Sargassum fields at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park June 2019

OMG, does Key West really stink all the time? Or, everything you need to know about sargassum

Key West smells like sewage gone way ripe. This summer we've gone from smell to stench and it's not going to get better. That ubiquitous smell is decaying sargassum, islands of floating, brown sea vegetation that are piling up along the beaches of Key West, the Florida peninsula, Mexico and other Caribbean islands. (SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE)

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She is a legacy newspaper journalist. Her columns, editorials and essays have been published nationally for more than 40 years. She and her husband a park ranger at Fort Zach live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

06/08/2019

UPDATE: 2021 may be record-breaking season for Key West sargassum. Details here.

I can see them in the rear view mirror as they wrinkle their noses. Those guests of mine who arrive at the airport for summer visits. I know what they’re thinking: Doesn’t Key West have a sewer system? Smells like they’re dumping, ahem, crap in the ocean.

We’re not. But they can be forgiven for thinking so. The whole island smells like sewage gone ripe. As sure as my northern mainland friends know it’s Fall when the maples turn red, I walk out my front door in the mornings, sniff that sulfuric, rotten-egg breeze and know Key West summer is here. And, we live a mile from the beach.

No, that’s not our toilet leavings, I tell guests. Give it a couple minutes and you won’t notice. Seriously. It’s called olfactory fatigue; the body and brain know they don’t want the over stimulation so they adapt quickly. Wine tasters doing a bunch of nose-in-glass sniffing get the same thing. No nose.

That ubiquitous smell is decaying sargassum, islands of floating, brown sea algae that is piling up along the beaches of Key West, the Florida peninsula, Mexico and other Caribbean islands. Happens every summer when the winds and currents come from the south. Used to be the sargassum and the smell went away when the winds shifted.

This summer we’ve gone from smell to stench. And, big scare alert ahead: It’s not going to get better, because this sargassum is coming from Brazil and it IS, in part, the result of faulty sewer systems. This is not the Sargasso Sea variety with which we are familiar. Since 2011, the sargassum piling up on Caribbean beaches has come from a massive algae bloom off Brazil’s east coast.

Sargassum researchers, says a recent story in the New Republic, do appear confident in two things, though. The first is that these algal blooms constitute a new type of natural disaster—one that, like hurricanes, can be expected every single year. The second is that this new risk is not entirely natural. Humans have made these blooms far more likely.

 

Before we go to the science lesson, here are five things to know about sargassum when it behaves itself:

      1. You can walk in or swim through it. It does not sting, bite or otherwise. If you feel such, it’s because there are teensy sea creatures living in the sargassum — and they do bite and sting.
      2. Sargassum does not have roots that attach to the ocean floor. It floats. It’s algae; not grass. Sea grass that you see growing in the sand under the water is a whole other thing.
      3. It’s good for the fish and a host of other sea creatures that live within it. Including those darling baby loggerhead turtles who consider it their years-long nursery.
      4. It helps control beach erosion, either as it hugs the water’s edge or lies along the shore.
      5. It comes from the Sargasso Sea; hence the name sargassum. Western European credit for the name goes to — tada — Christopher Columbus The Sargasso Sea is about two million square miles off the Atlantic Coast.

 

When sargassum does NOT behave itself — as is the case in 2015, 2018 and this summer — this is what happens:

  1. Mexico’s beaches, particularly along the Cancun strand where it’s at crisis level, used 1,700 volunteers to clear 110 TONS of sargassum in two days.
  2. Key West — the whole island — stinks and the city shells out tens of thousands of dollars to clean it off the beaches, like Smathers, each morning.
  3. Fort Zachary Taylor State Park’s beaches are ugly and stinky.
  4. And, it’s likely to get worse. And, we don’t know what to do about it. And, it’s gonna scare away even die-hard beach lovers.

 

OK, time for a science lesson:

FLORIDA ET AL: The brown algae form a seaweed that usually bunches up into huge mats. These mats provide shelter, food, breeding grounds and nurseries for a variety of marine life from fish to sea turtles and birds, according to the PBS Nature Now blog. The seaweed is usually found in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic.

About seven years ago, however, a huge patch was discovered far to the south off the coast of Brazil. From there, the sargassum flows into the Caribbean Sea, depositing tons of seaweed on island beaches, then up into the Gulf of Mexico, where it can foul beaches in Mexico and Florida. The blooms can get then caught in the Gulf Stream and make it as far north as New England.

“It’s been pretty interesting. There doesn’t seem to be any knowledge of these inundations happening historically. There’s no real record of them. So sargassum has been washing ashore periodically — 2011, then again in 2014, 2015 and now again this year (2018) (Editor’s note: 2018 was bad; 2019 is predicted equally so) — we’re getting big inundations of sargassum. That means feet-high of sargassum washing ashore in the Caribbean,” Amy Siuda, an assistant professor of marine science at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, told WMNF.

Siuda said there could be a number of causes for these blooms, including more nutrients on the ocean surface, global warming, or atmospheric dust from Africa.

 

MONITORING BY UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA: The University of South Florida does a good job monitoring the sargassum float. Here’s what they’re seeing now: “… the month of May 2019 showed a total Sargassum coverage of 896 km2 as compared with a historical mean of 78 km2 between 2011 and 2017, for the area bounded by 8-23°N and 89-58°W. The bloom extent in 2019 is significantly higher than most of the years during 2011-2018 for the Caribbean and the central West Atlantic. The reasons behind this record-high bloom, however, are yet to be determined.”

You can follow along with their monthly charts.

 

Monroe County puts a slightly more positive spin on the incoming sargassum (and they may be off on the origin of this year’s stuff), but they give a nod to the damage these massive floating islands are causing:

MONROE COUNTY: In the Florida Keys, when we experience prevailing winds from the south and southeast, these massive floating mats of sargassum that have broken free from the Sargasso Sea’s circling gyre are washed onto shore with the wind and waves. Tons and tons! Unfortunately, the dead and decaying sargassum can remove oxygen from the water and lead to fish kills, smother sea grasses and turtle nests, and can become packed so thick inside the residential canals it can become difficult to get your boat out.

Historically, washed-up sargassum is one of the ways beaches were created in the Florida Keys, as the accumulation of seaweed along the shoreline helps to keep the sand from eroding and provides nutrients to help en­rich the soil. But when the sargassum encounters a seawall or a canal instead of the beach there is little benefit for it decays, sinks, and stinks! Unfortunately, this is a major cause for fish kills because the decomposition of organic matter literally removes the oxygen from the water.

 

So. What to do? Scientists are stumped at the moment. It will take millions of dollars and years of research to find solutions. Fishing and water sports folks are dodging and weaving around it as best they can. Tourist development folks and real estate folks are tending to downplay the mess.

As for me? I’m heartsick at another potential environmental disaster for our ocean waters, the reef and our island. In the short run, I watch the wind gauge, hoping for a shift that will re-direct the sargassum and the stench out to sea.

PS: If for some curious reason you WANT to smell the decaying sargassum again, sniff a handful of coffee beans. It clears the nose palette, so to speak.

 

 

45 Comments

  1. Hello Linda,
    We are coming down for the Key West Half Marathon in January. What are your suggestions to bring with you to cope with the smell during our run? The entire course is on the eastern side of the island. We are just up the road in Deerfield Beach. I have never experienced this smell up here at the beach so not sure what to expect. My son has recently been to Key West, (last month) and they ran along the course for a few miles and said the smell was gagging. Please help with some local advise.

    • The cooler the weather, the less the smell. By January, you should have very little sargassum gas to bug your sniffers. 🙂
      It was one very hot and humid summer for us, so there’s no doubt what your son experienced last month was pretty challenging, as they say.
      You could, I guess, wear one of those light-weight filtration masks, but as a runner, you’re likely to just hate that thing and it’s unlikely to do much good anyway.
      The secret, if there is one, to coping is knowing that it doesn’t take long for you to be “nose blind,” which means the smells still there, but you don’t notice as much.
      Best news, though, is that the sargassum has diminished a lot over the past few weeks and as temps cool for the winter, the smell will be gone or certainly manageable.

  2. Hi Linda – We are coming to visit the 2nd week of January. One of your comments said the water temps in January are much cooler – how cool are we talking? Our thoughts were to do a day tour to the Dry Tortugas and snorkel there, but not sure if that is doable then?Is that area also seeing an uptick in the sargassum?
    Thanks!

    • Good morning, Liz. Great question with an “it’s all relative” answer. January and February are winter on the island, so while it’s way warmer than the rest of the US, it’s still winter. You’ll see locals in jackets, hats, gloves and mittens when the temperatures drop to 68. Ocean water temps in January max out at 69-70 degrees. While that would be downright cold for a local, it’s usually fine for our northern friends who are accustomed to summer ocean temps in the mid-70s. So, it all depends on what you’re accustomed to. If there’s a wet suit handy, you might want to bring it along or rent one down here. Could make the difference between a good day snorkeling and a great day. Don’t skip the trip to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas! That’s a great experience in any weather.

      PS: So far so good on the sargassum. There’s been significant improvement since the mess of early summer. You should be fine in January.

  3. Hi Linda – I am thinking of planning a trip in early November with my wife, and staying at the Southernmost Beach Resort. Is the “smell” mainly in the summertime and would it be gone by late fall? Thank you in advance for your response!

    Thanks!

    • Yep, Eric, I think you can assume it will be decent in November. At least that has been the case in previous years. But as the cliche goes: Past performance is no guarantee of future perfomance…. The sargassum tends to be a hot-humid-summer thing, but it’s always around at least a little.

  4. We are coming in on the 21st and staying at Southernmost. We have been there before and it was beautiful. Lets hope we are not making a mistake!

  5. We are planning a trip to the Keys June 13-17 in 2020. We are either staying at The Marker or Southern Most. Will one of these be better as far as smell? Do they anticipate this problem next year as well?Is there somewhere the smell is not as bad as we haven’t booked a hotel yet.

    • Ro, I don’t think any of us can see that far down the beach, so to speak. Wish I could give you more direction. Both are lovely properties.

  6. My wife and I are supposed to be there Aug 21-25. We’ve never been to the Keys but if the smell is bad and we can’t really get in the water, we’re thinking of cancelling. What’s the present status and should we plan to come another time? We’re staying at Southernmost House.

    • I wouldn’t cancel, Kevin. Right now, things are summer normal. There’s always sargassum in the summer, but the worst of it (and the smell) seem to have been earlier in the summer when I wrote the original column. You might want to read a couple of my more recent posts to get an update. As I always tell my friends, come to Key West for the lifestyle and the mystique!

      • OK – we’re going to come ahead based on your recommendation. We’re looking forward to it as we usually don’t go any further down into Florida than Sarasota.

  7. Hi Linda,

    Will you describe Key West at Christmas? Is it safe to assume sargassum definitely isn’t an issue in December? I actually do recall “sand beaches, rimmed by sapphire and emerald waters,” but that was 30 years ago. I’m planning my first return — for the laid back living more than anything else, as you say, so the commercial buildup since then had been my primary concern — but my memory of Smathers as it was in the 1980s is a significant draw as well. So how might Christmas 2019 compare?

    Thanks!

    • Good morning, James. Sure, I’ll do something on Christmas in Key West. In the meantime … Definitely one of my favorite times; most of us full-time folks still decorate our homes and the Conch Train lights tours are great fun. Before I moved here full-time, we’d come the week BEFORE Christmas. Everything was ready for the holiday, but there were fewer people because season doesn’t actually start until Dec. 26. (And, nope, sargassum tends to be a mostly summer thing.)

  8. Love the Keys so much over the years we bought a oceanfront house on Cudjoe Key in November 2018. After some renovation it was back on the market in January 2019 and sold by March. The water is awful. Reefs are all but dead. The nasty smell was awful. My fondest memory was the view in the rear view mirror.

    • So sad, David. I know you’re not alone.

  9. Our June return to KW was to check out the off season and we found it to just as great as our usual visit the end of February. A little hotter, but quite tolerable. We were actually disappointed with the sargassum after reading your article. I expected it to be much worse than it was. Our view from Louie’s deck wasn’t as pleasant, but after a couple drinks it didn’t matter. Couldn’t smell anything. See you in February! We do love Key West.

    • LOL! Like that attitude. See you in February!

  10. We are staying the Month of November 2019 across the street from Smathers Beach. Will the beach be better at that time of year?

    • Peggy, fall and winter months are generally better simply because the water temperatures historically are cooler and thus not as conducive to algae growth and/or decay.

  11. I’m considering visiting Key West in late January 2020 – Has there been much sargassum in January? Thank you!

    • Winter months are generally clear waters, clear beaches and way cooler water temps.

  12. We just got here today and really, I thought the hotel had a serious sewer problem. It’s pretty stinky. I guess you do get usd to it, but I’m not particularly amused.

    • Yep. That’s normal for summer. One of those things the ads don’t share. But, really, you’ll get used to it and the weather is so nice this week that I’m sure you’ll enjoy your vacation. Have fun.

  13. My family and I are coming to Key West for the first time August 3rd. After reading all of the negative comments about the smell and the beaches are we going to be disappointed?

    • Tammy, the answer depends on why you chose Key West in the first place. I tell friends that if they want beaches and resort stuff, pick another place. If you chose Key West for wide-open beaches that you can stroll for miles, with waves for body surfing, then, yes, you are going to be disappointed — whether we have summer sargassum or not. Key West beaches have never been like those postcard pictures. Fort Zach and Smathers beaches are good ones with decent swimming off the shore. But even they aren’t of the “tropical paradise” marketing variety. However, if you chose to come to Key West for the best reasons — laid back, great food, live music, lazily sipping coffee on the porch or balcony, wandering the neighborhoods and dreaming of living here — then you’ll love your Key West vacation. And, if your water sports take you out toward the reef, into the mangroves and away from the island shores, then you’ll be fine. Summer in Key West is my favorite time. Fewer people. Slower living. Shorter lines. Hot. Humid. Island breezes. And, of course, cheaper room rates and air fares. But there’s a price for cheaper and that’s the sargassum along the shore, the decaying smell when the wind’s just so, and, as always, the chance of storms. Don’t let that deter you, though. Key West is a mythical place with lots of reasons why I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

  14. How’s the situation now? My daughter and her boyfriend have a trip planned. Staying in Key West July 21st (not planning on visting beach then) and will be staying oceanfront in Islamorada July 22nd, 23rd and 24th. They both love the beach and want to be in the water. Is it still bad? They are flying into Ft. Lauderdale and then driving down. They could switch it up and go to either southwest or southeast FL beaches (if either of those areas in better shape). Appreciate any info you can provide.

    • I can only speak to Key West, but we are “summer normal.” That means there is sargassum in the near shore waters, but not like it was a month ago. And, we don’t smell so bad… 🙂
      I haven’t heard of any significant problems up the Keys. They should be fine. Especially since Key West isn’t a beach destination this time.

  15. For sulfer dioxide to be harmful it requires 100 parts per million and what’s in the air is not even close to that level. This is a natural phenomenon of the biological breakdown of the excess vegetation. If people want to cancel because of the smell that’s fine but to imply it’s dangerous to health is just ridiculous. We stayed for a week and have zero regrets. Get off the island and go snorkeling or rent a boat or jet ski. The water is great.

    • Great points, Wesley. My column makes it clear that there’s no danger from the sargussum or the smell. Thanks for re-affirming that!

  16. I’ve been reading these and other comments about the seaweed issue and am concerned about an upcoming visit to the Keys in mid-July. What’s the latest…anyone got any intel?

    • Things are summer normal. That means, yes, there is sargussum on the shoreline. Always is this time of year. But, for now, nothing out of the ordinary.

  17. Sounds like things are getting worse and not better. Our airbnb host was kind enough to call us to let us know he wouldn’t blame us for cancelling. His staff said it’s the worst he has seen. Recent reviews from a nearby hotel on tripadvisor indicate many bad experiences as well due to the awful smell which is hazardous to health. This is truly awful.

    • Dan, things are summer normal for now. As for the smell being dangerous; nah; just unpleasant at times.

  18. I am in Key West currently and the stench is overwhelming! I hate to direct others away from here but if your or your family is looking forward to a lot of beach time as mine did,
    I would advise you go somewhere else.

    • Thanks, Amy, for the on-site report. Summer is a great time to visit Key West because prices are cheaper, there are fewer people, there’s no waiting in lines and island time is in effect. Unfortunately, even in the best summers, there’s always sargussum along the shore. It’s a summer thing and the smell depends on which way the wind blows. Sure hope the winds shifted enough to make the rest of your vacation time!

  19. Thanks for the article! We are here now and have been for a week. I used to live in Miami and visited the Keys often (in the early 2000’s) and never remember this much sargassum. You are right that the smell goes away quickly and thank God for that as we are still having a great time. The water on Higgs and Smathers isn’t as clear as I remember (or like) but it appears to be due to the seaweed issue. If you have a trip planned I would definitely keep it as it’s still beautiful down here. Thanks again for writing an honest article that isn’t tourism propaganda 🙂

    • Thanks, Wesley! Your on-site observations will help some of our folks understand what’s happening. Enjoy your visit!

  20. We will be in Key West June 24-28 and are strangely looking forward to experiencing this event. From your description I expect it will remind me of the times the alewives crowd the beaches of Lake Michigan. No way we will cancel and miss it!

    • Fred and Judy, you’ll have a wonderful time. And, yep, a bit like those Lake Michigan days!

  21. My family has a trip scheduled to Key West on June 18 thru June 25, 2019. We are staying at Southernmost Beach Resort. I am now looking through our travel package to see if I can get refund….how bad is it near Southernmost? We also planned a day trip to Dry Tortuga. Should we still come? I just don’t want to spend all my vacation money if the beaches are covered and smell bad? What do you think?

    • Bonnie, don’t cancel. You’ll be fine. Really. From what I’ve seen, heard (and NOT smelled) this week, with the recent wind shift, the waters and beaches are “regular summer.” The city and the county do an excellent job of keeping the beaches clean and looking like a postcard. And, that means it’s OK. As for the trip to Fort Jefferson in the Tortugas; no problems there either. See you next week!

  22. We experienced the sargassum issue last year in the Caribbean and had to move to another resort. It was terrible, but thankfully the other resort was mostly unaffected so we were able to enjoy the week there. I haven’t been to Key West in close to 20 years (and that was for only 2 days) and have always wanted to come back. My wife has never been there so we scheduled a trip and are arriving for a week in mid-July. I dread reading this news. I assume since we are staying near Dog / Higgs Beach at an oceanfront property, which is in between Ft Zachary and Smathers, then that area is impacted? Do you consider it to the point we should unfortunately consider canceling?

    • Oh, don’t cancel! Beaches are being cleaned and the wind has shifted so things are smelling and looking a lot better. Fort Zach, too. Come on down. Oh, and be sure to take a Conch Train tour soon after you arrive. It is totally the best way to get the lay of the island and figure out what special things you’d like to visit later. (PS: And, nope, I’m not related to the train. 🙂

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