana Punta Cana
  • Grand Palladium Bavaro Suites

Mexico:

  • Grand Bahia Principe Tulum
  • Blue Bay Grand Esmeralda
  • Beaches in Playa del Carmen

Share your seaweed experiences in the comments below.

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