The walls of seaweed first started washing over the white-sand beaches of Tulum, Mexico, in 2015. They came from deep in the Atlantic and across the Caribbean, darkening the neon-blue water. Some of the seaweed was puke brown, while the rest was dark red, and in the summer it was so thick that swimming was impossible. Dead fish and other sea creatures were mixed in, and the piles on the beach smelled like rotten eggs. Where was it coming from?
Development in the Amazon was leaching more fertilizer into increasingly warmer oceans — maybe that was it. But some residents of Tulum, which has long attracted visitors predisposed toward the mystical, thought that Mother Nature had simply had enough: The first time one local remembered seeing the seaweed was after one of Tulum’s many oceanfront venues hosted a wild party and put up a barrier to close off the beach.
“Look at that black wave,” Eugenio Barbachano, Tulum’s director general of tourism, said one afternoon in January, staring at the brackish sea. “That’s my biggest fucking enemy.” He was eating octopus tacos at Be Tulum, one of the poshest hotels on Tulum’s five-mile strip of beach. Rooms at Be Tulum were going for $2,000 a night, which, Barbachano noted, with a mixture of pride and bewilderment, was more than the Four Seasons in Paris. Tulum was busier than ever, but some hotels were reporting cancellations and disappointed customers. Right before Christmas, the receptionist at one hotel apologized to a guest about the seaweed by responding, “I can say with much joy that we have built a very nice swimming pool.”
The seaweed was a problem elsewhere in the Caribbean, but for Tulum, which presented on Instagram as a perfect paradise, the threat was existential. It might disappear for days, weeks, or months, especially in the winter, but here Barbachano was, in Tulum’s high season, staring at his worst nightmare. The government spent $20 million trying to solve the problem, installing nets that Barbachano said worked when the seas were calm (“one out of three days”) and the nets were installed perfectly (“which never happens”). Every hotel on the beach had employees shoveling seaweed into wheelbarrows or burying it in the sand, and when the piles got taller than people’s heads, front-end loaders drove onto the beach to finish the job. The seaweed had doubled in volume since 2015, and 2019 was expected to be the worst year yet. “It is potentially worse than a hurricane,” Barbachano said. “It is longer. It is silent.”