There are very few things better than heading down to a good beach. Synonymous with summer, warm weather, holidays, and good times with better friends, it’s easy to understand why many people opt for a beach holiday. But not all beaches are the same, so what makes a beach good?
For a beach to be considered “good,” it needs to be safe; it needs to have pleasing aesthetics, be free of pollution, have pleasant weather conditions, and be ecologically healthy and functional. Different end-users have different requirements, and a good beach will meet as many of these as possible.
We all have ideas of how the perfect beach looks. Some people enjoy jam-packed beaches full of activity, while others desire deserted islands without a soul in sight. Surfers want big waves, while families want sheltered areas for children. With all of these conflicting factors, what fundamental characteristics make a beach “good”?
Many different types of people frequent beaches. There are anglers, surfers, those interested in sun tanning, bathers, seashell collectors, nature enthusiasts, law enforcement officials, families spending a day of fun in the sun, scuba divers, and snorkelers, and many others.
If you had to ask any of these people, they would all give you many different ideas of what makes a beach great. Although it is impossible to please everybody, a good beach caters to most people’s needs.
There are, however, some underlying, non-negotiable characteristics that beaches need to possess for the enjoyment of all who use them.
According to the National Geographic Society, a beach is defined as “a narrow, gently sloping strip of land that lies along the edge of an ocean, lake, or river.”
Covering these strips of land are various materials, including rocks, pebbles, sand, and fragmented seashells, which are usually derived from the process of erosion or weathering from the effects of wind and water over time.
With this broad definition in mind, there are various types of beaches, including:
- Sandy beaches
- Rocky beaches (shingles and cobbles)
- Barrier beaches
- Fertile beaches/river mouths
Each of these has unique characteristics and can be subdivided, but mostly the type of beach is related to the beach’s substrate.
Different end-users have different preferences for the type of beach, but most beachgoers enjoy and prefer a type of sandy beach.
Some countries subscribe to a “Blue flag” rating system to categorize their beaches. A Blue flag beach is judged by an international authority (representatives include the UN Agencies for Environment and Tourism) on factors which include general services, environmental management, safety, and water quality.
Other countries use their measuring and rating systems to ensure beaches are well maintained and functioning.
The essential factor is beachgoer safety. If a beach is unsafe, it does not matter how pretty it is or how pleasant the weather is; the beach is no good.
Beach safety includes:
- No intense wave action or currents, such as rip currents. According to the United States Lifesaving Association, over 100 deaths occur annually from people caught in rip currents. A beach needs to have few to none at all.
- Fewer sharks, Jellyfish, and other dangerous creatures. Beach users need to be safe from being eaten, stung, or seriously injured by the marine life present. In areas with a surplus of sharks, shark nets and spotters are critical to reducing the likelihood of attacks.
- A Good beach needs lifeguards on duty. People swimming will inevitably find themselves in trouble at some point. In these instances, lifeguards are essential.
- Very little to no crime. Unfortunately, crime is always a factor in the current world, from petty theft to life-threatening situations. A good beach needs to have as little crime as possible, often assisted by law enforcement officials conducting regular patrols.
The most significant appeal of a beach is (for most people) soft, warm sand of a light white or yellow color, some trees and other vegetation, blue, transparent water, and no eyesores.
We as a species are drawn to visually appealing things, and a beach is no exception.
Although we don’t always agree on what is attractive, we generally want a clean, tidy, pleasant smelling (no rotting plant or animal material) beach, with as few disturbances as possible (power plants, etc.).
These aesthetics include proximity to roads, buildings, and other development. Many people prefer to be away from that when at the beach.
Although the weather fluctuates, specific beaches are renowned for particular weather and temperature characteristics.
Elements like potent winds, no shade, lots of rain, and colder temperatures are generally not sought after on a good beach.
Most beach users prefer warm water if they can have it.
A beach consists of its substrate, water, landscape, vegetation, and other features. Certain features lend themselves to making a beach suitable, while others detract from the experience (once again, depending on the individual).
Some features of importance include:
- Accessibility. How easy is it to access the beach? Can you walk straight onto it, or do you need to travel by boat, over a mountain, etc.?
- Substrate type. Is the beach made of shingles, shells, hard bare rock, or soft sand? The substrate is potentially one of the most critical features in determining a good beach. Most people would prefer to sit on soft sand than jagged bare rock or cobbles and shingles.
- Beach width and length. How much beach is there during high or low tide?
- The gradient of the beach. Most people prefer gently sloping beaches instead of a beach with a drastic drop-off.
One of the most important criteria is that the beach has minimal pollution. Pollution in the form of plastic, toxic waste, chemical spills, stormwater (full of heavy metals), and even warm water from nuclear power stations are all forms of pollution that make their way to the ocean and beaches.
This pollution is dangerous for humans and marine life on beaches, so a good beach should have as little pollution as possible.
A Good Beach From A Human Perspective
The end-user type plays a pivotal role in determining whether a beach is good or bad. Some of these end-users include:
- Surfers. They want gigantic waves, the best swell, and warm, predator-free waters.
- Family Outings. Calm and gentle oceans, with plenty of sandy beaches for kids to play on, shops nearby to buy ice cream, and other beach wares.
- Nature Enthusiasts. Hiking trails, reefs for scuba diving and snorkeling. A beach with a diversity of species, both plant and animal.
- Anglers. Suitable conditions and environments to fish in, with few surfers and bathers in the way.
A beach, from an environmental perspective, is allowed to function naturally. This functioning, unfortunately, is often in juxtaposition to human activities.
For example, the seasonal and annual migration of sand up and down a beach is a natural process, which unfortunately conflicts with human development.
Beaches around rivers also tend to block river mouths during low rainfall seasons. This blockage often causes localized flooding along the river; during this time, conditions in the water body change (dissolved oxygen, salt, temperature) which organisms have adapted to over many millennia.
However, homeowners who built in the floodplains need the mouth to be dredged, altering the established ecology.
Sandy beaches need a piling up of organic matter to recycle nutrients back into the surrounding ocean. When seaweed and other organic matter are prematurely removed from these beaches, marine organisms are deprived of food, and the nutrient cycle is broken.
It is paramount to maintain the balance between human needs and natural processes. If the pendulum swings too far one way, it is to the detriment of the other side.
There will practically always be a conflict of interest (sharks entering bays to hunt prey, hindered by shark nets). Still, from an ecological perspective, a good beach continues its functions and process as close to nature as possible.
Without it, we will lose species diversity and overall beach health.
Although we have different ideas of what makes a beach “good,” we all need some essential characteristics as beachgoers: safety, aesthetically pleasing, pleasant weather conditions and temperature, features that make the beach accessible and enjoyable, and no pollution. The other specifics are often down to personal preferences. The vital thing is to enjoy the beach and appreciate the natural processes at work, respect them, and conserve them.