Gulfweed makes a mess of Mexican beaches

The famed white sands of Cancún’s coastline have been swamped with an especially foul-smelling infestation of sargassum seaweed.

Cancun beachfront before the seaweed invasion.

Cancun beachfront before the seaweed invasion. Image by Ricardo Diaz / CC BY 2.0

The region depends on a tourist industry that hosts around ten million visitors every year – and most of those visitors are there to enjoy dazzling beaches and turquoise waters. Beyond simply spoiling the view, the seaweed – and the marine ecology it supports – expels an especially noxious aroma as it decomposes.

While researchers are not certain of the causes, they’re pointing to the usual suspects: changes in oceanic currents caused by global warming, agricultural run-off and urban waste-water. It’s not the first time the region’s coastline has been dumped with gulfweed, as it’s sometimes called – the origins of this outbreak are believed to date back to 2011. But the scale of this summer’s crop is unprecedented. Piles of the seaweed are reported to have reached four feet in height on Antiguan beaches this summer, while a state of emergency was declared in Tobago to combat the economic threat it poses. Similar dumps have been reported in neighbouring Quintana Roo state and Belize.

Gulfweed is destroying beaches in Mexico.

Gulfweed is destroying beaches in Mexico. Image by Henrique Pinto

In Mexico, some local authorities have mobilised significant manpower to rake the seaweed from the beaches. Some hotels are reportedly offering discounts to visitors willing to put up with the inconveniences.

A brown, drifting algae that inhabits shallow waters and coral reefs and grows up to several metres, sargassum support eels, turtles and fish. The Sargasso Sea, in the Atlantic northeast of the Caribbean, was so named by Portuguese navigators who once believed gulfweed made the sea unnavigable. In Cancún, beachgoers might have similar ideas.

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