Australia has so many beaches, you could visit a different one every day for 30 years if you chose to – 10,685 around the mainland and Tasmanian coasts alone, according to the University of Sydney’s coastal studies unit.
In fact, when you include all 8,222 islands, the entire coastline stretches over 59,736km – this adds up to a great deal of beaches, rocky coves, cliffs, headlands, estuaries, rock pools, sand dunes and mangroves that provide a habitat for an abundance of wildlife.
Beaches play a significant role in Australia’s national identity, and as 85% of the population lives less than 50km from the coast, these natural resources – and the numerous potential wildlife experiences therein – are close at hand.
“Why is it important to partake in nature experiences along our beaches?” you may ask. Aside from satisfying curiosity about the natural world and whiling away pleasant summer afternoons, the reasons are severalfold.
More than 89% of Australians live in urban areas – one of the highest rates in the world. Engaging with nature in our increasingly urbanised world has been found by researchers to help diminish stress levels and improve physical wellbeing.
Furthermore, particularly in children, experiencing nature encourages a greater interest in conservation and in making environmentally friendly decisions in everyday life. This has never been more important, as our beaches face unprecedented perils.
Sydney alone has more than 100 beaches, offering for the city’s five million inhabitants a remarkable and often under-appreciated opportunity to engage with nature. It is unusual for a major global city to have relative wilderness just a short distance from its built-up centre.
Here and on beaches across Australia’s temperate south, the intertidal zone teems with life – this is the narrow zone submerged at high tide and exposed to the air at low tide.
Peering into rock pools and exploring the rock platforms here can reveal soldier crabs, ghost crabs, purple sea urchins, various sea stars, colourful anemones and even southern blue-ringed octopuses.
The seemingly endless diversity of molluscs include pipis, cockles, snails, limpets and oysters, while frequent finds among the surf debris include the gas-filled floats of bluebottles, cuttlebones and the spiral egg cases of Port Jackson sharks.
Birds are equally abundant, from cormorants, pelicans and little penguins to shorebirds and waders such as oystercatchers, plovers, sandpipers and lapwings.
Sadly, as Australia’s population grows, beachside environments face many challenges. While water quality has improved at many beaches as deep ocean outfalls now carry sewage effluent far offshore (at Sydney’s Bondi and Malabar beaches, for example), and protected species status for some coastal creatures, such as saltwater crocodiles, mean their populations have rebounded from historic lows, other problems have reached crisis point.
Development, habitat loss, agricultural runoff, disruption of seabird nesting sites and four-wheel driving on beaches – as well as shark nets, drumlines and culling programs – are just some of the problems that now beset our coast. Climate change is driving a series of threats, including marine heatwaves, an increasing severity of storms and rising sea levels.
There are also arguments that some of Australia’s most famous beaches, including those on Fraser Island and at Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, are being loved to death. In early January, gridlock at Hyams Beach (billed as having the world’s whitest sand) in the Shoalhaven, New South Wales, saw tourists turned away after thousands of cars overwhelmed the area’s 400-vehicle capacity.
Australian beaches are more pristine than in many parts of the world, but plastic pollution has still reached epidemic levels, according to conservation group Tangaroa Blue Foundation. Surveys it has coordinated over 14 years have recorded more than 10m pieces of debris at 2,460 sites around the coastline, adding up to about 878 tonnes of rubbish – three-quarters of which is plastic.
This plastic can range from drinking straws and plastic bottles to small fragments that clog the guts of seabirds, right up to discarded fishing nets. One study found that 9,000 of the ghost nets, found on beaches and in waters around Australia’s Top End, had likely resulted in the death of between 4,866 and 14,600 turtles.
The best way to reduce some of this pollution is to educate people and make them care enough not to discard plastics and other waste. Getting out and appreciating the nature along our coast and fostering in children a love of the wildlife they encounter is a significant step towards a brighter environmental future.
Some of Australia’s most awe-inspiring wildlife experiences can be found along our beaches. For me, these have included standing in the surf at Western Australia’s Monkey Mia reserve as Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins cruised through the shallows; hearing the deep rumbling vocalisations of saltwater crocodiles in the Kimberley’s remote Uunguu Indigenous protected area; watching green turtles forage and surface for air at the Low Isles on the Great Barrier Reef; and seeing dingoes stroll the sand and the silhouettes of sharks patroll the waves at Fraser Island.
Elsewhere, you can feed stingrays or swim among them at WA’s Hamelin Bay, walk past nesting seabirds at Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island, watch little penguins return to roost at Phillip Island near Melbourne, take a guided walk through a colony of sea lions at South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, or chance upon kangaroos lazing on the sand at numerous locations, including Pebbly Beach at Jervis Bay.
So, next time you’re down at the beach, spend a bit of time looking out for the magnificent wildlife that surrounds you – and let it inspire you to take every step you can to diminish your impact on Australia’s incredible environment.
John Pickrell is a science writer based in Sydney. He is a former editor of Australian Geographic magazine and is the editor of The Best Australian Science Writing 2018. Follow him on Twitter @john_pickrell.