A mass of stinking seaweed the size of Jamaica is heading to Mexico’s most popular tourist beaches, ruining the usually pristine waters for holidaymakers.
The giant floating mass of sargassum algae, more than 340-miles long, is predicted to hit Mexico’s Caribbean shoreline this week, reaching the Yucatan peninsula’s coast and spreading as far south as Belize.
Mexico’s beaches, in particular Cancun and Tulum, are popular among British tourists looking for a cheap break with warm weather and crystal clear waters.
The sargassum has been affecting some of Mexico’s most popular beaches since 2011, but the arrival of the seaweed island, dubbed the “Sargasso stain”, in the next few days is a worrying escalation.
The massive explosion of algae has been caused by widespread deforestation in the Amazon and the intensive use of fertilisers which have fed nitrogen into the oceans.
The nitrogen, coupled with warmer oceans, has boosted the seaweed’s growth. Environmentalists warn that the algae is a disaster for the area’s biodiversity.
While it serves as a habitat for marine life out at sea, once it hits the shore it dies and produces toxic gases and acid which leak back into the sea, damaging coral reefs and marine ecosystems.
Perhaps worse for tourists is the rotting egg smell the algae releases as it decays.
The floating island, estimated to weigh more than 200 fully loaded aircraft carriers, has been captured by NASA satellite images and is more than 340 miles in diameter and is about 620 miles east from the coast of Mexico’s Quintana Roo state.
Dr Chuanmin Hu, a marine scientist at the University of South Florida, has studied the algae’s growth. He warned that based on the last 20 years of data, the belt of algae “is very likely to be a new normal”.
“The ocean’s chemistry must have changed in order for the blooms to get so out of hand,” he added.
Dr Woody Turner, manager of the Ecological Forecasting Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said: “The scale of these blooms is truly enormous, making global satellite imagery a good tool for detecting and tracking their dynamics through time.”
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has deployed the country’s marine corps to tackle the algae but has also enraged local businesses by downplaying the issue.
The issue has come centre stage after Mr Obrador said last week that the seaweed’s impact on the region was “not very serious”, while some countries, such as Barbados, have previously declared national emergencies because of the toll on tourism.
Mr Obrador elaborated on his comments on Thursday, now claiming that people opposed to his controversial Tren Maya railroad project are also behind claims that the sargassum is at emergency levels.
“I have to tell the people that we are attending to the [algae] problem but that is’s not how some are presenting it.”
However according to industry data, hotel resorts on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, which stretches from Puerto Morelos to Punta Allen, have lost an estimated $12m this year from a sargasso-related downturn in visitors.
Hotels have placed nets in the sea to try to keep the sargassum away from the beaches while staff remove up to a ton day using shovels and barrows.
However the removal is time-consuming and largely ineffective against such large amounts.
Mr Obrador said he has budgeted 52 million pesos (£2.1 million) for measures such as seaweed-catching ships and barriers – but this falls short of what the president’s own tourism secretary, Marisol Vanegas Pérez, said was necessary to tackle the issue.