The Battle for Mexico’s Beaches

It hits you in the face the minute you open a door or window. A virtual presence that is so primal, your brain goes into full denial, telling you it can’t possibly be what you think it is. Perhaps that disconnect is made all the more dissonant by the fact that you are quite literally walking out the door into a verdant paradise, where as far as the eye can see everything is perfect and manicured and designed to delight the senses.

But there is one sense that is definitely not delighted….

People, let me tell you about sargassum.

Photo from the Mexicanist

Sargassum, also known as Sargasso, stinks no matter what it’s called. It’s a seaweed (or microalgae) that is choking beaches from Mexico to the Caribbean to northern Florida. Here’s what Chemical & Engineering News (not my regular literary diet, but, ok) says about it:

Sargassum wasn’t a regular sight outside its native arena in the Sargasso Sea until 2011. That year, enormous mats of the algae started brewing farther south, in the central Atlantic, eventually washing onto beaches on the eastern and southern coasts of many Caribbean islands. By 2018, the mats had grown into the largest macroalgae bloom in recorded history, an 8,850 km long mass extending from the central Atlantic and Caribbean Sea to West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico. Chunks of Sargassum, circulated by ocean currents, now regularly wash ashore in the Caribbean, where they rot on the beaches, giving off a strong, sulfurous stench.”

That is putting it mildly. We had heard slight whispers about the sargassum problem when we first started researching our last-minute, mid-summer trip to Mexico, specifically, the Secrets Maroma Beach. But we thought it was just a bunch of seaweed washing up on the pristine white beaches and making them slightly less Instagrammable. Since we planned to spend most of our time lounging on the patio of our swim-up room or under an umbrella around the thoughtfully designed pool areas, we didn’t think it would bother us too much.

(Basically, us. Photo from Secrets Maroma Beach website)

Other than an occasional morning walk, we really don’t spend that much time on the beach and we don’t pick our vacation destinations based on the quality of the beaches. But there is so much more to sargassum than aesthetics. There’s that smell.

I would almost call it unrecognizable, but that’s not true. It is instinctually recognizable. In fact, we live in the lovely suburb called Old Town, which has a river-adjacent sewer system dating back to the late 1800s. So we are very familiar with the occasional, river-flooding-induced smell of excrement around these genteel streets lined with historic, million-dollar townhomes.

But this sargassum is a whole other poop game. And it is growing, reaching approximately 20 million tons, according to one NPR report. In fact, Inside Science noted:

“This spring, the seaweed invasion was comparable to last year’s, if not worse. In May, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador instructed the country’s navy to lead the beach-cleaning effort and to prevent the sargassum from reaching the coast. In June, the situation was so bad that the southeastern state of Quintana Roo — home of the tourist destination of Cancún — declared a state of emergency.”

And just like there would seem to be a disconnect between living in one of the most expensive areas in the Greater D.C. area and smelling sewage after every heavy rainstorm, so too, was it jarringly incongruent to smell the overwhelming stench of sulfide gas at the beautiful Secrets Maroma Beach, which happens to be in Quintana Roo.

Because SMB was gorgeous. Just beautiful. Here’s a description from Trip Advisor,

“Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun is tucked away on secluded Maroma Beach, voted the World’s Best Beach by the Travel Channel four years in a row. This unlimited-luxury heaven provides opulence to the most discerning traveler with a pure white sand beach, stunning ocean views stretching as far as the eye can see, elegant suites providing 24-hour room service, daily refreshed mini-bars and several of them with swim-out access to twelve smaller pools plus a shimmering infinity pool, gourmet dining options and chic lounges.”

Photo from the Secrets Maroma Beach website

And it’s true. You look at pictures of the beach (even recent ones) and it’s all white powdered sugar magical-ness. That’s because there are dozens and dozens of workers (aka: sargaceros) busting their butts to cart away literally TONS of seaweed around the clock. Trucks full of it. But they can’t cart away that smell.

Picture from a 2015 TripAdvisor review of SMB

Not to mention the fact that while sargassum might be bad for tourism in the region, it is even worse for coral, fish and other seagrasses. It smothers and destroys virtually everything in its path. Again from Inside Science:

“Since 2015, we have lost a significant number of seagrasses and they will take many decades to recover, assuming that the sargassum is controlled. If it continues to arrive, they will not recover. As of last year, we already began to record massive wildlife mortality — we began observing dead animals along the beach. Last year, we identified dead individuals of 78 species on the beaches, especially fish, but also crustaceans, lobsters, urchins, octopuses and others. As of May of last year, corals also began to die from a disease called “white syndrome.”

The good news is that there appears to be a season for sargassum. It’s not a year-round thing. The sargassum season runs roughly from April to August. And, the government, science community and resorts from Mexico to Florida are studying the issue carefully and trying to find solutions, everything from literal barriers in the ocean to finding alternative uses for the seaweed. Hopefully, they’ll come up with something before next year’s sargassum tide comes rolling in.  

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