Top U.S. Beaches Chosen For Health, Safety

A beach’s quality is more than sand deep. Postcard-perfect looks aren’t enough to snag a spot on America’s annual list of top 10 beaches.

When Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman, PhD, compiled this year’s list, he certainly considered aesthetics. But he also had safety in mind.

A healthy beach must be safe and have good water quality, says the National Healthy Beaches Campaign (NHBC), which Leatherman founded. Take a look at the NHBC’s standards. They show that a great beach vacation requires more than sunscreen.

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Safety, Water Quality Standards

—Is there a public warning system in place to promptly alert the public if the beach becomes unsafe (such as bad weather), unsanitary, or unhealthy in any way?
—Are recordings kept of emergencies that happen on the beach?
—Are rip currents ever present, and so, are they occasional or frequent?
—Have drownings, other deaths, neck injuries, or shark attacks occurred? If so, provide information.
—How often do shore breaks occur (large waves breaking directly on the beach?)
—Are lifeguards present?
—If there aren’t lifeguards, are adequate warnings and safety equipment on the beach?
—Have there been outbreaks of mosquitoes or other pests that require major spraying?
—Does the beach’s underwater slope drop gently, moderately, or steeply? Does it have deep holes or drop-offs?
—During bathing season, are longshore currents weak, moderate, or strong?
—Is public safety (such as crime and pickpocketing) often, occasionally, or never a problem?

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Healthy beaches are also evaluated for water quality, including the number of times per year the beach was closed as well as the presence of algae, sewage, litter, oil, and feces.

“Beaches are the No. 1 recreational destination for Americans,” says Leatherman’s web site. Leatherman, who has a doctoral degree in coastal science, directs the Laboratory for Coastal Research and the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University.

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Leatherman’s Beach List for 2005

Here are Leatherman’s picks for 2005:

1. Fort De Soto Park — North Beach in St. Petersburg, Fla.
2. Ocracoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks
3. Hanalei Bay in Kauai, Hawaii
4. Caladesi Island State Park in Clearwater, Fla.
5. Fleming Beach in Maui, Hawaii
6. Coast Guard Beach in Cape Cod, Mass.
7. Coronado Beach in San Diego
8. Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne, Fla.
9. Main Beach in East Hampton, N.Y.
10. Hamoa Beach in Maui, Hawaii

Leatherman has been issuing a “top 10” list every year since 1991. His 50-point checklist includes many “healthy beach” standards, especially those related to swimming. Only swimming beaches go on the top 10 list, says Ava Reich, NHBC communications manager.

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Past Winners

Leatherman also maintains a list of all the No. 1 beaches he’s ever chosen. Once a beach hits No. 1, it’s retired, Reich tells WebMD. “Once a beauty queen, always a beauty queen,” she says.

Here are Leatherman’s previous No. 1 beaches:

2004: Hanauma Bay in Oahu, Hawaii
2003: Kaanapali, Hawaii
2002: St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Fla.
2001: Poipu Beach Park, Hawaii
2000: Mauna Kea Beach, Hawaii
1999: Wailea Beach, Hawaii
1998: Kailua Beach Park, Hawaii
1997: Hulopoe, Hawaii
1996: Lanikai Beach, Hawaii
1995: St. Andrews State Recreational Area, Fla.
1994: Grayton Beach State Recreational Area, Fla.
1993: Hapuna Beach, Hawaii
1992: Bahia Honda State Recreational Area, Fla.
1991: Kapalua Bay Beach, Hawaii

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES:, National Healthy Beaches Campaign, “Ratings Criteria.” Ava Reich, communications manager, National Healthy Beaches Campaign. News release, Laboratory for Coastal Research & National Healthy Beaches Campaign.