Dr. Beach

Fall 2006 CSANews Issue 61  |  Posted date : Jun 01, 2007.Back to list


You can be forgiven if you do not know the meaning of the word. I turned to a coastal geomorphologist to find out what it meant. Dr. Stephen Leatherman is a specialist in the subject and holds his doctorate as director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami. His resumé includes teaching assignments at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Maryland. He has received research support from several foundations, plus the Sea Grant Program and the National Park Service.

Dr. Leatherman has spoken at many prestigious national and international conferences and more than 100 professional workshops, and is the recipient of more than 20 honours and awards. He has given expert testimony on research, policy matters, erosion and sustainable development to congressional, university and even presidential committees. He has written 15 books and is probably best known for his annual listing of America's 10 finest beaches. His first list came out in 1991. Shortly thereafter, he was given the nickname"Dr. Beach."

Top 10 Beaches 2005
1. Fort De Soto Park - North Beach St Petersburg, Florida
2. Ocracoke Island Outer Banks, North Carolina
3. Hanalei Bay Kauai, Hawaii
4. Caladesi Island State Park Clearwater, Florida
5. Fleming Beach Maui, Hawaii
6. Coast Guard Beach Cape Cod, Massachusetts
7. Coronado Beach San Diego, California
8. Cape Florida State Park Key Biscayne, Florida
9. Main Beach East Hampton, New York
10. Hamoa Beach Maui, Hawaii

But, back to that long word. Stephen says that people call him their favourite 'beachologist' but, since there is no such word, he has to use geomorphologist. It breaks down into'geo' meaning earth, 'morph' meaning form of, and 'ology' meaning study of. Add coastal in front and it indicates the study of beaches and coasts. Stephen Leatherman specializes in hurricanes, erosion and the type of beaches which people are seeking.

I met Dr. Beach at the location he selected as America's number-one beach for 2005, the North Beach at Fort De Soto Park, administered by Florida's Pinellas County. He told me that he uses 50 criteria to rank every beach. "This is a scientific scale. I don't just go and kick up some sand." There are three main categories: physical factors, biological factors and sand quality. Sand is rated on a scale of one to five, with the whitest being the best. A perfect beach has a score of 250."I have never found a perfect one, but this (North Beach) is certainly one of the great ones."

Whiteness of sand gets a 5; powder-like sand gets 4.5 to 5; then fine sand, i.e. soft to the touch. "Water clarity is very high at North Beach, and people like to see their toes," Leatherman says. "Water purity is very important. Fort De Soto Park is on an island, far away from anything else. You don't expect any pollution here, and you don't get it." Safety is an important issue. You do not have wave action at North Beach. You don't come here to surf. There are no huge waves (I get bigger waves in my bathtub, one visitor said), no rip tides, undertows or shore breakers. The water is quite warm for at least eight months of the year. North Beach does not allow dogs because not every owner uses a 'pooper scooper.'

Fort De Soto Park consists of five islands, each with its own flavour. When amenities are added into Dr. Leatherman's equation, North Beach scores again. "There is lots of nature, and from here you cannot see any big buildings. You feel you are a world away from Saint Petersburg. The vistas, far and near, are fantastic. Bird life is abundant: snowy egrets; beautiful roseate spoonbills; great blue herons; several types of terns, and plovers. There are miles and miles of biking and hiking trails, two fishing piers, showers, bathrooms, barbecue pits, great shelling and lots of parking. And all of this for an entrance toll of just 35 cents."

I wondered how there could be so many shells, when you see so many people collecting them. Leatherman says that nature takes care of that, with sea creatures shedding their shells as they grow, or when they end their life cycle. Discarded shells are then washed ashore by tidal action. A visit to Fort De Soto is not all work and no play for Dr. Leatherman. He loves to fish from one of the two fine piers in the park, and enjoys angling for redfish, striped bass and grouper.

When asked about other beaches on his America's 10 best list, he mentions Holloway Beach on Hawaii's Kauai Island. Another favourite is Okracoke in North Carolina's Outer Banks. Once known as Blackbeard's Island, you get there by ferry boat. Then there is Maine Beach, a surprise perhaps in that it is located at the east end of New York's Long Island. For a dramatic setting, honourable mention is given to Coast Guard Beach at Cape Cod, where sea cliffs drop off to a sand spit. The harbour here was first mapped by Samuel de Champlain.

Some world locations boast about their black sands. Stephen Leatherman said that volcanic glass is caused by volcanic action. While somewhat exotic, these locations do not score very high with Dr. Beach. He has visited a few; some in the Caribbean, others in Tahiti, Iceland and Maui, Hawaii. Black gives very little reflection in the water, and again, people like to see their toes. While wading may be cool to your feet, black sand is very hot, much more so than light sand.

Then there are the pebble-covered strands. England has many of these. Brighton was one of the first, and is still very popular, despite being covered by small, flat, smooth stones, referred to as shingles. We would call them 'skipping rocks.' Pebble beaches can also be found in Canada, and some are located in Maine, California and Oregon.

What part do dunes play in the ecology of beaches? Well, they are so important that in the entire American picture it is illegal to destroy them, or even pick the sea oats that grow on them. While the long stalks and seed heads make interesting floral arrangements, when dried, taking them away from dunes means that their seeds will not be naturally scattered to help form new dunes. Dunes are natural barriers to surges and help to dissipate wave energy.

How important is a beach to the economy? Miami was founded and grew as a place where people could go and sun themselves on a wide expanse of sand. Wave action and erosion took all that away and, in the 1970s, the beach area became derelict. The United States Corps of Engineers was called in to dredge sand from the ocean bottom, and literally rebuilt the famous strand. Today, thanks to'beach nourishment,' Miami's South Beach has been reborn and now enjoys a new life in the sun.

People love beaches but unfortunately, Dr. Leatherman says,"they love them to death." With a desire to build ever closer to the water's edge, and with global warming that is pushing a rising ocean ever closer to waterfront buildings, Dr. Beach feels that people and water are on a collision course. If it is true, as it says on so many T-shirts, that'Life's a Beach,' we had better make sure that we can avoid this collision.

Previous Winners of America's Top Beach:
(Once a beach has won it is retired from the judging)
2004 - Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii
2003 - Kaanapali, Hawaii
2002 - St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida
2001 - Poipu Beach Park, Hawaii
2000 - Mauna Kea Beach, Hawaii
1999 - Wailea Beach, Hawaii
1998 - Kailua Beach Park, Hawaii
1997 - Hulopoe, Hawaii
1996 - Lanikai Beach, Hawaii
1995 - St. Andrews SRA, Florida
1994 - Grayton Beach SRA, Florida
1993 - Hapuna, Hawaii
1992 - Bahia Honda SRA, Florida
1991 - Kapalua Bay Beach, Hawaii

Books by Dr. Beach:
America's Best Beaches (Florida International University, 1998)
Dr. Beach's Survival Guide: What You Need to Know About Sharks,
Rip Currents, & More Before Going in the Water (Yale University Press, 2003)
AAA Beach Vacation Travel Journal (AAA Publishing, 2003)

Related links
Dr. Beach’s website
National Healthy Beaches Campaign