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Sargassum Sounds the Alarm

The large brown mats of stinky seaweed stealthily stalk the Virgin Islands’ waters, creeping up slowly on unsuspecting yachters and finicky fishermen. When the vegetative visitor first made its presence known in the VI—floating in mat packs stretching to sizes of over 100 metres in length—many picked up the phone and called authorities. Some, like my boss, called me for answers. However, I must mention that being the lead author of a yachting and property magazine makes me no expert on this sort of marine phenom. But as duty called, I answered.


I contacted marine biologist Shannon Gore for answers.  “What is this brown substance floating in the waters?” I naively asked, assuring her that my sighting was not isolated. “I’ve received calls from Sea Cows to West end confirming more accumulations of the thing.”

A quick Google search confirmed sightings throughout the islands. “We have all noticed a lot of seaweed piling up around the shores and waters of the BVI,” wrote an anonymous blogger in the BVI Captains Log Blog on saildivebvi.com. “Apparently it is natural, although [this is] the first time I have seen it to this extent here.”

Indeed, the unexpected visitor cued a cause for alarm among the curious, who joining my quest for answers. “Everyone seemed fired up about it, since lots of it keeps floating through the area and we keep getting phone calls,“ said Shannon, who works at the Department of Conservation and Fisheries. “[But] it’s not the end of the world.”

She’d subsequently forward me some scientific journal entries on the topic and I’d soon get busy on my research. I’d find out that the sea grass, scientifically known as sargassum, had traveled to the Virgin Islands from thousands of miles away in an area in the North Atlantic known as the Sargasso Sea. The floating clumps of sargassum form from streamers that stretch miles along the sea in yellow and brown vegetative mats which are supported by tiny air bladders. Strong currents around the Sargasso Sea in turn carry the weeds around the world.

While sargassum usually doesn’t, it helps support marine life and attracts sea life that often travel and live beneath its nutrient filled base. Flying fishes, jacks, triggerfish, marlin, tuna and jellyfish often populate the caravan through the Caribbean. When the substance washes ashore—in the state it can currently be seen around our coasts—it can continue to shelter some of the animals that traveled with it, along with crabs and others that live on the beach. Birds and other beach dwellers also welcome migrant sea floater ashore.


While the curious planktonic species has been known to frequent our waters, it has not been seen in such mass in about three years, Shannon said. Chief Conservation and Fisheries Officer Bertrand Lettsome said he remembers growing up with sargassum. “When I was a child, this was something that happened every year, and with the sargassum came young turtles and juvenile fish,” he reminisced. “It is natural and good for the environment. It is rich in nutrients and makes good fertilizer when washed ashore.”


Sotheby’s Maritha Keil said she also has fond memories of studying the life forms that cling to sargassum. Years ago, she’d venture out on the water, equipped with buckets and a few friends, to gather the stringy seaweed for observation.

It’s been said you learn something new everyday. I hope that’s true. And to you, the reader, maybe you also learned something. Or maybe not. Whatever the case, let’s remember to be welcoming of nature’s friendly little surprises—and be sure to educate those who are easily frightened by the unknown.

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