No. Just no. It’s not time for the Key West sargassum 2023 update. I don’t write about Key West sargassum until June; heck maybe not until August. So, one beautiful Saturday morning back in mid-February, out on an Argo Navis sail with the Key West Art and Historical Society, I pretended I didn’t see those lovely floating patches of golden sargassum.
I mean that’s a summer thing, right? And, then last week I happily reassured a visitor planning to bring his kids to Key West in June for a few beach days that he could be reasonably certain early June’s shoreline and waters would be fine. Maybe some patches, but not piles.
And. Then. Came. Monday. Monday I drove around South Roosevelt toward the airport on my way up the Keys. Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey, the beach rake tractor was cleaning Smathers and the sargassum was an undulating carpet of gold and brown along the shoreline.
It was the same last week at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. The same up on Geiger Key along the channels. There’s not enough right now to overwhelm the beaches. The weather remains cool enough that the mid-summer stench of rotting sargassum is held at bay. And the winter winds are changeable enough that a lot of sargassum gets pulled back out to sea and away from the beaches.
Make no mistake. Key West’s 2023 sargassum season will be longer than in the past and likely as bad as last summer’s. The University of South Florida, which monitors the sargassum flow, in early February made this prediction:
“Looking ahead, the decrease in sargassum quantity from January to February is uncommon, and
presents a glimmer of hope that the overall 2023 bloom may not be as large as previously feared,
although 2023 will still be a major sargassum year. Nevertheless, the large quantities already in the CS (Caribbean Sea)
(and to the east) will continue to accumulate and migrate, creating beaching hazards along
the way. The Florida Keys may start to see small amounts in March.“
We can amend that prediction right now: We have already seen not just “small” but large amounts in March.
Key West sargassum 2023 | What to expect
So. Now what? Let’s do a quick sargassum primer.
Sargassum is a form of brown algae that floats on sea water and never attaches itself to the sea floor. Don’t confuse it with sea grass, those long, waving grassy patches that grow in the sand under water. Sargassum itself is not harmful to humans — unlike red tide and blue-green algae, both of which are out of control in other parts of Florida, but not so much in the Keys. (It’s the hydrogen sulfide from decaying sargassum that causes respiratory problems.)
We are seeing red tide in Monroe County these days, unfortunately, which means we are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Florida Fish and Wildlife monitors red tide and said last week it was monitoring one offshore bloom up the Keys. You can follow along at the FWC website.
Decomposing sargassum releases an intense “the devil has arrived” sulfur smell. That’s hydrogen sulfide. It stinks, but generally doesn’t harm humans in outdoor settings. (Although, if you’re sensitive to strong smells or have significant respiratory problems, like asthma, you might want to wear a mask or limit your exposure until you see if the hydrogen sulfide bothers you. I’ve found that after a few minutes I don’t smell it anymore and it doesn’t trigger my asthma. But, there’s growing scientific research that huge quantities of hydrogen sulfide, even outside, may be a bigger health threat that we thought.)
If you walk or swim through sargassum it feels like you’re being tickled with soft brushes. If you think you’ve been stung, it’s because tiny animals and organisms that call sargassum home are peeved at your intrusion and they sting. Sargassum is critical to the ocean’s ecological systems. It’s a nursery for sea turtles and assorted fish and saltwater species.
Scientists and researchers are busily trying to come up with smart (and profitable) ways to use all this excess sargassum. Ranger Ed and I are getting ready to do our own science experiment this spring, using sargassum compost in our planting beds. The trial compost was developed by the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. You have to be careful with sargassum compost because sargassum contains a hefty load of heavy metals like arsenic, which is super harmful to plants and humans. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Summer has always meant sargassum. What’s worrisome these days is the escalating quantity and the fact that the sargassum blooms are no longer limited mostly to the Sargasso Sea. Instead, the historic blooms are being supplemented likely fed by massive nutrient runoff from the destruction of the rain forests along the east coast of South Africa — and from our own excessive nutrient runoff from mainland Florida and the overburdened Keys ecosystems.
Key West sargassum 2023 | What you really want to ask
But the question you really want to ask is this one: What are the beaches and the water going to be like for summer vacation? Before I offer up my predictions, a definition: Sorta OK means visible sargassum on the beach, stinky air and sludge-like dead sargassum in the water at the shore line. But, sorta OK also means you can enjoy the beach and walk out far enough from shore to find clear water.
Here are my predictions:
Smathers and Higgs will be sorta OK because the city and county clean them sorta. Fort Zach will be decently OK because even though the state doesn’t clean it, the current tends to pull the worst out to sea and away from the beach. South Beach will be a mess unless the city and the private developer get the barricades proposed last year built. Dog Beach could be dicey, but the dogs don’t care. Bahia Honda might be challenging because the state doesn’t clean the beaches and they are positioned perfectly to catch the sargassum.
Up the Keys? I’m not nearly as familiar with sargassum up there; those beaches are a 100 or more miles from me. But Atlantic side likely will have more than Gulf side. Resorts up there with beaches are likely to do at least some cleaning and raking.
And, yes, I’d still come to Key West because, let’s face it, no one really comes here for the beaches. Go to the sandbars instead.
Month by month predictions
Sidebar to those who are asking about specific dates: I love that you’re interested and concerned about your plans. I totally get it and I wish I did have a crystal ball. I don’t have any way of knowing what things are going to be like or what your expectations and tolerances are. You’ll need to make your own decisions. The Keys and Key West are magical places, so, honestly, sargassum isn’t likely to completely ruin most folks’ vacations. Fact is, I’ve long said, “If you’re coming here for the beaches, you’ll be disappointed. The best beaches in Key West are in Pensacola.”
Here’s what I predict by month for the Atlantic side of Key West. Always subject to change and can vary widely as one goes east up the Keys and depending on whether you’re Gulf side or Atlantic side. Up the Keys, the Gulf side will likely have less, maybe none, because the Atlantic side catches it. My predictions are based on my personal experiences, mostly in Key West, over the past decade-plus. As they say it the financial world: Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance. Plus Mother Nature laughs at me when I predict things:
March and April: Not much to worry about. Forget about the worries and come on down.
May and June: More, but if it’s not too hot and the currents are right, probably you won’t notice much. Don’t get nuts and do crazy things like reschedule for September, October, even November. That’s the height of hurricane season and a hurricane beats sargassum, hands down. Come on down in May and June, and pretty much you’ll be fine.
July, August, September: Summer heat and humidity combine with beached sargassum and some days — though not all — can be stinky with pudding-like nearshore waters. Beaches on the Atlantic side without good currents can trap sargassum, which may or may not get cleaned up. Daily clean-up may not be enough. In deep summer it’s getting tough to keep up with sargassum beaching. Summer heat means decaying beached sargassum that’s hard clean up and significant smell. It’ll likely be decent out on the sandbars and likely decent for water sports well off shore. And, if you’re not here for the beaches, which most folks are not, then who cares?
September and October: The height of hurricane season. We’re not worrying about sargassum; we’re getting emergency prep done and putting up shutters. You probably don’t want to be here for one of those, for sure.
Want to know more about Key West sargassum?
- 2019: OMG! Does Key West always stink like this?
- 2021: Everything you need to know about Key West sargassum
- 2022: Key West sargassum 2022: One of these days it’ll kill our summer beach time
- 2023 Atlantic sargassum belt visible from space
- 2023 Florida beaches taking on sargassum and health concerns increase
This is helpful, thank you! Do you have any insight on whether or to what extent it will affect fishing (specifically in May)?
Great question, Andrew. I’m not a fishing expert, but from what I hear and in May, there ought not be much problem. Much later in the summer when the huge mass is floating out on open waters, I know captains will be concerned about getting caught up in it. But the experienced ones will know where to go — and, better still, not to go.
Linda- first, thank you, this is so helpful! I’ve been seeing the resent news about the “5,000 mile wide blob of sargassum” and it’s concerning. My boyfriend and I will be in Key West very soon- the last week of March. My concerns are will the sargassum affect boating, either getting tangled up in the motor, as well as at the sandbars will there be a lot of seaweed floating around etc? Also do you believe the stench be noticeable inland or primarily on the beaches? We are staying at The Marker. Thanks in advance!
You’ll be fine. I’ve added a new section to the original column with my by-the-month predictions. You may find that helpful as you make your plans. https://www.keywestislandnews.com/2023/03/key-west-sargassum-2023/
Planning a trip late April 2023 on Smathers Beach. Hoping to enjoy the beach and snorkel. It is already stinky? Should my family still come?
I’ve added a new section to the original column with my by-the-month predictions. You may find that helpful as you make your plans. Late April? Smathers? Should be OK; will depend on how the winds, currents and temps are between now and then. Snorkeling off Smathers isn’t all that smashing any time of the year. If you want off-the-beach, maybe try Higgs along the pier or along the White Street Pier. https://www.keywestislandnews.com/2023/03/key-west-sargassum-2023/
My husband and I, along with our two teens, have a trip planned for the week of April 10th. Our home base will be in Marathon on the Gulf side, at Tranquility Bay but we really wanted to explore throughout the each of the Keys. I understand about the crystal ball, but your best guess… do you think we will be disappointed and affected by the sargassum? Since that would really stink, no pun intended, should we consider postponing our trip until November? We have another opportunity to take the time then if that’s a better option.
Thanks so much.
I think y’all will have a wonderful trip. April is lovely and you shouldn’t see much, if any, sargassum problems, especially since you’re on the Gulf side.
Hi, First time at your site. Any tips on the best places to get information about sargassum at other places up and along the Gulf Coast? We’re headed to Pensacola (Perdido Key) April 23rd.
We planned to go to Key West a few years ago but a hurricane derailed our plans. I had been there years before and the ride down from Miami was beautiful. Had been talking to my wife about it for years. We’ll get there some day.
John, I’ll hunt around, but off-hand nothing comes to mind. I can’t recall sargassum being a problem that far north in the Gulf of Mexico. The currents likely just don’t take it there. The interactive monitoring map I keep handy doesn’t include the Pensacola or any of that part of the Gulf. It’s fun and interesting to check out. https://sargassummonitoring.com/
Hi! My family has a private beach front home for rent on Islamorada Key on the Atlantic side the last week of July. My parents are not easily mobile so having a home that is right on the beach with access to a pool was ideal. Now I am worried about the air quality and accumulation of dead Sargassum. The house is not cheap so wondering if you would advise to change dates as this looks to be the peak time when the algae bloom is hitting Florida’s Atlantic side.
Sorry, Suzanne, I have no insider knowledge that would let me make that kind of advice. Too far out and my experience is really only with Key West and the Lower Keys. Would I still come in late July? Absolutely. From what you say you’ll spend much of your time at the pool so you’re not really going to need to worry about the beach. But that’s me. I’ve added a new section to the original column with my by-the-month predictions. You may find that helpful as you make your plans. https://www.keywestislandnews.com/2023/03/key-west-sargassum-2023/
We have a trip to Key West planned for late June 2023. We wanted to snorkel, see the coral reef and spend time on the water (boat, kayak). Do you think snorkeling excursions will be impacted? Is there a way to plan smartly (book trips in advance or wait to see how independent charters are impacted once there)?
Unfortunately, it’s too early to have any kind of accurate prediction for late June. There’s going to be sargassum; there always is. But how much will be along the shorelines depends on so many variables and it can change day to day. All that said, I personally would go ahead with plans for snorkeling, boating and kayaking. Those activities tend to be out on the water away from the shoreline and local charters know where the best places are to go. It’s the piling up on the shore and in the near shore waters that affect beach time. Out on the water? Let’s put it this way: I have sandbar days planned already planned for the summer. (As I tell everyone, I don’t have a crystal ball, so any predictions are based solely on what I’ve experienced over the years.)
Thank you, Linda. Your response is so helpful and much appreciated!
Probably (definitely) beating a dead horse here, but I am inexperienced and have never been to the Keys. We planned our first family vacation for the week of June 18 this year. My wife, 7 yr old son, 12 year old son, and I. My sons have never flown and we have our first family flight planned. We have a resort booked on the gulf side of Marathon key. Not only do my kids and wife really want to play on the beach and swim my 7 year old has terrible asthma. We are so excited and I know the pressure we are putting on the trip makes it worse but should we reconsider our trip due to the sargassum from your experience? We never knew to consider it until the news started showing this huge early influx. Thank you for your advice.
Oh, Joe, you and the family are going to have such a great time. First things first: Because you’re staying on the Gulf side, your beach and near shore probably won’t have much sargassum. The Atlantic side of the Keys archipelago catches the brunt of it. Second, your resort is likely to rake and clean whatever beach areas it has. Only decaying sargassum gives off the hydrogen sulfide that can trigger asthma and I’ll bet you won’t see much, if any, where you’ll be. And, finally, mid-June is still early in the season. Would I do it with my own kids and grandkids? You bet. I think you’ll be fine. (As I tell everyone, I don’t have a crystal ball, so any predictions are based solely on what I’ve experienced over the years.)
We are heading to Islamorada next week. Staying at Cheeca Lodge. What is the current report on the east side of Islamorada regarding the Sargassum?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but you should be fine. Even though we are seeing very early sargassum, the beaches and the shore waters are fine. Obviously things can change, but I sure wouldn’t worry for now.
Thank you Linda!!
Do you expect our stay at Isla Bella in Marathon to be affected? We will be staying the last full week of March 2023. If so, will it be stinky in March?
You should be fine. Even without a crystal ball and even though we are seeing very early sargassum, there’s no reason to think there’s going to be any problems this early in the year. We always have seaweed along our shorelines unless resorts and government cleans them, but it’s not much and certainly not worrisome. I think you’ll be fine.
My husband and I stayed in Islamorada for a long weekend 3/3-3/6/23. I am sorry to say our getaway was affected by the stench of the saragassum and the human garbage (bottles, cans, etc) that washed in with it on the east coast. The resort seemed to be unprepared to do any mitigation (ie, cleaning the waste out of the mess. It was really unpleasant to sit out enjoying the ocean views. It sounds like you aren’t considering it starting by that point, but unless it washed out last week after we left, it was definitely a negative to spending a lot to fly down and pay for expensive lodging.
SO sorry to hear that, Nancy. You must have caught those beaches about the same time I did. And, yet here we are today after wind and current shifts and all is well. That’s the tough part about predicting; even a slight shift affects things. (And, as for the human stuff? Yeah, makes us wonder why we’re not all more careful with our cast offs.) Hope you will fare better on a future a return visit. Thanks for reading along and updating us.
What do you think early June will be like?
Probably decently fine. Would I come in early June? Absolutely.
We have a trip to the keys planned for April 23, 2023 to celebrate my husband’s retirement. Sadly it’s a trip that was postponed for to covid and then an 13 month injury recovery.
What is the prediction for alligator reef? What about the east cost of the keys? I don’t want to come there if it’s going to smell and make us nauseous the whole trip. TIA
We are seeing early arrival, but as my column says, the winds and a currents are such that most is being pulled away from the shorelines. I think you’ll be fine. If it were me, I’d be happily packing and dreaming.
Thank you for your quick reply. We will proceed as planned. And with a little luck we will be able to vist all the keys parks.
We are planning a trip around the July 4 holiday and staying near Malory Square. My son wants to take a trip to the Dry Tortugas. Do you think they will be cleaned by the National Park Service.
We plan to snorkel vs. hang out on the beach, and I am curious what the sandbars are that you talk about?
I’ve added a new section to the original column with my by-the-month predictions. You may find that helpful as you make your plans. https://www.keywestislandnews.com/2023/03/key-west-sargassum-2023/
Your biggest challenge may be getting reservations on the Yankee Freedom or other Dry Tortugas charters. Those are often booked as much as a year in advance. It’s rare you can get one on the fly, so best start looking now.
Thank you. What is your favorite sandbar excursion.
Lazy Dog. But there are lots. Just wander around “the Google.” 🙂 https://lazydog.com/