By Gemma Handy
From its putrid ‘rotten egg’ stench to its destruction of household appliances, vast swathes of sargassum seaweed washed up on several of Antigua’s beaches are once again causing headaches for residents.
The loathed brown algae swarmed a handful of beaches in the north of the island over the weekend, repelling householders with the toxic gases it emits as it rots.
Shell Beach, Jabberwock and Fitches Creek are among the areas worst affected by the latest deluge.
Alison Archer likened the thick mat carpeting the sea outside her Fitches Creek home to a “soup bowl”.
“The gas gives me a heavy head and makes me feel listless,” she told Observer. “It invades my house and I’ve had to cover various items with towels and plastic to stop them being corroded. In the past, it has destroyed my flatscreen TV, my camera and stereo to name a few. Anything that’s metal, it’s as if it eats it.
“I have been told it’s dangerous for my health and am thinking of staying with friends until it goes again,” Archer added.
Beached sargassum begins to decompose around 48 hours after washing up. It then releases hydrogen sulphide gas and ammonia. Breathing these in may cause respiratory, skin and neurocognitive problems, experts say. Symptoms can include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, vertigo, headache, and skin rashes.
Last year, researchers in Mexico detected high levels of arsenic and heavy metals such as cadmium in sargassum on the Quintana Roo coastline.
The seaweed first appeared in the Eastern Caribbean in 2011, confounding beachgoers, governments and scientists alike. It returned three years later and by 2015 quantities had reached epic proportions.
In 2018, piles of sargassum lining Antigua’s Mamora Bay forced the St James Club resort to close its doors for three months.
It’s not just humans whose health can be affected. Under normal conditions, floating sargassum is a thriving ecosystem, providing habitat and food for many marine species. But when it grows too thick, dolphins and turtles cannot reach the water’s surface and can choke to death.
On Monday, a team of volunteers headed by Dr Nick Fuller rescued five sea turtles which had got trapped in the seaweed on the north shore. They were later released near Bird Island.
Dr Fuller told Observer he had received a phone call from a friend in Fitches Creek who spotted the struggling creatures. Without intervention, they would likely have perished.
“The seaweed mat was six feet thick; for the turtles to come up through that is a big challenge,” he explained.
Local weather enthusiast Steve Coghlan, who has been following the development of the incoming seaweed, said the current levels were on a par with 2018.
“It was so bad two years ago that I joked that the seagulls could walk from High Point to Jumby Bay; this is as bad as then. I don’t think I have ever seen it like this at Shell Beach,” he said.
“It appeared on Saturday and got worse on Sunday. Now it will rot and start to smell so the misery will continue for a while.”
The algae originates close to the coast of South America and is carried by currents around the Florida peninsula on its way to the Sargasso Sea.
When it reaches Antigua, it tends to affect the south coast.
“It’s basically hanging out in a huge mass between Brazil and the coast of West Africa, and it appears here when a chunk breaks off and drifts,” Coghlan explained. “It doesn’t always arrive at the same place; it depends on the angle of the wind and the current. Later on in the year, it usually eases up,” Coghlan added.
Local marine ecologist Ruleo Camacho, who produces regular sargassum reports for Antigua and Barbuda, recently predicted that the Eastern Caribbean would experience a deluge until September.
“We have lots of sargassum coming our way. Using the observed trends from the satellite data, we will continue to see large amounts in the coming months, with increased amounts of beaching seen throughout the nation’s beaches. This is likely due to the continuous growth of the sargassum on the ocean surface, along with favourable conditions for growth,” his July report stated.
The protected area of Nelson’s Dockyard National Park has also been impacted this year.
“The prolonged beaching of sargassum can have detrimental effects on nesting sea turtles, beach dynamics and human health and wellbeing,” Camacho added.