Our island, Long Caye at Glover’s Reef, is 35 miles off the coast of Belize. Several years ago we had our first Sargassum seaweed invasion. Although we have been located at Glover’s Reef since 1991, we didn’t even know about Sargassum until just a few years ago. This season I guess the invasion is so pronounced that it is now in the news, and prospective tourists are avoiding parts of the Caribbean that report bad instances of the weed piling up.
So just what is Sargassum anyway? It’s another name for brown algae. It has berries within the mass of foliage, and these are filled with gas, and they keep the seaweed afloat. It travels in huge masses, like islands floating at sea, some as large as several acres! Experts believe the Caribbean Sargassum originates off the coast of South America. It is named after the Sargasso Sea, a region in the Atlantic that is almost as large as Australia where the weed collects. The Sargasso Sea is located just north of the Bahamas and covers about 2 million square miles of ocean. It’s the only sea without fixed land boundaries, its limits are formed by bounding ocean currents. Sargassum is not only found in the Atlantic however, it thrives worldwide.
There are many reasons to hate the stuff, it wrecks the visual appearance of the otherwise pristine white coral sand beaches. It’s yucky to walk through, whether on land or in the water. And when it starts to decay, it smells like a dead animal.
There are some good things about it too, although none of them are good enough for us to keep it around when it arrives. They are home to, and a source of food for a huge variety of sea life. It is edible for humans too, and utilized as a treatment for many ailments in Chinese medicine.
We are lucky in so many ways, and one of them is the Sargassum situation. For one thing, the wind blows mostly from the east (known as the trade winds). Our main beach faces southwest, which is the leeward side of the island, so the seaweed blows right by us for the most part. On the windward side of the island where our cabanas face, we have breaking waves as well as wind on that shore, so nothing sticks there either.
If it’s stormy and the wind switches it blows from the north or northwest, and then we do get a massive pile of Sargassum right on our beach. We have to wait until the wind switches back to deal with it, because otherwise as soon as we got rid of it, it would be right back. But once the wind switches (usually a day or two after it starts) we then clean it right up. Again, we are lucky. We have a system using our motor boat engines to create a swift current along with people in the water with rakes to rake it all away so that it flows away with the east wind. Last spring we experienced the worst batch of Sargassum we had ever seen. It was piled about 40 feet deep out into our lagoon! (That’s double the amount in the photo below.) Three of us got rid of it in about 3 hours of good, hard labor. Our group paddled through it leaving the island on the way to Middle Caye at about 9 am, and by the time they got back for lunch it was all gone. They couldn’t believe it. I was one of the three who magically cleaned it up, and it was actually fun, and we were so proud of ourselves. It’s so great having an island, you can just deal with stuff completely because it’s such a finite area.