Sargassum Seaweed in the Caribbean: Will it ruin my beach vacation?

Sargassum Seaweed in the Caribbean: Will it ruin my beach vacation?

July 1, 2019 Plan 56

Updated: July 10, 2019, 2019

The first time we encountered that mass of seaweed known as “sargassum” was in Barbados in 2015; it seemed to have appeared from nowhere and just kept coming every day, making it unappealing to swim in the ocean and lounge on the beach where we were staying. Since then, we’ve been hopeful the seaweed wouldn’t return but it has every year in varying amounts and 2018 has seen record amounts of it wash up on Crane Beach on the east Coast of Barbados, and other popular Caribbean destinations. It looks likes 2019 is trending much like 2018 from our observations and people who write to me about the Sargassum seaweed that has affected their vacations. In this post, I’ve compiled my research about sargassum seaweed, the areas it seems to affect, and some tips to avoid having the seaweed ruin your vacation entirely.

Pebbles Beach by Bridgetown Barbados

Pebbles Beach by Bridgetown Barbados

What is Sargassum seaweed, where does it come from, and what causes it?

NOAA characterizes sargassum seaweed as “genus of large brown seaweed (a type of algae) that floats in island-like masses”.

A mound of rotting sargassum seaweed on Crane beach in Barbados

A mound of rotting sargassum seaweed on Crane beach in Barbados

While it’s not very pleasant to look at, makes your skin itch when it brushes against you, and smells like sewage when it starts to rot, 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. Some animals, like the Sargassum fish (in the frogfish family), live their whole lives only in this habitat. Sargassum serves as a primary nursery area for a variety of commercially important fishes such as mahi mahi, jacks, and amberjacks.”

Crane Beach on the East Coast of Barbados at sunrise

Crane Beach on the East Coast of Barbados at sunrise

Sargassum seaweed actually migrates from the Northern Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea through ocean currents. While no one knows for sure what is causing it to reproduce so much, and to rise and migrate, there are some theories, including:

  • Climate change and rising ocean temperatures.
  • Shifting of currents due to more intense hurricanes (also related to climate change).
  • Pollutants such as nitrogen heavy fertilizers, sewage waste, and the 2010 BP oil spill disaster and clean-up.

Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3277720/Stinking-sargassum-seaweed-smells-rotten-eggs-terrorizes-beaches-Caribbean-Florida-Texas-shores-experiencing-piles-kelp-10-feet-high.html

Is it toxic? Is it damaging?

Me jumping over some sargassum seaweed on Crane Beach in Barbados

Me jumping over some sargassum seaweed on Crane Beach in Barbados

Well, I’m not an expert but I have walked in it and swam in waters that had it, and was fine albeit quite grossed out. The seaweed has trapped sea creatures that are dying in it and also attracts sand flies which can carry diseases so it should be avoided.  If you swim in it, it also makes some parts of your body itch depending on contact.

Crane Beach in Barbados without sargassum

Crane Beach in Barbados without sargassum

Once it sits on the beach and starts to rot, it smells like sewage which is quite unpleasant. Last year in Barbados (February 2018), I had to avoid running part of the beach that had almost 3 feet of it piled up because the putrid smell made me gag.

In addition to ruining the pristine beaches people want to spend their vacations on, it also affects the livelihood of local people who can’t fish like they usually do. We were told that a popular fish cutter stand in Barbados had to close because of a low supply of fish due to the seaweed in December 2018/January 2019.

Which areas are affected by sargassum seaweed and when?

Beach in Playa del Carmen Mexico

Beach in Playa del Carmen Mexico

While it can vary from year-to-year, in 2015 it was so bad that 15 Caribbean nations called an emergency meeting to discuss the problem and the United Nations held an assembly to mobilize funds and initiatives to help countries affected by it. During some periods, the sargassum invasion caused some countries to declare states of emergency and Mexico called in the Navy and employed 10,000 people to clear up the almost 10 foot mounds of it across its coastline. 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.

Here is a list of the places that I have found news articles citing problems with sargassum seaweed:

  • United States: Coastal Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida (mostly the Keys)
  • Mexico: Yucatan Peninsula (Akumal, Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, etc.), Cozumel (East Coast and South-East coast beach of Playa Palancar)
  • Caribbean: Antigua, Aruba, Barbados, Bermuda, Belize, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Grand Cayman, Haiti, Honduras (Roatan), Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, St. Martin, Trinidad and Tobago, and other Caribbean islands

Most recently, Mexico has begun tracking the seaweed and this is a map they published on July 8, 2019.

The Cancún sargassum monitoring network map published on July 8, 2019 Source: https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/quitana-roo-hoteliers-will-shuttle-guests-to-sargassum-free-beaches/

Playa Palancar, Cozumel on January 1, 2019

Playa Palancar, Cozumel on January 1, 2019: some Sargassum seaweed made the water murky by the shore

Playa Del Carmen Beach on December 30, 2018

Playa Del Carmen Beach on December 30, 2018

What can you do about your vacation?

1)  Keep your plans and try to make the best of it:

  • Conduct research to see if other beaches are unaffected. For example, when we were in Barbados, not all beaches were affected so we drove our rental car to other beaches. The beaches on the West Coast of Barbados and closer to Bridgetown were not affected. SEAS, the Sargassum Early Advisory System, an A&M Galveston research project has satellite images to help assess where the seaweed is if you can figure out how to interpret them.
  • Plan to spend more time at the pool and find a property that has great pools.
  • Conduct research about what other activities are available in the area, i.e the Mayan Riviera also water parks such as Xel Ha and fresh water cenotes that are also good for swimming.
  • If you are there for a special event like a wedding and want to take photos on the beach, make sure your photographer can crop it out or airbrush it, which is what we had to do in 2015 in Barbados when we had our family photoshoot on Crane beach.
Jason on the beach in Tulum

Jason on the beach in Tulum

 2)  Go somewhere else: While there are pros and cons to changing your plans, it might be a good opportunity to try something different. The west coast of Mexico (Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita, Xuatulco, etc.) and Central America (Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, etc.) don’t have the seaweed problem. In addition, places like Colombia have nice beaches on the coast, are a lot safer now and are up and coming on the tourist trail.

Beach at the Westin Cozmuel January 1, 2019

Beach at the Westin Cozmuel January 1, 2019

3)  Know what you’re getting into: Have a look at beach cams, read through TripAdvisor forums and local newspapers, and Google where you’re going with “sargassum” in the keyword field to stay aware of the developments. While there is no way to predict how much seaweed there will be and where exactly, it helps to know there is a risk and to manage your expectations.

Summary:

It may seem self-indulgent to hold the “I came to this pristine beach and all I found was this mound of smelly seaweed instead” postcard, but it’s a reality and a problem that keeps coming back. The good news is that more resources are being allocated to study sargassum seaweed and entrepreneurs are also working to find ways to keep it off beaches and to transform it into matter that can be used for agriculture.

Have you experienced sargassum seaweed? Did it ruin your vacation? Will you be making travel plans based on this year’s sargassum forecast?

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56 Responses

  1. Rick says:

    We experience the seaweed in 2015 in Todago.
    Has ther been any seaweed on beaches of the Caribbean this year ?

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hello Rick, yes there was seaweed in the Caribbean this year. We exprienced it in Barbados in February 2018 on the East coast and in Mexico (Mexican Riviera) in March/April 2018. Are you planning a trip to the Caribbean anytime soon?

  2. Yes all over Mexico Caribbean Coast is hice quantities and smell. Try BACALAR is a huge lagoon near Cancún (rent a car or ADO bus)

  3. Tara Cannon says:

    I love your article. I too, have made a bit of a study of sargassum seaweed after a visit to Barbados in 2015. Ironically, we also visited this past March (2018) only to discover another bad bloom. Thankfully, we have rented homes on the West Coast both times which stay largely unaffected, but I sure do love Crane Beach too ! Anyway, I just wanted to say “Great article!”.

    • weleavetoday says:

      Thank you Tara for the compliment and feedback! Yes, the west coast does seem to remain unaffected which is good and hopefully it stays that way. Cheers!

  4. Katie Shumate says:

    Thanks for the great article. We experienced the same in Barbados in 2015. Feel like this article was talking about our trip!
    Planned to go to Belize this year then saw all the photos with lots of sargassum and confirmed it with a blogger who lives there. Now switching to Costa Rica, Guanacaste province. Good to see in your article that it is unaffected as is what my research also indicates.

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hi Katie,
      Glad you found the information useful! I have never been there but have heard lots of great things about Costa Rica so I’m sure you will enjoy yourself. I was very surprised to see reports of the seaweed making its way all the way to Panama as well and at this time, it appears to be getting worse in Barbados and Mexico which is too bad. Have a great trip! Cheers, Maxine and Jason

  5. Alison says:

    We just returned from resort on southwest side of Barbados. It was bad. We went for the beach and had to go to the pool the whole week. I want a vacation redo but worried it’ll happen again. Do you know where it has NOT come in Caribbean? We didn’t bother trying other beaches in Barbados because I figured it was everywhere. I saw lots of light brown waves from the flight from Miami and wondered what it was. Now I know. A local told us the beaches near Bridgetown were fine at the time though. So sad I didn’t get to see what it typically looks like.

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hello Alison,
      Sorry to hear the sargassum seaweed affected your vacation too. Last week, The Crane resort where we stay sent us an email update about record amounts of seaweed that requires the Barbados Defence Force to step in and help. From what I have seen and heard from friends there, the west coast beaches still remain free of any seaweed. Projections for 2018 indicate that the record of 2015 will be surpassed this year and I will update this post with the latest map later this week. I’ve had friends report seaweed as far as Panama right now so it’s hard to say which areas are not affected at all. If you are flexible with your travel plans and want 100% assurance it won’t be present, looking at tropical destinations on the Pacific coast might be advisable (Mexico: Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita or Costa Rica or even Hawaii). Please remember that the amount of seaweed can vary from day-to-day and coast-to-coast of an island.

  6. Bruce Jones says:

    Will be in Barbados October 3thru 9th. Staying at Hilton any word on there situation with seaweed. When does it stop or does it come all yr. Was there last October did not see any. 😔🙏🏽

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hello Bruce,
      It is hard to say when the seaweed will be an issue as it is unpredictable and each year so different. My sources in Barbados has confirmed that the beaches near the Hilton don’t get alot of seaweed like Enterprise Beach and Crane Beach. I would recommend that you walk over to Pebbles Beach to swim as there is a little cove that is sheltered. In the next couple of months, I will be working on a project to help people find out about the seaweed and if you remember to, can you let me know if there was any seaweed during your visit?

  7. Jennifer Grant says:

    Hi, my husband and I have just come back from Barbados. The west coast of Barbados is clear of the Sargassum seaweed. I recommend staying in Holetown, St James around Discovery Bay, Mango Bay area. Beautiful beach there.

  8. Tina says:

    I just returned from Grand Cayman. East End was a mess but the West End was beautiful. Of course we were staying in the East End but we had a car so we just drove to the West End to enjoy the beach. We still loved the island but were disappointed that we couldn’t swim or snorkel in the water at our resort.

  9. Reshida says:

    Great article, very informative. In the process of planning an impromptu vacation to the Caribbean, and read someone’s experience of the seasweed in a hotel review, and that prompted me to do some research. Friends that have traveled to both Jamaica and the Florida Keys within the last month, both reported the noticed the brown beach water (particularly bad in the Keys, I understand). This would probably explain why the all-inclusive vacation packages I’m finding (Belize, Curacao, Montego Bay and Panama) are pretty cheap. I was interested in Costa Rica, maybe I should reconsider traveling there.

    Thank you for the information!

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hello Reshida, Thank you for your feedback! The west coast of Mexico is also a safe choice. Costa Rica is a very beautiful place with lots of options. Happy and seaweed free travels to you! 🙂

  10. Gayden says:

    Hi, thanks for your helpful post! We visited Barbados last year and had such a wonderful time on the south coast and at the Crane. We’re really sad that it’s a mess this year (the south coast is also experiencing sewage spills.) Does anyone know if Aruba is experiencing the sargassum issue as well? I saw that Curacao and Bonaire are pretty bad, so I was wondering.

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hello

      I did a quick Google search and didn’t find too much about the seaweed situation in Aruba. A quick glance at webcams shows that is does appear to be clear in Manchebo Beach. Have a look here: https://www.earthcam.com/world/aruba/eaglebeach/?cam=bucuti1. It’s super easy to drive in Aruba, so that might be a good option. As for Barbados, since they have a new Prime Minister, we hope they start to clean things up, especially in regards to the sewage spill. We will be at The Crane again in February and will report back. Cheers, Maxine and Jason

  11. JC says:

    Mexican beaches, cancun, playa, and tulum have the same problem. Massive influx of seaweed continuous since May 15, 2018.

    • weleavetoday says:

      I think it has gotten worse as summer progresses. From what we saw and heard, it started in February 2018. When we were in Tulum and Playa Del Carmen this past March, it was there but not as bad as when we returned to Playa Del Carmen in May.

  12. Jae says:

    Thanks for this article! Do you know if Bermuda has been affected? I can’t find anything about it when I search google but I know it is by the Sargasso Sea. I am planning to vacation there this month. Thank you!

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hello Jae, From some quick research it does appear that sargassum appears on Bermuda beaches in varying amounts based on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) website. That being said, there is very little information about the current situation and a Trip Advisor Forum does seem to say it’s not a problem but I always conduct extra research. Bermuda’s geography has it away from the places where the sargassum is appearing in the highest mass so it might be safe in that sense but the seaweed has appeared in Florida. I would recommend you look at the webcams for some of the beaches right now to assess and read the TripAdvisor reviews for any hotels/resorts in beach areas you may want to visit.

  13. Christy Adams says:

    Thank you for this information ! I was wondering if it is present on the Gulf side of Florida – Pensacola area?

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hello Christy, there has been some saragassum seaweed in Pensacola in the past, notably Perdido Key. That being said, a quick scan at the beach cams right now is showing clear conditions. When are you going?

  14. Leila Carl says:

    Thank you for this information! I’ll be checking in as our cruise gets closer in January 2019.
    Leila

  15. Holly says:

    Just came back from Punta Cana!! What a disappointment!!! Brown water and seaweed everywhere. Unfortunately it so thick and smelly, that the beaches were empty. Waste of money!!!!

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hi Holly, I am very sorry to hear that! I had heard that in the past Punta Cana was mostly unaffected. I will update this post to reflect this new information.

  16. Lori says:

    I wish I had seen your informative article before we booked for San Pedro, Belize! So frustrated. We have spent most nights in our over-priced hotel room because of the smell and bugs due to the rotting grass.
    This island is gross. Can’t wait to get home soon enough and start saving money for a real vacation.
    Hope others read this article and comments and book elsewhere. There are so many other beautiful places in the world.
    -Sad traveler…

    • weleavetoday says:

      I am very sorry to hear about your experience Lori. Thank you for letting me know about San Pedro, Belize. If you have any questions or suggestions about places to visit, let me know!

  17. […] Sargassum Seaweed in the Caribbean: Will it ruin my beach vacation? […]

  18. Alison says:

    I’ve been following this since spending waaaaay to much for Barbados because I was convinced it would be the best beach ever and we couldn’t even go to the beach. I’d like to plan a trip that isn’t as far or overpriced and hasn’t been affected. Thinking Bahamas. Thoughts? Have they been affected? Any recommendations on where to stay/what airlines to fly from USA? Best time to go?

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hi Alison,
      From my research, the Bahamas have not been as affected but Cable Beach did get sargassum in 2015. We were just in Mexico and while Playa Del Carmen was full of seaweed, there wasn’t any on the west facing beaches in Cozumel. I’d stay somewhere with a west facing beach and avoid going during hurricane season. Generally, 3-4 weeks before Christmas is a good time, as occupancy is lower. As for the Bahamas, have a look at Abaco Islands. Jet Blue and American fly to MHH – Marsh Harbor Airport or you can take a ferry from Nassau. I have also heard that Bermuda is free of seaweed from numerous sources.

  19. David says:

    There was a fair amount in Punta Cana December 27-January 3, 2019. A crew of 8 ‘Green Team’ members from the resort we stayed at worked each day along with a driver with a small tractor pulling a trailer to keep the beach clean. Turned into only a minor inconvenience. Water wasn’t the beautiful blue near the shore but still a beautiful beach.

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hi, Thank you for the update as I have friends headed to Punta Cana soon. I am glad to hear it didn’t ruin your vacation and enjoyment of the beach!

  20. Karin says:

    We just returned from Belize (Placencia) . Although we had a great trip, the sargassum situation was really bad.

  21. Mary says:

    We just returned from Akumal ( east facing) Mexico last week. Yes, there was a great deal of seaweed washing ashore but the beach cleaners at Akumal Bay Beach and Wellness Resort did an amazing job of clearing it away every morning. There is seaweed in the water at the shoreline but once you out get past it, the water is clear, even more so early in the morning. We witnessed turtles feeding on seagrass, and an amazing array of colourful fish, rays and barracuda. My suggestion is for one to wear a protective shirt (rash guard) to protect one from the seaweed and from harmful rays of the sun.
    The seaweed certainly did not spoil any part of my vacation.

  22. Toni says:

    We didn’t have a single day without seaweed when we visited San Pedro, Belize on Ambergris Caye mid-May 2018.
    Snorkeling wasn’t impacted but the smell on the beach was terrible.
    I’m not feeling hopeful about our trip this year but we’ll make the most of it.

    • weleavetoday says:

      Sorry to hear that Toni! It does appear that when you get further away from shore, it gets better. I saw someone walk through it for about 75 feet in Barbados to eventually swim in a clear patch. Please send me an update if you think of it. Fingers crossed for you!

  23. Garry says:

    How is the seaweed today in Barbados? We have a vacation planned next month and was just wandering about the seaweed problem.

    • weleavetoday says:

      Hello Garry, Which part of the island are you staying on? I had a look at recent of photos of beaches and it looks like some have had seaweed, but it doesn’t look as bad as when we were there in February. As long as you use beaches on the west coast, you should be fine. Wishing you a lovely time in Barbados and hopefully it is seaweed free. If you can, report back!
      Best regards,
      Maxine

  24. Steve says:

    We just got back from a Roatan/ San Pedro trip. Bottom line: Roatan was Sargassum-free all along north shore. San Pedro was terrible/horrible. Some hotels are doing what they can to clean their share of the beach, but frankly the problem is overwhelming. The H2S odor is bad to really bad. Suffocating in some spots. We had trouble sleeping a couple of nights. The east side of Ambergis was generally coated with it. Dead fish getting caught up in it. Encountered large mats of it while snorkeling at the reef. The west side of Ambergis was relatively clean, odor-free. But it’s the bay side so there’s other challenges….

  25. Tom Goodwin says:

    Grand Cayman got hit really hard this May, worst i’ve seen. Thanks for the blog, I am providing a link for my guests.

  26. Nikki Deacon says:

    We are staying at The SoCo Hotel right now and although they are doing their best to clear their smal section of beach….if you walk right out of the rear of the hotel down to The Hilton it is really pretty bad. There are feet and feet deep of it on shore. Today is Sunday so no one on the clearing up today. It is a thankless task anyway, as fast as they move it, it fills up again! It’s a shame for our first (and now probably only) visit to Barbados.

  27. Laura says:

    Just returned from Playa Paraiso, south of Cancun, and the sargassum was terrible. The workers cleared the beach the best they could, but snorkeling was a no-go. The resort would sell you a snorkeling day trip where they would bus you out to another beach and then take a boat to the reef off shore, but the “all-inclusive water activities” per the resort website were all canceled.

    • weleavetoday says:

      Thank you for update Laura. It is too bad the all-inclusive water activities were not available due to this and that guests had to pay extra to snorkel. I hope you still enjoyed your trip.

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