Travel Tips


Locations in this article:  Chicago, IL Los Angeles, CA

OceanViewWith summer winding down, plenty of us will be eking out a few last day trips to the beach. But with our shorelines frequently battered unwittingly by tourists, The Virtuous Traveler sifts through what you need to know to be beach-wise.

Having spent more than 40 summers on the shores of Lake Huron, I’m a seasoned beach lover.

“There’s something alluring about the beach and the coast,” agrees David Helvarg, author of 50 Ways to Save the Ocean and founder of Blue Frontier, which works to protect the seas. But those halcyon days of endless summer have given way to concerns about water contamination, shore pollution and increasing threats to our marine animals.

Consider these statistics, recently released by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, which compiles an annual list of the best and worst beaches in the United States. Pollution severe enough to warrant the closing or posting of advisories at beaches was up close to 30 percent in 2006 over the summer before.

Every state with ocean beaches experienced beach pollution problems, with 92 beaches in 19 states qualifying for high-risk. (If you’re wondering if your favorite spot is one of them, visit

And water quality is only part of the problem, says Helvarg, who points to a number of other concerns, such as the pollution from beachgoers and the destruction of fragile ecosystems, such as dunes.

However, there is plenty the eco-friendly beach-lover can do to protect our coasts:

Jamaican beachPack it in, Pack it out

Follow “leave no trace” principles and take with you anything you bring to the beach. Each year, an estimated 14 billion pounds of trash are dumped into the world’s oceans. Indeed, plastics make up 90 percent of all floating marine debris.

So take home your plastic water bottles, plastic bags, bottle caps, used diapers, food wrappers and deflated kids’ toys. Speaking of kids’ toys, steer clear of buying them anything made of vinyl (which is the ubiquitous material in most blow-up kids’ water toys).

These plastics do more than just cause an eyesore – they frequently wind up in the bodies of marine creatures, choking, poisoning or blocking their digestive tracts. What’s more, one study by the Aglalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, California, revealed that there is some level of plastic in all the seafood we eat.

You can even go a step further and join the International Coastal Cleanup Day – this year’s is September 15, 2007 – or take it upon yourself to pick up any trash you find at the beach.

Dune the Right Thing

Sand dunes and grass might not look fragile, but they act as protective barriers to our oceans and lakes. Don’t allow kids or pets to trample them. And speaking of pets, keep yours on a leash, ensure you clean up their waste and don’t let them torment birds or wildlife.

Buy Low, Shell High

BeachShellFor two years, Ann Vanderhoof lived with her husband aboard Receta, a 42-foot sailboat that the couple used to island hop in the Caribbean. One of her favorite activities, she says, was to “beach walk and pick up shells.” As she collected, she says, she also gathered wisdom from the other boaters – “eco-wise beachwalkers,” she calls them – who provided a list of guidelines.

One the cardinal rules, she says, is “No collecting live shells.” A live shell isn’t just a mollusk with its original occupant inside, it’s a shell with any occupant inside.

Helvarg agrees. “Collect shell fragments,” he suggests, “or sea glass.” As for coral, don’t pick it up unless it’s clearly dead.

What’s more, don’t buy seashells or coral for sale. “Educate yourself about what’s endangered,” he advises. “Lots of places are still selling things openly…but that doesn’t make it okay.” Or legal.

And those perfectly groomed beaches at resorts? Helvarg notes that the detritus – seasweed, driftwood and the like — on the beach often provides habitat for bugs that feed the sea birds. So don’t be too picky about perfection.

Dive Wisely

If diving is part of your beach holiday, ensure that you’re doing it responsibly. Does your dive operator tie off to buoys rather than dropping anchor? Are they educating people not to touch corals? To keep gear secure so it doesn’t bump around underwater? Refuse to allow fish feeding?

The key is education, insists Steve Broadbelt, owner of Ocean Frontiers, a dive operation in the Cayman Islands. “Many divers just are not aware of the impact they can have on a fragile reef system. The common misconception is that divers compare reefs to terrestrial vegetation and think that if they trample over it, it will grow back quickly – this is not the case.”

More Ocean Etiquette

  • Keep your sunblock from rinsing off in the water by choosing a waterproof version. And, as with any personal care products, the less toxic chemicals, the better.
  • Choose seafood carefully. Seafood should come from sources (both fished and farmed) that can maintain production without harming the ecosystem. The Monterey Bay Aquarium can guide you through. Visit

By Leslie Garrett for

Leslie Garrett is author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and one our kids will thank us for!) with a foreword by Peter Greenberg.

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Previously by Leslie Garrett on

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