Navigating the Great 2023 Caribbean Sargassum Bloom
Photo: Flamenco Beach, Culebra in November 2022
By now you’ve surely heard the media reports...it’s coming.
It’s stinky, unsightly, and it’s on the way to ruin your Caribbean vacation.
Yes - this year’s 2023 Caribbean sargassum bloom in the looks like it will be one for the record books, surpassing many other recent seasons.
There are already reports of many popular vacation destinations such as the British Virgin Islands, Bahamas, and Florida Keys, experiencing waves of the stuff washing up on beaches since the beginning of the year.
But don’t cancel your plans. I’m going to show you how to have a great time in the Caribbean this year, in spite of the sargassum. This article focuses on those taking yacht charter trips, but there are useful tips for any type of vacation traveler.
What is sargassum and the why is this year so bad?
Sargassum is a yellowish brown floating seaweed that blooms in a five thousand mile long belt in the Atlantic Ocean, dubbed the Sargasso Sea. It floats on the weather in a westerly direction towards Florida, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.
I’ve been sailing on bareboat charter trips for over 10 years in the Caribbean, and we regularly sail past sargassum patches, or step over it on beaches.
It’s usually not too big of a deal, but some years are worse than others. This looks like one of those.
Scientists believe elevated nutrient levels from rivers and storm runoff are acting like fertilizer for the sargassum, boosting their growth. Manmade causes are usually to blame, but there is still a lot of uncertainty. You can read about its origins in one of the recent media articles on the topic.
The bottom line: batten down the hatches. It's coming. So much is coming that it can be detected by satellite images. The University of South Florida has a great project called the Sargassum Watch Project where you can keep track of the blobs progress. You can even animate the images to see how it’s changing over time.
Here's how to see the latest sargassum map:
Open the webpage and click "SaWS Clickable Map"
Select the region
Choose the date, there is usually a 1-2 day delay
Click "Composite DOY 080", and then click "FA_UNET_DENSITY 7 Day Information"
Try "Animate" to see how the sargassum is progressing over time.
While this is helpful to identify larger trends, there's no way to know for sure if your favorite beach will be impacted weeks, or even days in advance.
Navigating Sargassum during your yacht charter trip
Let’s not let the sargassum ruin all the fun. I’ll be sailing in Antigua in May, and while I’m not worried, we are getting prepared to deal with it. Here’s what we are doing.
Keep looking - the sargassum-free beach is out there
The beaches that are most exposed will be windward/eastward facing, as that is the direction the sargassum is creeping from on wind, wave, and current.
Best advice to finding an idlyllic Caribbean beach, sargassum-free? Remain flexible. We’ve always found that even if some beaches are infested, others are perfectly fine.
One example? We visited the beautiful, crescent-shaped Flamenco Beach in Culebra this past November. While the west side had plenty of sargassum washing ashore, the eastern side was clear.
Another thing to keep in mind? Tourism is important in the Caribbean. I would expect public officials have plans to try and keep some beaches clean, especially those that are heavily reliant on tourism. Those beach bars need to keep pouring tropical drinks to sunburned customers!
Get the latest scoop when you arrive and be flexible. I promise you that you’ll find your own piece of paradise, sargassum free.
Going fishing? Change your tactics.
On our recent USVI and Spanish Virgin Islands sailing trip we caught some fish, but not as many as we had hoped. I’ll blame the sargassum. Nearly every time we reeled in to check the lures, we were dragging sargassum.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do if you plan to troll a couple lines in between anchorages. These tips, however, might help:
Check the lines more frequently than you otherwise would
Don’t put the lures too far back, so it’s easier to reel in and check
Skip the diving lures: when they grab sargassum, the resistance can make it really difficult, and time consuming to reel in and clear. Stick to surface skirts
Put out a smaller spread: this last trip we had 4-6 lines in the water. That’s a lot to check and clear. Stick with 2-3 and you’ll have more of an enjoyable time.
Other advice? Heave-to, stop the boat, and cast or use a jigging lure. Throw some leftovers in the water as chum. While sargassum blobs are bothersome, they also foster marine life. Mahi mahi love to hang out underneath them. You can read more about those techniques in my sailboat fishing guide.
If you have some ballyhoo, you can also try rigging one of these weedless ballyhoo rigs.
Get ready for some DIY maintenance to your sailboat
You are motoring along, and then suddenly one of your catamaran engines dies. Or perhaps an engine alarm is blaring from overheating.
If you’ve gone through sargassum patches, it very well could be the culprit and is a logical starting point to attack the problem.
Troubleshooting the water intake for the engine (or generator) is a great technique to arm yourself with. It might be clogged by sargassum at the intake, at the strainer, or somewhere in between. We even once successfully attacked the “somewhere in between” clog with our dinghy blow-up pump.
If you’re on a bareboat charter, you’ll be much happier spending the few extra minutes to clear these yourself. No one wants to be inconvenienced waiting on a chase boat from the charter company.
Make sure you check during the chart briefing about the proper way to attack this and get the OK for the DIY fix. Cleaning the strainers daily might also be a good preventative measure in sargassum infested waters.
Best of luck fighting through the blobs of sargassum seaweed blooms this season. I’ll report back soon on what we experienced in Antigua. Unfortunately, this is becoming a more regular event in the Caribbean, and we’ll just have manage it. I’m not going to let it ruin my vacation!
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