Man, what a can of worms I opened last week with the post about the unholy, smelly, messy sargassum invasion along Key West’s beaches. Folks planning Key West vacations worried about how the sargassum would affect their beach time and locals were quick to point out it was as bad as they’ve ever known.
You can read the whole thing at this link or if that’s TLDR, here’s the short version:
- Sargassum, a naturally occurring algae that thrives in summer and is a welcome reminder that sea turtles, fish and oceans are healthy, has gone on a rampage. Lost in the mess is the well-behaved sargassum from the Sargasso Sea off the Atlantic Coast.
- Instead, we’re smack in the middle of another, likely record-breaking year of sargassum coming from a massive bloom discovered in 2011 off the east coast of Brazil. What was always summer normal along the coastlines of Florida, the Keys, the Mexican gulf and the sprawling Caribbean islands is sargassum piled feet high, shorelines sludge-y with debris and near-shore water brown and viscous. And, it stinks, especially when the wind is just so.
- Sargassum is not sea grass. Sea grass has roots in the sand underwater. Sargassum is algae; it floats loose. It won’t hurt you although the tiny organisms living in it can sting a bit.
- Key West cleans the beaches every morning and as fast as they clean, it comes right back. There’s nothing to be done about the sargassum in the water along the shoreline. One has to wade through it to cleaner water farther out.
- When the wind and currents shift, the sargassum is pulled away from the shore and the smell tracks elsewhere. (Obviously, that works in reverse.)
- Sargassum is the price you pay for visiting Key West in the summer. I think summer is Key West’s best time of year. Fewer people, cars and scooters. Shorter lines. Slower living. No wait times at my favorite restaurants. Laid back locals. Room to spread out and breathe in the hot-and-humid, free sauna. Airfare and hotels rates are a bit lower. But…. sargassum.
So. How are things now?
I wandered Key West’s public beaches over the past few days. For the most part, the beaches are summer normal. Sand is clean. Drying sargassum is along the water’s edge, but no huge, high piles. Depending on the beach, the water is decent to downright horrid.
Fort Zachary State Park beaches are in the best condition since currents around the point pull the sargassum away from the swimming coves. Usually. There are exceptions when the winds shift. Zach doesn’t clean its beaches, so you get what you get. But that swift current does help keep the beaches clean and the water e-coli free.
Higgs and South beaches aren’t very inviting. South because the man-made, cement cove bounded on one side by the Southernmost Beach Resort and opposite by the cement pier stop the current from pulling the sargassum away from the shore. As the video shows, that wasn’t a beach from which one could do much swimming on Tuesday. Higgs is owned by the county; gets cleaned but wasn’t too good Tuesday. The sargassum gets trapped there and when the current can’t move it out, the water isn’t very inviting.
Smathers, which is Key West’s biggest beach, goes from OK to not, depending on the day. The sand is always clean; the water’s edge can be dicey, but generally, if you wade out, you’re good.
You’ll also want to check the regularly updated Florida Healthy Beaches water quality reports. Right now, Higgs and South beaches have advisories in place. You can follow the reports at this link.
Should you come on down?
Well, sure. You’re not coming to Key West for its beaches. Please tell me you know that. Key West’s beaches are, well, barely beaches in the mystical-magical-marketing-of-tropical-islands sense. If you’ve seen pictures of glorious, wide, long, white-sugar sand beaches, rimmed by sapphire and emerald waters, you’re looking at the wrong beaches. (Or maybe, just maybe, a four-foot section of a Key West beach that’s been tarted up for the photo shoot.)
Key West beaches are man-made. Even Fort Zach, the most “natural” of them all, gets its sand trucked in. The near-shore waters are likely to need water shoes because the bottoms aren’t sandy. They are broken coral, which is by no means kind to the toes. If you want “real” tropical beaches, you’ll need to grab a boat to a sandbar or maybe head to Bahia Honda.
Don’t come to Key West for the beaches. Come to Key West for lazy coffee on the porch watching people. Come for wandering the neighborhoods and dreaming about living here. Come for food, music, art galleries, book stores, water sports and sunset sails. Come for off-shore fishing and a day of sailing to Fort Jefferson. Come to spend languid hours over happy hour. Come for 15 minutes of sunset at Fort Zach. Come to read a book and nibble on a Key lime pie-on-a-stick.
Come for a hundred magical moments. Don’t come for the beaches.