Professor Andrew Short has visited every one of Australia's 11,671 beaches. It's a hard job, but someone's got to do it
Professor of Beaches sounds like something from a Monty Python sketch. But you are widely regarded as the world's foremost expert on beaches. What made you decide to study beaches?
As a child I loved the beach, as a young teenager I took up surfing which I continue today. At Sydney University in the 1960s I realised you can actually study beaches and so I headed in this direction with my honours thesis a beach study. It was then onto Hawaii for a masters studying Hawaiian beaches and finally to the USA mainland where I completed a PhD investigating the beaches along the north coast of Alaska. I studied beaches so I could work in an environment I loved and also to contribute to our understanding of these systems and their management.
What is coastal geomorphology and why is it important?
Coastal geomorphology is the study of the process that shape our coast (waves, tides, currents, wind, sediment and biota) and the resulting landforms they produce that range from beaches and dunes, to deltas, estuaries and rocky shore.The coast and particularly beaches are the most dynamic part of the earth's surface, but one we love to live near and play and relax on. With pressure from nature and society we need to understand how these systems operate if we are to effectively manage them.
Coastal geomorphology is the key to understanding how these coastal systems came into being, how they operate and change, and what impact society and climate changes will have on them.
You have documented every beach in Australia. How long did that take? And what did that involve?
The Australian beaches study took from 1990-2001 to inspect every beach and another three years to 2004 to finish off the database. In the process I wrote and published seven books, one for each state and territory, detailing every beach in the state.
It involved compiling maps and aerial photographs (pre Google Earth) of the entire coast, then setting out by air, land and sea to visit every beach. I drove where the beaches were accessible by vehicle, many on sandy 4WD tracks (about 50%), and used a small boat to reach those that were not. The latter involved weeks-long trips along the remote northern Australian coast where I would refuel at remote aboriginal communities and dodge crocodiles on the shore. I also flew the entire coast in small planes photographing every beach.
The end result was a scientifically-based database on each and every beach recording its location, names, physical characteristics, beach type and coastal processes (waves, tides, sediment etc), as well as facilities and type and level of access. This database is now being used by a number of state and federal agencies.
Have you noticed any impact on beaches from the planet's changing climate?
No, not yet. Beaches are very dynamic and noisy systems. To filter out the impact of slow changes like sea level rise you need to monitor the beach closely over a period of decades. I have in fact monitored one Sydney beach since 1976 and have not detected any climate change impacts to date.
Your new book lists Australia's 101 best beaches. How did you and your co-author, Brad Framer, decide what beaches to list? And was it difficult?
Having a good working knowledge of all the beaches made it a lot easier than starting from scratch. Basically Brad and I were looking for the best beaches to represent the various coastal regions around Australia. So they had to be a good representative example. In addition, they had to be physically attractive and/or have some special feature or history. They had to be reasonably accessible to the public, well managed, meaning good facilities, and a well-kept, clean beach and ocean.
We started with a long list then set out to inspect them all. In the process some drop off, while others not on the list were added. The inspections were also to ensure we had up-to-date and accurate information about each beaches, as well as taking photographs.
Why does Australia have the best beaches in the world?
We have lots (11,671 mainland beaches), over 50% have no vehicle access and are in a pristine state. In New South Wales alone, 45% are located in national parks and relatively untouched.
The climate and geology help too. Australia is surrounded by three oceans and several seas, so we have clean, clean waters, golden-to-white sand beaches, with plenty of surf around the southern half, and the water is warm, particularly in summer.
The warm water is important because it allows coral reefs to grow to the shore in parts of northern Australia and the waters to be abundant with dolphins, dugongs and sharks!
Also, because of the geology, the beaches average only 1.4 km in length, meaning that most are bordered by rocks, reefs and headland which makes them more visible and attractive. The beaches are well managed and generally free of the seawall and groynes that typify many European beaches. Plus the public generally take good care and take their litter home.
What makes a great beach?
This depends a lot on the person. For me, it's a remote, uninhabited, high energy (good surf), southern Australian beach with headlands and backed by sand dunes, where you can camp for days and not see another person. Most however prefer an attractive calmer beach with good accommodation and facilities nearby.
Which was the most surprising beach you came across in your studies?
There were a few. One beach on Cape York was covered in single thongs (flip flops), no two matching. They come off the fishing boats in the region.
Elsewhere in northern Australia, most beaches had fresh crocodile and turtle tracks, with the turtles nesting on the beaches, while the crocodiles tend to sunbake. One beach in the east Kimberley region (Silica Beach) is composed of pure white quartz sand in a region dominated by yellow carbonate sands derived from coral reefs and shells, while another, in Shark Bay (Shell beach), is composed entire of one species of mollusc.
As a New South Welshman, I need to know: which state has the best beaches?
Crescent Head is the only beach that appears on Brad and my top 10 beaches, so by default it wins, though don’t quote us as saying it's the 'best'!
Is there a hidden gem you came across that very few people know about?
Thousands. As I said, over 5,000 beaches in Australia have no vehicle access, so there are plenty of pristine beaches out there, waiting to be discovered.
You have documented every beach in Australia. What's next?
Apply this knowledge to improving our understanding and management of these beaches, as well as beaches and coastal systems globally.
On the book side, Brad and I are eyeing off some other countries for a possible 'best beaches of...' Stay tuned!
Do you have a favourite Australian beach? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
Professor Andrew Short is widely regarded as the world's leading authority on beaches. Along with co-author Brad Farmer, he visited every one of Australia’s 11,761 mainland beaches to compile 101 Best Beaches, the first ever authoritative list of Australia's best beaches. Visit the book's website for more details.