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Monday, September 11, 2023

Sargassum, a hurricane's gift

Sunbaked sargassum mounds
photo credit: HollyElmoreImages
On Tuesday August 29 and Wednesday August 30, 2023, Hurricane Idalia's outer storm bands pummeled Florida’s Gulf Coast before making landfall on the peninsula’s big bend. In addition to significant flooding from storm surges, Idalia deposited tremendous mounds of sargassum seaweed infiltrated with boater and fishermen trash on barrier island and coastal beaches.

Sunrise walks on Longboat Key, a barrier island nestled between Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, revealed Hurricane Idalia's gift of sargassum along the normally pristine beaches. Sargassum deposits first appeared a mile north of the beach condo, increasing in strength to nearly a foot deep on the northern beach stretch.

On the first day, the stench was overbearing as the dying sargassum released hydrogen sulfide that smells similar to rotten eggs. The normally sparkling gentle surf was brownish with floating sargassum and other debris. The floating sargassum often contains jellyfish larvae that causes a red, itchy rash upon contact. For nearly a week post-hurricane, Manatee County issued no-swimming advisories due to the water toxicity. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: sargassum is a genus of large brown seaweed (a type of algae) that floats in island-like masses and never attaches to the seafloor.

In Balance
When in balance, the naturally occurring sargassum plays an integral role within the ocean ecosystem. In the May 2019 Utilise Sargassum Seaweed For Its Many Benefits press release by the British Virgin Islands government, Marine Biologist at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour Mervin Hastings states, 

In-balance sargassum on beach
photo credit: HollyElmoreImages
"The Sargassum seaweed provides a source of food, home and nursery to an amazing variety of marine species (plants, shrimps, crabs, birds, fish, turtles, etc.). Sargassum also aids in creating sand dunes which helps in restoring eroded beaches."

Rich in iodine, bromine, mineral salts and vitamins, sargassum is beneficial for human use. According to Indigo Health

It is antioxidant, promotes proper hormone balance, protects from radiation and kills bacteria and fungi. When the thyroid is compromised, symptoms can include unexplained weight loss/gain, fatigue, hair loss and dry skin. Sargassum is one of the algae used in the production of Agar.

Per the Florida Department of Health, sargassum may contain large amounts of heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium and should not be used in cooking.

Over-abundant sargassum
photo credit: HollyElmoreImage
Out of Balance
Around twenty years ago, sargassum blooms crossed a threshold from beneficial to suffocating and harmful, both at sea and when washed up on shorelines. Similar to red tide, Karenia brevis, the naturally occurring algae blooms are fueled by human-produced and -released nutrients/toxins into waterways and eventually to the oceans. Nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers and other toxins dispersed into the oceans often result in explosive red tide and/or sargassum algae blooms.

Unlike red tide, which is deadly to marine life, sargassum does not release toxins that directly kill marine life. Like red tide, sargassum deposits on shorelines are costly to local economies with immediate, direct impact on tourism-driven coastal communities. Additionally, the seaweed can clog power plant turbines, boat engines, and other propeller-driven machinery.

When it leaves the cooler Atlantic Ocean waters and enters the warmer Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, the floating sargassum mass can smother sea grasses and coral reefs.

The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt 
Initially noted in 2011, the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt (GASB) spans over 5,000 miles, weighs approximately 5.5 million metric tonnes, and consists of connected sargassum masses, many an acre in size. The GASB spans twice the length of the United States; yet, if compressed together the mass condenses to about the size of Delaware.

Sparsely deposited sargassum
photo credit: HollyElmoreImage
First documented by Christopher Columbus, the Sargasso Sea is located in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, provides food and habitat for marine life, and stays reasonably contained by ocean currents. The sargassum in the Sargasso Sea is a different strain that the algae within the GASB.

Though not proven, many scientists believe fertilizers and other agriculture nutrients flowing from the Amazon River basin into the Atlantic Ocean provided the food source for the GASB formation. Ocean currents carry the sargassum masses from its West African origin across the Atlantic Ocean into the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

The sargassum deposited by Hurricane Idalia on Longboat Key beaches originated in the GASB.

Sea Turtle Impact
Fortunately, Hurricane Idalia arrived near the end of the Gulf Coast sea turtle-hatching season. The remaining estimated 30 - 50 sea turtle nests were destroyed or flooded by the storm surge. Within the sargassum mounds, there were a multitude of hatched turtle shells, most likely from pre-hurricane hatching.

Hatched sea turtle eggs
photo credit: HollyElmoreImage
When a nest of eggs hatches, Turtle Watch protocol is to count and return the hatched and unhatched eggs to the nest, which is then covered with sand. Presumably, the hurricane winds, rain, and surge destroyed the covered nests and dispersed the hatched eggs within the storm debris.

Sea turtle nesting season runs from May 1 through October 31 when loggerheads and green turtles return to Longboat Key where they propagate the species.

Without turtle nests to monitor, the Longboat Key Turtle Watch volunteers joined in on the trash clean-up from the sargassum mounds.

Heartwarming Cleanup
Until the beach was cleansed, each sunrise residents, vacationers, and Turtle Watch volunteers filtered through the smelly sargassum mounds and collected boater and fisherman trash washed up from the Gulf of Mexico. The variety and quantity of trash carelessly disposed of in the open water was astounding.

Howard Tipton and
his daughter Michelle
photo credit: HollyElmoreImage
Early Labor Day morning, Longboat Key Town Manager Howard Tipton visited the LBK beaches with his daughter to assess the sargassum scenario. Howard planned to contact Manatee County for removal of the voluminous sunbaked sargassum from the lovely beaches.

Within two days, the beaches were raked yet most of the sargassum remained. By Friday morning, the sargassum was removed with only wisps of the sea weed deluge remaining. Thanks to the community cleanup effort the removed sargassum was essentially cleansed of trash!

It was literally heartwarming to witness the cheerful, cleanup teamwork amongst residents, visitors, non-profit volunteers, and local government. The sargassum deposit was a community gift by Hurricane Idalia; strangers worked in unison to return the Longboat Key beaches to their pristine state.

Howard validates the community spirit inherent within Longboat Key residents and visitors with his statement:

“Living on the coast in Florida, storms impacts are just the price for living in paradise.  What’s amazing on Longboat is how the community comes together to support one another, and how we support a healthy natural environment.”

The Holly Elmore Images album, Idalia's Gift of Sargassum, showcases the sargassum-infiltrated beach along with the community-driven teamwork for the clean-up.

Remember there are always Divine gifts in circumstances, no matter how dire they appear on the surface!


Tax-deductible donations in any amount are greatly appreciated to support Ei's important work. 


About Elemental Impact:
Elemental Impact (Ei) is a 501(c)3 non-profit founded in 2010 as the home to the Zero Waste Zones, the forerunner in the nation for the commercial collection of food waste for compost. In June 2017, Ei announced the Era of Recycling Refinement was Mission Accomplished and entered the Era of Regeneration. Current focus areas include Nature PrevailsSoil Health | Regenerative Agriculture, and Water Use | Toxicity.

The Regeneration in ACTION Magazine articles, From Organic Certification to Regenerative Agriculture to Rewilding Landscapes: an evolution towards soil integrity and SOIL & WATER: the foundation of life, published to explain and substantiate the importance of Ei’s rewilding urban landscapes work within the Nature Prevails focus area.

The Holly Elmore Images Rewilding Urban Landscapes-album folder documents two active pilots: the Native-Plant Landscape Pilot and the Backyard Permaculture-Oriented Pilot.

To work with industry leaders to create best regenerative operating practices where the entire value-chain benefits, including corporate bottom lines, communities, and the environment. Through education and collaboration, establish best practices as standard practices.

Ei’s tagline – Regeneration in ACTION – is the foundation for Ei endeavors.

The following mantra is at the core of Ei work:

Ei is a creator, an incubator.
Ei determines what could be done that is not being done and gets it done.
Ei brings the possible out of impossible.
Ei identifies pioneers and creates heroes.

For additional information, contact Holly Elmore at 404-510-9336 |

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