On an early afternoon in late September, I step out onto the beach in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, to what I can only describe as a glimpse into a dystopian vacation.
The beach reeks of rotten eggs and sewage, the smell leaking onto the recreational areas of the beachfront resort; it’s an unforgettable stench due to — I later learn — the massive amounts of sargassum washing ashore on the Caribbean coast. The usually pristine, clear seawater is murky as a result. The shoreline and its idyllic white sand are covered with it, a brown algae turned black and smelly when decomposed, making a swim out to the ocean impossible without a boat ride or a discomforting barefoot trek through the piles and piles of sargassum. Yet the tourists — some in town for weddings, others for bachelor and bachelorette parties, and others just to relax — are sipping on margaritas, floating in the pool, and lounging on beach chairs looking out to the ocean in the midst of what seems to be, unbeknownst to them, an environmental crisis.
For a glimpse at the realities of where the damage is most rampant, I spend a day with Dr. Anastazia Banaszak, a research professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in the Reef Systems Academic Unit. For the past twelve years, alongside her team and postgrad students, she has been working with inarguably the most important species to the health of the ocean: coral and coral reefs. Banaszak and her team are studying coral’s habits, building a seed bank, and learning to reproduce it in preparation for disastrous conditions, which we seem to be getting closer and closer to every year, fighting against time.
“There’s a lot of consequences to what we’re doing, and we really don’t understand just how bad it is,” Banaszak says. “The ocean is sending us warning signals. It’s sending us warning signals with the sargassum, it’s sending us warning signals with the coral-reef big bleaching. Nature is trying to tell us, ‘You’re throwing too many stressors at me.’ ”
Since 2011, there have been reports, linked to warmer temperatures and pollution, of increases in sargassum blooms on the Caribbean coasts, with 2015 being one of the worst years. Now 2018 is setting a record high; the sargassum season typically starts in June and ends in September, but this year it started in February, and Banaszak tells me she thinks it will last until November.
It’s not that the algae is bad or unnatural; in usual conditions, bits of sargassum floating in the ocean provide shelter for seahorses, crabs, and other small fish, and a resting place for baby sea turtles making their way out to the ocean for the first time. But the massive amount of it is creating ripple effects for the environment and the community that inhabits it. (In June, the region of Quintana Roo, which includes tourist spots like Cancún, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen, removed 717 tons of the seaweed, with some hotels livestreaming the removal to reassure tourists.)
A healthy coral reef means white sand, less damage during natural disasters, and a thriving ecosystem. It’s the reason why there is even such thing as “the perfect beach getaway.” Quintana Roo’s economy is 90 percent dependent on tourism, or what you would call a “sun and sand” economy, which has declined by 30 to 35 percent as of August. If tourists stop visiting hotels and restaurants, locals in the community won’t have jobs, and fishermen won’t have places to sell what they catch.
In the ocean, conditions are devolving exponentially. Some species of coral have developed a fast-spreading disease that causes them to die in rapid time. Banaszak and other researchers haven’t yet been able to pinpoint a cure or a cause, but signs point to the increase in sargassum. (Researchers are also worried that the disease could spread to fish.)