Beachgoers beware: A mass of seaweed is floating in the Atlantic

Large Sargassum bloom threatens beaches in Florida, Caribbean, and Mexico

Today's expression: Wash up
Explore more: Lesson #563
April 13, 2023:

Sargassum is a type of seaweed that floats on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. It provides nutrients, shade, and shelter for marine life. But when there's too much of it, it washes up on beaches in Florida, the Caribbean, and Mexico. And that's a major problem for beachgoers and hotel owners. Plus, learn the English phrasal verb "wash up."

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I hope those vacation tickets are refundable. Because a massive blob of seaweed is heading for beaches in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Lesson summary

Hi everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English, where JR and I help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. By listening here, you’ll get exposure to new words, new ideas, and we’ll also show you how to express yourself in English.

Today’s topic is the giant bloom of seaweed floating in the Atlantic. It’ll wash up on the beaches of Florida and the Caribbean soon, threatening tourism. In the second half of the lesson, I’ll show you how to use the phrasal verb “wash up.” The full lesson transcripts are available at PlainEnglish.com/563.

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Giant seaweed bloom heading for Florida and the Caribbean

Sargassum is a type of brown seaweed common in the Atlantic Ocean. It floats on the surface in clumps and patches. It looks like a collection of brown leaves and branches. Unlike other types of seaweed, this plant never attaches to the ocean floor: it reproduces as it floats on the surface. The plant also includes small bubbles of oxygen, which help it stay afloat.

Fish, sea turtles, crabs, shrimp, and more use Sargassum for protection, food, and shade. Most of the time, Sargassum stays out in the ocean. When it dies, it falls to the ocean floor and provides nutrients to the creatures down there.

The problem comes when there is too much Sargassum. When that happens, ocean currents bring it on shore. And when it washes up on beaches, it disrupts tourism. We’re not talking about a little bit of seaweed. Some places can get deposits of seaweed a meter deep.

On a beach with Sargassum, dead seaweed accumulates right on the shoreline. If you walk through that, you’ll find that the shallow water is brown with leaves floating in it. Even relatively small amounts make a walk on the beach really unpleasant.

Beach towns and hotels have to clear the beach of Sargassum every day. But it’s still floating in the shallow water and accumulating throughout the day. So a hotel’s efforts start early in the morning, but also continue during daytime hours.

And get this : it smells. When it decomposes on the beach, it emits hydrogen sulfide, so it smells like rotting eggs. It can also negatively affect people with respiratory conditions.

Not every year is the same, and for many years this wasn’t a problem. But it became more and more common, so much so that in 2011, scientists started to track the development of Sargassum every year. Since then , some years have been worse than others.

This year is shaping up to be one of the worst. Satellite imagery shows that this year’s bloom is 8,000 kilometers wide, stretching from Western Africa almost to the Caribbean. That’s not to say that the whole ocean is covered in the stuff: it’s not. But these ten million tons of seaweed are going to be a consistent problem all year.

The other thing is that this year’s bloom started early. Sargassum typically develops in the spring and summer, but it started in winter this year. And some areas are already seeing some Sargassum show up on the beach.

There isn’t much tourist areas can do about Sargassum. Many hotels and resort areas dedicate a lot of manpower to collecting the seaweed, packing into crates, transporting it to trucks, and then turning it into compost. Some entrepreneurs are studying how to make alternative use of collected Sargassum. It can be used for fertilizer and a few other things. But since it’s full of salt water, it’s not easy to re-use. Oh, and it also includes arsenic and heavy metals.

Clearing and cleaning the beach is the primary way to fight Sargassum. But another option is to install a large boom off the coast that would block the Sargassum from coming into the swimming areas and onto the beaches in the first place . Here’s another idea: The Mexican Navy sends collection boats out to sea to intercept the Sargassum.

There’s not much travelers can do to avoid the smelly seaweed. It’s most likely to collect on the beach between April and August. However, that’s not to say that every beach will be covered in it every day. Some beaches will be more affected than others. Some days will have no Sargassum at all.

That’s prime time for summer travel, but that’s the low season for much of the Caribbean and Mexico. Some official and unofficial organizations publish Sargassum maps. One from Mexico shows color-coded dots all up and down the Riviera Maya, indicating where Sargassum is present and how bad it is.

The beaches most affected will be on Florida’s Atlantic coast, the Florida Keys; Cancun, Tulum, and other beaches on Mexico’s Riviera Maya; and the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean.

Not a fun beach experience

I was in Florida once in May and there was a lot of seaweed on the beach—it wasn’t Sargassum, I don’t think, but for whatever reason there was a lot of seaweed. I just didn’t want to walk on the beach. It’s not fun. It’s not pretty. You can’t lie down. You don’t want to walk on it. And it’s everywhere.

And then you get in the water and it’s not blue and it’s not clear—the water is brown. It’s just full of brown leaves and twigs. And you feel it on your feet and on your legs. It’s just gross.

Look at the pictures. Look at the ones on PlainEnglish.com/563 and others online. I can’t imagine being a hotel owner and having to send crews of ten, twenty people out there at six in the morning to shovel this stuff so that the beaches are clear when people go out mid-day.

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Expression: Wash up