The Deal on Sargassum
You’re strolling the beach on the first day of your Caribbean getaway…the sparkling turquoise water is as beautiful as you had envisioned. But the sand is cluttered with seaweed, and the rotten egg smell is horrible! What could that be?
Meet pelagic sargassum, aka Gulfweed. It has been around for a long time—Christopher Columbus made note of it on his voyage to the New World. Drifting in from the Sargasso Sea and the northwest Gulf of Mexico, small traces normally line the Caribbean coastline from May to September. But lately, huge amounts have been washing up on shores from Cancun to Tulum and throughout the Caribbean islands.
The tangly brown algae tends to hide Playa del Carmen’s usually pristine coastline and make swimming less appealing! Not at all harmful to humans and part of a normal ocean cycle, the seaweed is often left on the beach to decompose.
So why such a massive pileup of stinky seaweed? Scientists are still trying to figure that out. It seems to occur every five years or so. Typically ocean currents and cooling temperatures keep sargassum floating way out at sea. How lovely would that be if very little made its way to our beaches! Perhaps global warming, oil spills or other factors contribute to the excess we’re seeing here in the Mayan Riviera. It’s not quite certain!
Here’s the good news: besides being totally natural and normal, Gulfweed actually shields the shore; cushioning the impact of waves. Some beachfront properties have the smelly mass raked up and buried, thereby protecting the beach from erosion.
(Better to have some seaweed on the beach than no beach at all; in my books anyway! Have you seen the exposed, jagged limestone at some of the downtown beach restaurants in Playa? Not very nice. Good thing that’s not happening at your beachfront condo!)
It could prove to be valuable stuff. The uses for sargassum may include compost and fertilizer. There may be extremely positive results down the line for fishery resources as well. The possibilities are being explored by ecologists.
Look at this way… The seaweed you don’t like seeing (or smelling), is actually vital to the Caribbean ecosystem!
The small air bladders (they look like berries), keep the seaweed afloat. Called the floating rainforest of the ocean, sargassum protects and feeds a wide variety of sea life including crabs, shrimp, molluscs, and
fish such as mahi mahi. Endangered species of turtles rely on huge floating islands of sargassum for food and shelter as they migrate. The next time you’re snorkelling in Akumal, chilling out with a cute hawksbill or green turtle, think of that! Then maybe you’ll more easily overlook Gulfweed’s presence on our beautiful beaches for the next little while. I know I do!
Written by Kelly G.
Photo credit Camille Enos