By Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.
July 14, 2022
Pat’s Wildways: Always Learning
Whenever I travel internationally, whether for work or for play, I always learn something new, usually from the people I interact with along the way. And I interact with everyone. This time in Belize one of my teachers was Fagan, a Belizean man walking along the beach in front of our lodging.
During the seven days we spent here we were astonished by the mass of sargassum weed building up along the shore. Sargassum weed is a natural phenomenon, and, in normal times, the floating mats of this seaweed stay out in the Sargassum Sea offshore and provide a home for hatchling sea turtles and other marine life. When the wind and currents are right, some of it lands on the beaches, ours included. Here on Amelia Island I have enjoyed looking at the seaweed when it occasionally floats ashore. I pick up clumps, look for any stranded young sea turtles, the camouflaged sargassum fish and other critters that may still be hitching a ride in it.
But here in Belize, this time, the sargassum weed was something else. Rafts of it kept floating in, a crew of bare chested workmen with pitchforks worked all day to pile it up where a tractor pulling a specialized trailer scooped it up, to be taken away and compressed into blocks used in roadwork. A recent National Geographic article described this as a new scourge in Mexico and beaches south. It is thought that the agricultural runoff (with fertilizer) from the Amazon and even our Mississippi River have excessively fertilized the sargassum weed causing this bloom. With mounds like this onshore, sea turtles cannot climb over it to nest, and hatchlings cannot make it to the sea. Large mats shade out the coral reefs, harming them. Moreover huge piles of it is unsightly, smelly, causes respiratory problems in some people and is a huge economic setback for beach communities that rely on tourism. If you can’t enter the water, why go there?
Bucko and I watched the sargassum removal process from our beachside balcony and got into an argument about how high the piles were and whether it was just on top of a sand berm, or deep piles of just weed. There was only one way to find out. I walked to the shoreline to check it out, and saw a local man walking along with his dog beside him. It was a perfect chance to photograph a “human yardstick” to record the height of the piles, so I snapped a photo.
Immediately I knew I was in error. The man saw me snap the photo and he turned away. But me, being me, called out to him, “I’m sorry sir, I was only taking your photo to measure the sargassum weed”. And the whole dynamic changed. Before long, in his thick Creole dialect he told me that this has happened only in the last ten years or so. He knew it was caused by agricultural runoff from the Amazon and other facts I myself learned from the internet. And we chatted about lots of other marine things too. It turns out that he worked for the Belizean fish and game authorities for years and knew well what he was talking about.
In his hand he was holding a large rock, which he showed me. It was pumice, a floating stone that originated from a volcano burst somewhere else (there are no volcanos in Belize) and floated around at sea. The one he held had “gooses” on it as he called them. It was hard for me to understand many of his words, but we had marine biology terms in common. Sure enough, those were goose-necked barnacles, and, judging by their size, he thought that rock had been floating for a week. He was thrilled with that particular piece of pumice, the largest he had ever found. He was going to place it in his house to use to scrape the callouses off his feet.
After our long discussion we gave each other our names and parted ways. As I was walking away from him down the beach again, he yelled out “Pat” and I turned around. He was beckoning to me and we joined up again. In his hand was a smaller pumice stone, this time black, still with volcano soot. I admired it, and he told me that there were plenty of white ones around that I could find. But I said, “No, I’m going to keep this one. You gave it to me!” And, we smiled at each other, both pleased with our encounter.
I am sure glad I took Fagan’s picture and apologized for it. Another bit of knowledge and cultural exchange crossed my path because of it. And that’s what travel is all about, at least for me.
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]
Thanks for this important story.