The Difference Between Sargasso and Seagrass
Travelers are sometimes unclear on the difference between sargasso and seagrass. Besides the stench and residue left by decomposing sargasso also known as sargassum, there are a couple of other differences. Sargasso is not permanent but appears for random chunks of time and it can affect peoples health. I have yet to hear of anyone having an allergic reaction to seagrass which is a permanent fixture.
Why is Seagrass Important?
It plays a starring role in a clean ecosystem. Thriving seagrass beds are one indicator of a healthy ocean environment. The seagrass, which actually resembles thick land grass has deep roots in the sea floor and among other things, it acts as a filtration and feeding system. Organic sediment that would normally settle on the coral and prevent it from getting sunlight to survive gets trapped in the seagrass making for great marine life meals for adults and juveniles.
The most common types of seagrass in Belize, are turtle grass and manatee grass. As the names might suggest both of those animals feed on them. The next time you are diving at the reef and are lucky enough to watch a sea turtle chow down, (even luckier if you see a manatee) watch closely and you might notice it sucking the blades clean while leaving the seagrass behind to do its job in nature. If they do eat it, their sharp teeth enable the turtle to bite off pieces of grass rather than pull the roots up – thus still the allowing grass to grow and replenish.
Seagrass beds serve as a protected area for young fish who use it to hide from predators while they grow to adulthood. If you are on a snorkeling tour, have a closer look on your way from the boat to the reef and you will likely see some juvenile marine life. Below are a few seagrass pictures. The one on the right shows you how seagrass and coral can be symbiotic and notice the small fish on the left, I included the middle one because I thought it was cool how the ray is like a hovercraft gliding across the seagrass bed at Shary Ray Alley, a popular snorkel spot.
What is Sargasso or Sargassum Seaweed?
Sargasso is a free-flowing orangy colored seaweed that travels with the ocean current down from the Sargasso Sea. While most people think of the downsides first (and there are many) the upside is that it is used as protection for migrating sea animals. This article from the National Ocean Service out of the U.S. explains more on the benefits to sea life and answers the common question “What is the Sargasso Sea?”
Here in Belize, it is a nuisance to many. In spite of costly cleanup for businesses and the unsightly garbage it catches, there is a health factor. Some people develop medical issues from it. My trainer is a first-timer for that. It flared up her allergies badly this year. So much that it affected her teeth. After consulting with Ambergris Caye dentist, Dr. Julio Lara, he was able to explain that her teeth were not the real issue. He recommended she start doing a saline solution to clear her sinuses and it worked. Even though she lives towards the lagoon side of the island, someone in her neighborhood used sargasso as fill and the strong east wind brought it right to her house and caused another allergy attack.
Other friends are feeling it too and not for the first time. My editor said it makes her nauseous, my chef, Lunch Box Cindy, is experiencing a cough and sore eyes and photographer Karen Brodie said she has to avoid the beach as much as she can as being around it makes her feel crappy. A few others have told me they have to close their windows depending on which way the wind is blowing.
Not everyone has issues with it though. My friend Deb and I sat in front of a big pile last night on the beach by Sandy Toes. Thankfully it was not quite ripe yet and the smell was minimal.
Wanting to know more about this season and how it was affecting close by areas, I Googled and reached out to a few friends both in the country and elsewhere to ask if they were also getting inundated with the stanky seaweed. Sue Vasquez in Placencia said it is hitting there and she had recently heard Mexico finally got cleared up.
My friend Kendall in Honduras reported they’ve got some but it is not as bad since it doesn’t tend to hit Roatan Island directly. It just floats past. Their main tourist beaches face west so no sargasso issues there. He also mentioned that his buddy in Playa del Carmen told him they were moving it out with construction front loaders. I was not surprised to hear that.
Johnny Waterfall in Tulum, Mexico reported it has not been not as bad as a couple of years ago. He also sent the video below of a guy in Playa Del Carmen where it shows that they actually dig holes in the sand and bury the stuff. It was in Spanish so I’m not sure exactly what the guy was saying. That would be nice but is hard to do on a limestone island. People here do use it for landfill, however. According to Google, Grace Bay Beach – Turks and Caicos is pretty much cleaned up.
I went out a couple of times during the last 10 days or so specifically to take sargasso pics. I will leave you with a few.