This article has been updated as of 11:20 a.m. EST.
"What's that brown thing floating in the water, it must be a tiny island!" my seatmate exclaimed, leaning over me to peek out the window.
Close to landing in St. Maarten, we were still about 10,000 ft. in the air, but from experience, I knew that wasn't land.
"It's sargassum," I told her. She shook her head, saying, "There's no way we'd see that from all the way up there."
According to The BBC, however, it's definitely possible. Currently, there's a floating mass of the stinky brown plant clusters trailing all the way from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico, and multiple destinations in the Caribbean are dealing with the aftermath.
What's the cause?
Those who have vacationed in Mexico recently are no stranger to it. While it's not exactly slimy, like the seaweed you'll find in a lake, it's annoying in the sense that it comes quite literally in waves, and it floats to the surface, instead of staying down below.
According to CTV News, the Mexican government is calling the presence of sargassum "one of the biggest challenges that climate change has caused for the world." A recent report states that Mexico has spent US$17 million to remove over a half-million tons of sargassum seaweed from its Caribbean beaches.
When it piles up on beaches in the early mornings, hotel workers rush out with rakes and work frantically to contain it, before it piles up and decays under the hot sun. The Mexican navy has reportedly been tasked with building collector boats and cleaning the sea.
However, it's not just Mexico seeing a prominence of sargassum—South Florida and other parts of the Caribbean are also experiencing its arrival.
At one time, sargassum was only found in the Sargasso Sea, but due to its rough texture, it's able to withstand rough currents that would otherwise wash away or break up softer plants. As climate change continues to generate more frequent tropical storm activity and oceans see an uptake in human-related activities, sargassum is thriving, and as a result, popular Caribbean destinations are seeing massive build-up on their beaches.
The BBC reports that as of June 2018, the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, which is what scientists are now calling it, extended 8,850km (5,500 miles) and was made up of over 20 million tonnes of biomass. Contrary to popular belief, the algae blooms aren't a direct result of an increase in ocean temperature, the BBC reports.
Is sargassum dangerous?
Despite being a nuisance for swimming, sargassum doesn't pose a major health concern, like other algae blooms, such as Florida's red tide, which we saw last year. Red tides, though naturally occurring, produce toxins which can result in the mass killing of marine life, like fish or gulls.
Humans who come in close contact with a body of water affected by red tide, such as walking along the beach, or swimming, can develop respiratory infections or trouble breathing, as well as eye, nose, or ear infections, and even poisoning if they consume shellfish that have been exposed to the harmful algae, and ingested after cooking.
Swimming while sargassum is present will not harm you in the sense that you'll get an infection or a rash. For the most part, it's the smell, which has been described as rotten eggs, that makes swimming or sunbathing next to impossible— four months ago when I was down in Mexico, I gave up on trying to get into the ocean, as some of the mounds of sargassum were over my head (I'm 5'7!).
Sargassum, at its worst, washes up in waves, and then it just keeps coming, to the point there's no wading past it. Even the best beaches are suffering.
In some severe cases, it ends up choking out other seagrasses or corals. According to the BBC approximately 1,000 km (621 miles) of Mexican beaches have been impacted this year, including some of the most popular vacation spots like Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum in Quintana Roo state.
The Pacific side, for the moment, seems to have been spared.
What are hotels doing about it?
People pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for that perfect beach vacation.
So, it goes without saying that Mexico's sargassum problem has many travellers annoyed.
Lori Gold, of Twil Travel, currently lives in Mexico and has been monitoring the situation very closely.
"The situation changes hourly, not daily, weekly, or monthly," Gold told PAX. "I have seen beaches be completely covered one day, to be completely clear and blue the next day. I have seen beaches be completely clear in the morning, and in the afternoon have a building of sargassum. It is completely unpredictable. Some beaches are worse than others in general for seaweed, so they tend to be hit harder however it does not discriminate."
Gold says that she's visited several properties that have installed barriers that aim to keep the sargassum from flowing into the beachfront. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn't. "All resorts are working hard to combat it, but their efforts can only go so far when it keeps coming back," she says.
Currently returning from a road trip through Mexico, Gold says she hasn't yet seen an influx of sargassum in Cancun, Playa Mujeres, Isla Mujeres and most of Cozumel, but "this can change. I think it's important to manage expectations, tell them [clients] about the unpredictability, and if sargassum is a make or break, send them to a location in Mexico that is not plagued by it typically, or another destination in general," Gold says.
Some hotels in Mexico, like Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya and Hotel Xcaret have “cove” beaches, which allow swimmers to enjoy the ocean without the sargassum.
If you're still set on Mexico, remember, there's always the pool!
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