Here is everything travelers need to know about the sargassum seaweed explosion on the beaches of Cancun when planning their next trip to the beach paradise.
When someone says “Cancun”, you probably think of beaches with seas in turquoise blue tones and milky white sand. Beachside parties, long walks by the beach, and the shining sun may also be on your mind when you plan a vacation to your favorite Mexican Caribbean spot. What you probably do not consider, or expect for that matter, is seaweed – truckloads of it at that. Over 650 thousand tons of sargassum seaweed made their way to Yucatan Pensinsula’s coastline – and that was only in the first half of 2019!
Sargassum seaweed is brown and stinky and supposedly exists with the sole purpose of dampening your holiday experience. You had been planning this vacation for a really long time and you were expecting to leave Cancun with a nice tan and a relaxed mind. Instead, seaweed is what you get.
What is Seaweed?
You wanted to unwind but somehow you got stuck watching seaweed piling up on the shores during your holiday to gorgeous Cancun. But before we jump into what seaweed is doing on the beach you were supposed to be drinking Pina Coladas at, let’s take a moment to talk about what it even is.
Seaweed is basically just marine animals and algae. The term “seaweed” does not describe a particular kind of species. It simply refers to plants and plant-like creatures. Some are flowering plants like seagrasses and some are just algae. Seaweeds can be fixed or free-floating.
Although seaweed has not been something Cancunians have had to worry about traditionally, the last few years have seen an explosion in seaweed. Large amounts of a particular kind of seaweed (sargassum) have made their way to the shores of many nations. This crisis, which started in the summer of 2015, has had an adverse impact on many regions in the Caribbean Sea. Sargassum has so far impacted over 30 countries. It has been found on the coasts of Cuba, Turks and Caicos, Jamaica, Haiti, Honduras, French Guiana, Guyana, Guatemala, Belize, and even parts of Florida in the US itself. In Mexico, the coastal region of Quintana Roo is affected by the seaweed.
You can take a look at how sargassum has impacted various countries here.
Although sargassum has been known to arrive in February, in 2020, it found its way to the Yucatan only in April. Yes, this also means that sargassum seaweed will leave our beloved beaches of Cancun later too.
Seaweed on the Beaches of Cancun
Cancun is a resort city found on the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo in Mexico. Beaches in Quintana Roo find themselves to be one of the hardest hit by the seaweed outbreak.
The particular name of seaweed that finds itself on the beaches of Cancun is known as sargassum and it comes from the Sargasso Sea in the western Atlantic Ocean. Sargassum is sometimes also called “gulfweed” or “sea holly” and is a normal part of the ocean ecosystem.
Sargassum seaweed is generally dark green or brown in color and usually has a rough or sticky texture. Often attached to rocks along coats in temperate regions, it can also occur as free-floating algae in the open sea. Vast amounts of sargassum usually wind up in the Caribbean. The sight of large amounts of sargassum can be off-putting – most definitely something you want to avoid on a vacation! What’s more, they attract fleas, insects, and have a pungent smell.
So Where is All This Seaweed Coming from?
This sargassum seaweed outbreak is worrying – mostly because it’s so sudden. Ten years ago, we bet you wouldn’t even have considered the possibility of piles of stinky seaweed on the paradisiacal beaches of Cancun.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. Wasn’t it inevitable, after all, given climate change and the subsequent rise in sea temperatures and sea currents. Many factors have played a role and while we may be tempted to think that this outbreak comes out of the blue (like literally!), it most certainly does not. This sudden increase in sargassum seaweed is indicative of the damage done by human activities in the seas and the Caribbean coasts. Deforestation and excessive use of fertilizer can be blamed.
Seaweed on the coasts of the Caribbean, and thus on the beaches of Cancun, arrives via two routes – the Sargasso Sea and the north of the equator. In the case of the latter, it gathers up near the coasts of Brazil and finally finds its way to the Caribbean.
According to Dr. Brian Lapointe of Florida Atlantic University, there is a large amount of seaweed growing in what can be termed the “Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt” – the area between the coast of Western Africa and Brazil. The nutrients from the Amazon River and the Orinoco have led to feeding the sargassum. Along with strong Amazon discharge being a major culprit, three other factors have been identified as having played a key role in explaining this Sargassum Belt.
- Strong West African “upwelling” i.e. when nutritious seawater rises to the top of the ocean and further feeds the plant.
- Moderate temperature.
- The presence of a seed population.
By the time sargassum seaweed reaches the beaches on Cancun (being driven by sea currents), it has gathered more nutrients. These help the seaweed grow further. Talk about a recipe for disaster!
Why is Sargassum a Problem?
The sudden invasion of sargassum seaweed on the coasts of Caribbean countries poses a serious health risk. After over 48 hours of winding up on shores of beaches, the seaweed begins to release large amounts of toxic gas. These are produced through matter decomposition. These gases can lead to potentially fatal pulmonary, neurological, and cardiovascular lesions. They may also cause irritation in the airways, headaches, memory loss, or learning difficulties.
Accumulation of sargassum takes a huge toll on the tourism industry of countries it affects. Large quantities of algae pile up on beaches and decay leading to a foul odor and also rust metals. Most definitely not a situation tourists would like to find themselves in. Not even locals, of course.
What is worrying about this sargassum outbreak is how it seems to be getting worse every year. Cleaning up measures also seem to offer limited assistance in the fight against this piling up of massive amounts of seaweed. It is a recurring problem – in a matter of weeks of cleaning up shores, one finds beaches filled up with the algae again.
How Do You Avoid Seaweed in Cancun?
Don’t be dissuaded by reports of sargassum seaweed piling up on the beaches of Cancun – a little bit of planning goes a long way.
The first step is to make sure you choose your dates wisely. The majority of the seaweed arrives in Cancun between April and August. The amount of sargassum usually reaches its peak in July. This year, however, though seaweed arrived later than usual or expected, the July figures already exceed those of previous years.
After that, make sure you choose a hotel that takes care of its visitors properly. What we mean by this is choose hotels where the staff is constantly monitoring the sargassum situation. Many high-end hotels and resorts also have the ability to clean up their own beaches. Low-budget stays, however, do not have the ability to do so. So if you can, spend a little bit more for a much more pleasurable experience at your favorite beaches in Cancun – without all the slimy seaweed.
If it is too late for pre-planning and you want a clean beach experience, some beaches around you have minor amounts of sargassum due to their location. Such beaches are in Isla Mujeres after taking a ferry ride. You can spend a day in Playa Norte or Playa Centro where there are many restaurants and beach clubs. Look into our article Beach Clubs in Cancun: The Lowdown, which includes Isla Mujeres beach clubs with the highest ratings.
Cancun and the Beaches of Cancun in Seaweed Season
Since seaweed is a result of currents, it keeps changing its location. You will not find it on the same beaches. Make sure to constantly update your knowledge on where the seaweed is and where it isn’t present in Cancun. Social media, Facebook pages, threads on Trip Advisor, Quora, and newspaper articles covering local Cancunian news are your friends. Local guides can also help a lot!
Research is crucial! For example, did you know that the strip between Zona Hotelera and the Cancun town hall was the least affected by the seaweed outbreak in 2019? Beaches like Playa Langosta and Playa Tortugas, too, enjoyed clear water for the most part.
With that said, there is a lot you can do even during seaweed season to make the best of your holiday in Cancun! Isla Mujeres, for instance, is one ferry ride (some 8 miles) away from Cancun and a great spot for snorkeling and swimming. It also doesn’t hurt to know that it is one of the most exclusive spots in all of Cancun AND has consistently enjoyed not being hit by the sargassum outbreak.
There are many other places and options you can explore. How about heading to the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula to Holbox island? Here you can observe beautiful beaches with clear waters and bioluminescence. If you travel south, you will find the village of Bacalar, close to Belize, you may not find a beach, but you will find a gorgeous lagoon! You can also head to the less explored Isla Blanca for some solid kite-surfing action. It is barely a one hour drive north of Cancun and has been known to get hardly any seaweed.
What is being done about this seaweed situation in Cancun?
Fighting this recurring problem has become a major priority for the Mexican government and for hotels in the Yucatan Peninsula.
In 2015, Mexican authorities spent about USD 9.1 million to hire 4,600 workers to clean up the seaweed on the country’s Caribbean shores. More recently, in 2019, the government announced that it would spend over USD 2.5 million toward the fight against sargassum. The money went toward hiring four boats designed specifically to remove the seaweeds from Mexico’s Caribbean coasts.
A coordinated strategy has also been put in place to deal with this whole Sargassum situation. The navy and state governments have also gotten involved. A Sargassum Monitoring Network consisting of experts – computer engineers, oceanologists, biologists, and hydrologists – monitor the sargassum situation on a daily basis. Satellite images, images from their eight drones (that survey the entire coast), and images from social media users (they have over 83 thousand followers on their Facebook page) are able to provide up to date information on the seaweed situation in Cancun.
You will enjoy your stay, even if it has to be avoiding certain beach areas. There are plenty of activities to do and it is also a matter of understanding this phenomenon as a reaction to our own industrial activities and climate change. Be part of the solution and think about what you can do to decrease the problem and become a responsible traveler.