Excerpted from National Geographic Field Guide to the Water's Edge by Stephen Leatherman and Jack Williams. Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Leatherman and Jack Williams. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q&A with Dr. Stephen Leatherman (also known as “Dr. Beach”), the author of National Geographic Field Guide to the Water’s Edge: Beaches, Shorelines, and Riverbanks
What was the first beach that made you want to dedicate your life to them?
The first beach that I ever visited was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. At the age of 5, I knew that I loved beaches. It was not until I began my dissertation research at the University of Virginia that I realized that I could make a career of being a beach scientist. (Science can be a day at the beach.)
What beach has been on your Top 10 lists the most times?
Beaches in Hawaii and Florida dominate my list because it is for swimming beaches, and these states have so many wonderful warm-water beaches.
Oprah once said you have one of the best jobs out there. What is your favorite part about being Dr. Beach?
I get to go to the beach often and visit so many great and beautiful beaches. Work and play are nearly the same when it comes to beaches.
The Field Guide to the Water’s Edge focuses just on North American bodies of water. What can we learn from visiting international waters?
I have travelled widely worldwide, and certainly enjoy it. I have learned that the United States is blessed with some of the most beautiful (and clean) beaches and waterways in the world. The "floating river" in Bangkok is polluted beyond belief, and even some famous resort beaches in Asia have pollution problems that are not known by visitors. Here in the U.S., we take water quality seriously, and thank goodness for that.
From studying and visiting the world’s beaches, how do you think they have been most affected by litter and pollution over the last few decades?
Even pristine beaches are impacted by litter that washes in from the ocean. There is a huge gyre of litter in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, which is mostly floatable plastics. Cleaning up the oceans is a worldwide problem. Fortunately we have beach cleanups here in the US.
Have you gotten close to any dolphins, sharks, whales or other marine animals in your time on the beach? Where are the best places to spot these animals?
Yes, I was bumped in the leg while swimming offshore by a huge loggerhead sea turtle as recounted in my Yale University Press book. I have had dolphins try to steal the fish that I have caught (catch and release type fishing). They come right up next to the boat. I have seen a number of sharks, but declined an invitation to go cage diving with great white sharks when in South Australia a few years ago.
Have you encountered any extreme weather during a beach visit?
One of the primary areas of research in coastal storms so I have been at beaches on Cape Cod during hurricane-force winds and snow to make measurements of waves and beach changes. I have also experienced tropical storm and category 1 hurricane conditions when at beaches. Also I was within a hundred feet of a water spout in the Bahamas. It was so thrilling to see the water and fish pulled up tens of feet into the air that I almost forgot that it was dangerous.