Seaweed in the Riviera Maya and Playa Del Carmen
It actually started late 2014 summer and at first everyone thought it was just some seaweed washing ashore. That happens from time to time. Then it kept coming. This is not the first time this has happened and we are not the only ones being affected. It is however something we have not seen in decades. Much of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Florida have been effected as well. Here is a look at this historic inundation of seaweed on the beaches that we have been faced with and what is being done to deal with it.
Update: As of last spring 2021 in the Riviera Maya the seaweed is coming back. If you are interested in current situations on different beaches or in front of hotels, this Facebook group has a lot of current information about the sargassum.
Be sure to check out our special guide to seaweed in Playa Del Carmen here. We have this very helpful map that is below in the article and we talk about what beaches get less seaweed.
What is the situation with the seaweed now?
From about early October 2019 to March 2020 the beaches were very clear of seaweed. We believe the hurricanes of 2020 changed currents and it helped the sargassum situation. Starting in May of 2021 the seaweed is coming back. It still does depend on the location of the beach and not all are 100% clear. Check out our live webcams article here to see current conditions.
Are the seaweed barriers working?
Different beaches and municipalities have been experimenting with barriers offshore. These are floating barriers that capture seaweed or sargassum and block it from arriving on the beaches. These have been very limited in effectiveness. For one, it is impossible to line the entire Riviera Maya with barriers. There needs to be access for boats and the cost of such a project is astronomical. There also needs to be collection of the seaweed when it builds up behind the barriers.
Where the barriers help is in calm conditions with light seaweed conditions, they do hold it back. It is not a permeant solution but something to give people hope and at least one action people can do to try to do something.
When there are stronger winds, causing rougher waters, the seaweed blows over the barriers and they become much less effective. There have also been many times the anchors have come loose and the protected area is not fully enclosed.
Below you can see a photo of a barrier where it comes to shore. The area on the right is the protected area. One the left you can see the open ocean. It is a little more brown along the shore line where the barriers were not protecting the shore.
When will the seaweed go away?
We are glad you asked! In fact many people ask how things look at the beach because it is a day to day changing situation. People actually have been checking in with people in other parts of the region and looking at webcams to get a daily report. Then people make decisions to go visit a beach along the Riviera Maya or stay put. This however is not possible for people that book their holiday months in advance.
Nasa and Texas A&M have developed a website that gives advanced predictions of the floating mats of seaweed. It is an interesting website to look at. It is called the SEAS project which stands ” Sargassum Early Advisory System“. Here is the website: http://seas-forecast.com/ Tip: Go to the forecast section and look for Quintana Roo North (Cancun) and Quintana Roo South (Playa del Carmen) for the forecast for the Riviera Maya.
What is the cause of the seaweed?
There are different opinions to the cause. Not everything is know about it and studies are continuing. The most popular reasons are:
- Changing climate and wind patterns blowing the loose mats of seaweed to coastlines.
- Nutrient rich waters producing more sargassum (seaweed). Winds blowing dust from Africa into the Atlantic and runoff from Brazil are cited for this.
- Warmer waters breed the seaweed faster and the Caribbean has been warmer in the past few years.
- When there are periods of low hurricane activity, the natural process of being “chopped up” by storms is lessened and more seaweed is floating around.
How to Escape the Seaweed
All inclusive hotel that is seaweed proof?
Many of our readers have thought about moving to another hotel just to find that perfect beach without seaweed. This is hard since it is so unpredictable. But we do have a great option for you. The new Hotel Xcaret Mexico has coves, rivers, sandy beaches and inlets that are beautiful and you will never miss the beach. See what this new all inclusive hotel is like in the link. It just might save your vacation.
Tours and options to avoid the seaweed
Now that the seaweed has been here for a while, some people have just gotten used to it and swim out past where most of it is. However there are some places you can go to avoid it.
- Visit a cenote. These natural water pools are inland and have crystal clear water.
- Xel-Ha park is a natural inlet and has ground water flowing out to the ocean. This area is fairly clear of seaweed.
- Visit a rooftop pool in Playa Del Carmen. Most of them charge a minimum consumption and great views. We have 7 of them mentioned in the article link.
- Take advantage of the visiting the interior of the Yucatan Peninsula. Everything is not all about the beach here and there are many treasure to explore. For example there are Mayan ruins and colonial towns to visit.
- One of the most consistent beaches that is not as affected is on Isla Mujeres called Playa Norte.
Removal of the Seaweed
Usually the routine is when seaweed is washing ashore, staff from hotels or beach clubs will rake up the seaweed and dig a hole in the beach and bury it. The seaweed breaks down and becomes part of the beach. This method can be bad because if the waves expose the burred seaweed, the seeds can bloom again in the water creating more seaweed.
When there is more seaweed that washes up and it has been several days, the seaweed is raked up and often carted away because you can only bury so much in beach.
The city of Playa Del Carmen does have beach rakes. They are a tractor that has rotating tines that pick up seaweed and trash from the beach. The tines rotate and drop everything in a tray and the sand falls out back onto the beach. This is very efficent for cleaning large swaths of the beach. The city does not uses these everyday leaving it up to people to do the work of romoving the seaweed to make the beaches more beautiful for visitors.
After a while the less used beaches just got piled up with seaweed as you can see in the photo below. This remote stretch of beach just north of CTM Avenue in Playa Del Carmen is lined with seaweed.
See our article about building islands off the coast of Playa Del Carmen.
Is there a bright spot with the seaweed?
While most people dislike the seaweed because it is unsighlty and can smell when decomposing, there are actually some good things about seaweed.
- Seaweed makes great mulch for your garden. It is rich in nutrients and is a natural deterant to bugs and pest.
- It brings nutrient to dunes and helps plants grow near the beach.
- The seaweed slows the errosion of the beach and in some places the beach is 3 to 17 meters wider!
- Seaweed attracts flyies and insects which might not sound like a great thing, but shore birds do enjoy it. This makes for ample feeding for them.
When the seaweed is alowed to pile up it makes mounds. The floating seaweed is actually alive and green but dies when it reaches the shore. If water remains traped behind these mounds it can become pretty smelly.
Most of the seaweed seems to collect within 20 feet or 7 meters from the beach. As the seaweed dies and dries it goes from green to dark brown. When it is dry it breaks up and makes the water look bad. The photo below is a more extreme example of how bad the water can look.
Lets all hope the seaweed stops arriving on our costline and we return to normal. Then we can look back in wonder at these photos and hardly believe what the summer of seaweed was like.
For more reading about this topic, see the article in The Atlantic here.
Do you have a question or comment about the seaweed in Playa Del Carmen and the Riviera Maya? Let us know in the comment section below.
If you are coming to the Riviera Maya, we have guides for everything on our website. You only need to use the search box for what you need. We do have a list of our guides here for you also.