One of my earliest memories from when I was around 4 years old is of being knocked down by a wave at Jones Beach on Long Island. It was probably a two-foot shore break and standing back up after being tossed around in the salty white frothing water, I was more astonished than scared. Somebody had just told me what a big boy I was and yet this thing, this ocean I faced, was so much bigger than me.
When children explore tidepools, pick up and examine seashells along a golden shore or build sand castles with watery moats, they often discover a spark of wonder that may inspire their life directions, bringing them to science, architecture, engineering or a host of other callings.
For many of us our sense of awe, wonder and respect for our blue marble planet began with a trip to the beach. More than 70 million Americans will visit the beach this summer, in part to embrace and be embraced by a familiarity that makes a day by the sea feel like the good old days in the here and now.
Hot sand, iodine-flavored sea air, the thrill of cold waves on a hot day — or, conversely, warm clear waters on a muggy afternoon with iced tea and bold gulls scavenging between beach towels, lines of pelicans with wingtips to the waves or sandpipers skittering along the wet sand at the edge of the surf can make time expand into an endless summer in a single lovely day.
If you wonder what this might have to do with the problems of industrial overfishing, pollution, coastal sprawl or climate change impacting our seas, they say you’re most likely to protect the things that you love. That’s why the number one solution in my book “50 Ways to Save the Ocean” is “Go to the Beach.”
A day at the beach can also be the first place you begin practicing a new ocean ethic of stewardship we all need to embrace if we’re to turn the tide of marine and coastal destruction. Among what I’d suggest — first, take only pictures and leave only sand. In other words, carry out everything you bring with you. In scuba diving we’ve amended that to say, “take only pictures and leave only bubbles.” Also bring a trash bag and pick up any other litter you find on the beach, particularly plastic that won’t biodegrade. If you wear sunscreen, make sure it’s waterproof so you don’t leave your own little oil spill in the ocean. Use the restrooms.
Avoid swimming near storm drain outlets that carry pollutants from roads and other hardened surfaces and dump them into the sea. A major study from southern California found you have a more than 50 percent increased risk of getting sick swimming within 500 feet of a storm drain. That’s also a good reason to study up on polluted runoff problems when you get home (#25 in my book is “Don’t use your Storm Drain as if it were a Toilet.”). Don’t chase or feed the wildlife or, if you’re at a beach with a pet, don’t let them. Keep your animal friends on a leash and clean up after them. Use walkovers to cross sand dunes. Dune sliding may be fun, but dunes help prevent beach erosion and need to be left alone to do their job.
Mostly, though, do have fun with family, friends and loved ones. The salty taste of the sea on our lips adds a tang of something sweet and special to long days whiled away without regrets. In fact, after a day at the beach, we should all feel refreshed and inspired to give something back by educating ourselves and working to protect, restore and explore our marvelous swimming pool of a planet. There are over 1,400 seaweed (marine grassroots) groups working to do just that in the United States and you can find the ones closest to you or most aligned with your interests on the Blue Frontier Campaign’s Blue Movement directory at www.bluefront.org.
David Helvarg is an author and Executive Director of the Blue Frontier Campaign, a marine conservation group. His next book ˜The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea” will be published in February 2013.