For as long as Americans have been enjoying the Mexican Caribbean, one of their top concerns has been safety.
It’s no secret Mexico has had its fair share of trials over the years with organized crime. But now, Cancun and the Riviera Maya have a new nemesis in the form of sargassum — and travelers are more concerned with it than the safety of the destination.
Situated off the south-eastern seaboard of the United States lays a whole sector of the North Atlantic known as the ‘Sargasso Sea’. In this area, four separate ocean currents merge together and create a thick build-up of sargassum.
In the past, the amount of sargassum growing in this area and then making landfall was a tiny fraction of what we see in the Caribbean now. But since 2011, this foul-smelling seaweed has been increasing at an alarming rate.
Although the current situation is a relatively recent problem, the brown-yellow algae isn’t something new. In fact, the first known account of the Sargasso Sea is from Christopher Columbus in 1492. He wrote of his fear that the monster amount of sargassum he found would trap his ship and his worry that it might be hiding shallow waters that would ground his ship far from any possible rescue.
Fast forward 531 years to 2023, and sargassum has once again become a huge worry for travelers, this time for those chasing a sun-soaked beach vacation in Cancun.
Why The Situation Is Getting Worse
It can be easy to assume the fault lies with the regions that sargassum appears in. Thoughts of “why hasn’t this been rectified?” and “the authorities aren’t doing enough” are natural but ultimately unfair.
Each year the local authorities and tourism industry expand their response, only to be greeted by a surprising increase in sargassum each spring. As well as the increased amounts arriving each year, the ‘sargassum season’ is arriving earlier.
As seen this season with over 27,000 tonnes reaching the Riviera Maya in February, 3 months earlier than previously expected.
There are multiple theories on what has caused this rebirth of the Sargasso Sea, but the most accepted train of thought is that it’s a mixture of two extremely worrying factors, creating a perfect storm for sargassum to thrive.
Climate change can be a divisive subject to many, but no matter what an individual’s view on the extent of climate change, one thing is certain, the north Atlantic has gotten warmer.
The data is clear, and this increase in ocean temperatures has turned the area sargassum grows into the perfect ocean greenhouse.
Additionally, like any plant-life, sargassum needs to eat, which is where another hugely regrettable truth comes in.
Agriculture in the Amazon basin of Brazil produces a mammoth amount of fertilizer run-off, which ultimately enters the Amazon River and flows into the Atlantic Ocean. This fertilizer is then carried by the south and north equatorial currents straight to the Sargasso Sea, where it supercharges the growth of sargassum.
Each of these factors has the ability to increase sargassum on its own, but together they have created a titan-sized issue for all of the Caribbean.
Is It Really A Bigger Issue Than Safety?
For many, travelers’ safety will continue to be issue number one, but as a concern, it isn’t new to travelers visiting Mexico. The conversation around tourist safety has existed in the country since the 1980s, and in spite of this, tourism has continued to grow in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, even while other classic destinations like Acapulco suffered the death of tourism.
Areas such as the hotel zone in Cancun are far removed from the realities of the nation’s security situation, and with the nature of all-inclusive resorts, many travelers’ biggest security threat is not using suncream with a high enough SPF.
On the other hand, sargassum is a clear and present danger to the success of tourism in Cancun and the Riviera Maya. The beautiful white-sand beaches have always been a huge draw for tourists, and now since 2011, they have been under threat during some of the busiest months of the season.
The Authorities Are Acting
Those visiting Cancun and the Riviera Maya during sargassum season will no doubt notice the army of workers going out each day to clean up the beaches.
Investments have been made in specialist vehicles to clean up this unwelcome addition to the coastline, and many resorts are employing these teams directly to ensure their guests don’t miss out on their beach vacation.
But the biggest actions are being taken at sea, far from the eyes of tourists. Huge barrier structures that block the way for sargassum are preventing thousands of tonnes from reaching the beaches; as well as specially outfitted boats with nets that catch the sargassum that does make it past the barriers.
Unfortunately, even with these measures, it’s impossible to stop all the sargassum from making it through. The weather and ocean currents can be unpredictable and only make the operation more difficult, as well as the increasing amounts of sargassum each year that quickly outpaces the efforts of the authorities.
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