Organic matter, which is dissolved in low concentrations in the vast waters of the oceans, contains a total amount of carbon similar to atmospheric carbon dioxide. To understand global biogeochemical cycles, it is crucial to quantify the sources of marine dissolved organic carbon (DOC). We investigated the impact of mangroves, the dominant intertidal vegetation of the tropics, on marine DOC inventories. Stable carbon isotopes and proton nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy showed that mangroves are the main source of terrigenous DOC in the open ocean off northern Brazil. Sunlight efficiently destroyed aromatic molecules during transport offshore, removing about one third of mangrove-derived DOC. The remainder was refractory and may thus be distributed over the oceans. On a global scale, we estimate that mangroves account for >10% of the terrestrially derived, refractory DOC transported to the ocean, while they cover only <0.1% of the continents' surface.