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The World's Beaches A Global Guide to the Science of the Shoreline

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Excerpt from Chapter 1: A World of Beaches

Beaches are a treasure; cherished by most, exploited by some, enjoyed by all. Beaches are places for recreation, contemplation, renewal and rejuvenation, communication with Nature, and sometimes, while staring out to sea, thinking about our place in the Universe. On beaches we swim, surf, fish, jog, stroll or just lose ourselves in the wonder of where the land meets the sea. Yet for all of our interaction with beaches, few of us understand the beach: why its there, how it works, why beaches show so much variety in form, composition, and why dramatic changes can occur in a matter of hours.

Beaches: Crossroads of History

Humans have been crossing beaches since the dawn of time, and beaches have been, and still are, critical to human history and development. Unfortunately much of that history has to do with invasions, but discovery was part of this human tide as well. Julius Caesar landed on Deal Beach near Dover when he invaded Britain in 55 B.C., fifteen hundred or so years before Columbus landed in the New World. In 1001 A.D., Leif Erickson was the first European to set foot on a beach in Vinland (Newfoundland). King Canute sat on his throne on a beach in 1020 and ordered the tides to come no closer; an early object lesson to demonstrate to his subjects that man, even the king, does not have authority over the sea. The Normans crossed the beach at Hastings, England in 1066 to defeat the English. The Mongols crossed the beach at today's Fukuoka, Japan in 1281 to be defeated by the divine wind, a typhoon that destroyed the invasion fleet. The Spanish Armada of 1588 met a similar fate in their attempt to invade England when a great storm blew the surviving ships onto the rocky coasts of the British Isles. Many of the survivors, and much debris, and treasure washed up on Ireland's beaches. Columbus planted the Spanish flag and a cross in 1492 on the beach at San Salvador in the New World, to the amazement of the natives. And in 1519 Hernán Cortes with 600 men crossed the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula on his way to conquering the Aztec Empire. Australians first met Aborigines on a beach in 1606. In 1619, a Dutch vessel landed 20 slaves on a beach in Chesapeake Bay; the beginning of African slavery in America. In 1620 the Pilgrims disembarked in the new world next to a large rock on the beach now known as Plymouth Rock. In 1659 Robinson Crusoe is said to have crawled across the beach on an uninhabited island off the Orinoco River, northern South America, where he remained for 28 years. The great explorer Captain Cook met natives on the beach in Hawaii (the Sandwich Islands) where they killed him in 1779. And Darwin met naked Patagonians on a cold beach in Tierra del Fuego in 1833.

In 1915 nearly 330,000 total casualties occurred on or very near the beaches of Gallipoli, Turkey, as the Turks beat back the invading Allied forces. Will Rogers died when his plane crashed on takeoff from a beach near Barrow, Alaska in 1935. And the beach at Dunkirk, France in 1940 was the scene of the spectacular rescue of the defeated British Expeditionary force in WWII. In 1944 the direction of the Armies reversed as the Allies invaded Europe across the beaches of Anzio, Italy, and then Normandy, France. And in the same time interval, beaches across the Pacific were killing fields as the Allies moved against the Japanese, culminating in the atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll; the namesake for the Bikini bathing suit introduced by a Frenchman in 1946. The largest oil spill in history soiled the beaches of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1991 when Iraq purposely released oil to frustrate beach landings by U. S. marines in the Persian Gulf War.

Beaches: Avenues of Commerce

Archaeological sites are less common on today's beaches than in the past, having been erased by erosion and flooded by the rise in sea-level, but we can guess that early humans used the beach much in the same way as today's third-world coastal communities and subsistence cultures. The beach was their land road, and just as for today's subsistence societies, from the Arctic to the tropics, living next to the beach is living next to your main source of food. Places near the beach were also dump sites for garbage. Termed "middens" by archaeologists, massive piles of shells are common in many coastal settings near beaches and tidal flats where food resources were common. Today on Bazaruto Island, Mozambique and in other coastal subsistence societies, local people still contribute to growing shell middens.

From the North Slope of Alaska to the tropical shores of the Pacific in Colombia, beaches continue to be work places and storage places for fishing boats, or the space for net and fish-drying racks. In the tropics, sea breezes provide relief from the heat and help reduce malarial mosquitoes. The beach itself is a resource for construction material, and for whatever bounty the sea delivers up to the beach. The people of such communities live by the sea by necessity; it is their means of life. For one thing, a beach provides security with a vista to see who is approaching. But living next to the beach, particularly on low-lying coasts, is also a great risk, as demonstrated by the Great Tsunami of 2004 that roared across thousands of miles of Indian Ocean beaches and killed 225,000 people; both those there by necessity and those there by choice.

In contrast to subsistence cultures, urbanized shores are mostly characteristic of first world countries. The combination of the shore as a place of commerce and the shore as a place of leisure is probably as old as mankind. The ruins of Roman and Greek villas by the sea attest to a very early resort mentality while ancient Peruvians built massive temples and dug grave sites near their beaches. But it was not until the 19th Century that beaches became a greater focal point for technological and recreational development. In 1801 the first American Advertisement for a beach resort (Cape May, New Jersey) appeared in the Philadelphia Aroura. In 1845, the Sanlucar de Barrameda beach horse race began in Spain, and beach horse races in Laytown, Ireland commenced in 1876. The first successful transatlantic telegraph cable (1866) crossed the beach at Hearts Content, Newfoundland in the west, and the beach at Valentia Island, Ireland to the east. In 1898, gold was mined on the beach at Nome Alaska. In 1903 the speed of a horseless carriage was timed on the beach at Daytona Beach, Florida. Beginning in 1905 Duke Kahanamoku rejuvenated the Polynesian sport of surfing that the Hawaiian missionaries had halted earlier for being ungodly. In 1927, the same year that Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St Louis on the beach at Old Orchard Beach, Maine (the airport was fogged in), beach volleyball was introduced to Europe in a French nudist camp. "Beach music" started in 1945. In 1953, Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster made love on a beach (Halona Beach, Hawaii) in "From Here to Eternity." The Beach Boys rock band formed in 1961. In 1963 Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello starred in the surfing classic "Beach Party" and in the 1968 movie "Planet of the Apes", Charlton Heston and Kim Hunter, riding horseback on a beach, discovered the ruins of the Statue of Liberty.