Updated: Mar 28
When travel came roaring back last spring, I went from planning elaborate safaris and multi-country sojourns, to laid back beach getaways. With the pandemic still luke warm, Canadian travellers weren't ready to venture too far afield, but they were ready to escape the winter doldrums, gather up their friends and loved ones and enjoy some fun in the sun. And because of its close proximity, and decent pricing, Mexico was at the top of everyone's list. But there was common issue that kept creeping its way onto my feedback forms. It wasn't rising costs, or cartel issues, or service discrepancies, it was Mother Nature.
Sargassum has entered the chat.
What is Sargassum?
Sargassum is a type of algae that floats in the ocean. It's often found in tropical and subtropical waters, but it can also be spotted near the coast in temperate regions. Sargassum is composed of several different species that grow together to form large mats or rafts that float on top of the water. These rafts are made up mostly of brown algae, which are known as sargassum seaweed or gulfweed. The other types of algae include:
red alga (rhodophyta)
green alga (chlorophyta)
blue-green alga (cyanobacteria)
Is Sargassum Really That Bad?
Aside from its foul odour, toxic off-gassing, and unsightliness, Sargassum has far more sinister side effects...
Over 24 million tons of Sargassum bloomed in the Atlantic in June of 2022 which was a 6 million increase from the month before
The decaying algae alters water temperatures, throws of the pH balance and is leading to the decline in seagrass, coral reef and sponge populations
It's threatening endangered sea turtle populations and their ability to replenish.
Lower fish stocks, threatening seafood industry and livelihoods
Sever each erosion due to heavy machinery being used for sargassum removal
Machinery costs have depleted budgets in vulnerable islands communities dealing with limited resources to start with
Decrease in tourists during peak travel seasons, placing even more economic pressure on communities that rely heavily on tourism dollars
Does Sargassum Have a Season?
The short answer is, sort of. Historically, Sargassum blooms are at their worst from May to October, but the last couple of years have seen blooms all year round, this year being the worst its ever been. When I visited Playa Del Carmen in February 2022, Sargassum was strewn about about the beach. Playacar Beach, arguably the best stretch of Beach in the Mayan, enjoyed sargassum free days for the most part. And when it did wash up, crews were hard at work, first thing in the morning, removing what they could so resort goers could enjoy a clear path to those azure seas.
The worst window for Sargassum is July and August, so if you're planning a summer escape, consider Mexico's west coast as this is also the rainy/hurricane season for much of the Caribbean.
Some of The North American Sargassum Hotspots
Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula)
Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands
Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands
How Can Your Support Communities Suffering from Sargassum Blooms?
Take the trip anyway! "But I came for the beaches" you say! Listen, there are more to these incredible destinations than beaches. Mexico is a treasure trove of culinary genius, vibrant Indigenous and contemporary culture, jaw-dropping landscapes and so much more. Besides, a swift tide can sweep Sargassum out to see as fast as it brings it in, so you could still have a few days of pristine beach time. These communities are still in recovery from the pandemic, and will be for some time, so your tourism dollars, provided they're spent in the right places, is invaluable.
If you really want to make a difference, consider researching local initiatives that are fighting sargassum or coming up with innovative ways to reuse it. Supporting and helping to fund community ingenuity is one of the best ways to pay it forward.
Want An Alternative? Here Are a Few Sargassum Free Destinations to Escape To
Mexican Riviera (Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Cabo) - Mexico's west coast is devoid of any sargassum issues so if you're still hoping to enjoy margaritas, freshly made guacamole, illustrious Mexican culture and a laid back beach vibe, consider the golden sands of the Mexican Riviera. Flights are still non-stop from most major Canadian cities, and there is plenty to explore and experience.
Aruba - Okay, so Aruba isn't completely sargassum-free, however, this Dutch Caribbean Island enjoys cooling tradewinds, and is conveniently located outside of the hurricane belt. There are still plenty of beaches on the island that enjoy sargassum free days. Baby Beach, Palm Beach and Eagle Beach are just a few.
Maldives - While this archipelago is facing its own challenges with climate change (rising oceans), you won't find sargassum here. Yes, it's a bit of a hike from Canada's west coast, but if you're going to make the trip, consider a tour around Sri Lanka with the Maldives as a trip closer.
Seychelles - Sending you even further afield, the East African Republic of Seychelles is undoubtedly one of those postcard perfect, bucket list destinations. It's been a favourite for my Africa-bound honeymooners for over a decade. Anse Source d'Argent, located on La Digue Island offers up a powdery haven with gargantuan granite boulders that feel otherworldly. The ocean here is calm and the sunbathing so inviting you won't want to come home.
Fiji - With non-stop flights between Vancouver and Nadi, it's never been easier for many folks to access the islands of Fiji. A snorkeling, diving, laid back 'chose-your-adventure' type holiday, consider the Coral Coast of Viti Levu. Or unplug completely and head to Kadavu Island to kayak its untouched shores, trek through its rainforests and dive the Astrolabe Reef.
More Sargassum Free Options...
Mauritius - Another island nation in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and they are free of sargassum.
The Bahamas - While some parts of the Bahamas may be affected by sargassum, there are many islands that are free of it, such as Exuma, Harbour Island, and the Abacos.
Hawaii - Yes, Hawaii is still one of the crowning jewels for beach lovers. And it's gone through a fantastic cultural renaissance over the past few years, focusing on community led initiatives, and reducing the tourism footprint in places where the path is a little too beaten.
Barbados - This Caribbean island is known for its beautiful beaches that are free of sargassum. Some of the best beaches are Crane Beach and Mullins Beach.
Costa Rica - While some parts of Costa Rica may be affected by sargassum, there are still plenty of beaches that are sargassum-free, such as Manuel Antonio Beach and Tamarindo Beach. Surf's up!
What Can We Expect in the Future?
The future of Sargassum is uncertain, but there are a few things that can be done to reduce the spread of this invasive species. First, we need to understand why it's happening in the first place. Currently two main factors are at play: climate change and nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff and sewage discharge into coastal waters. The warmer temperatures caused by climate change allow more algae to grow in warm water areas like the Gulf Stream current off North America's east coast, which helps increase Sargassum production as well as making it easier for them to spread northward along with currents (this is called "upwelling"). Meanwhile, increasing nutrient runoff from agricultural activity leads to higher concentrations of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous in surface waters where they serve as food sources for phytoplankton--including brown macroalgae like Sargassum --which then bloom uncontrollably due to overabundance of food supply under warm conditions caused by global warming.
If you decide to visit Mexico in the near future, manage your expectations. The local community is doing all that they can to mitigate this climate emergency. Resorts are investing millions of dollars every year into sargassum removal, but some days, climate is going to win the battle. If perfectly pristine beaches all year round is what you're after, you may need to look else where for your next beach vacation.