Your guide to an eco-friendly beach day

Everything you need to know so your family can have some sustainable fun in the sun.

Visiting the beach for a family vacation is a no-brainer: Research published in Scientific Reports found that visits to lakes, rivers, and the ocean are associated with positive well-being, and beaches always appear on best-of lists for family travel. But the shore isn’t just a hot spot to lay down a towel—it’s a unique ecosystem with endemic plants and animals.

“A lot more life lives on a beach’s surface and just below the sand than people are aware of,” coastal ecologist Kyle Emery says. Observing crabs, clams, beetles, and fish can help kids connect with their wild side—and inspire them to protect the habitat. Here’s how your family can have an eco-friendly beach day.

Before the beach 

Screen your sunscreen. Some chemicals in sunscreens can hurt marine animals, so bring sunblock that’s labeled “reef safe” and doesn’t include ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate. (You might also consider packing UV-blocking clothing on your family trip to use a lot less of the stuff.) “Sunscreen can actually prevent the corals from getting food from the sun through photosynthesis,” says George Leonard, chief scientist for the Ocean Conservancy. These ingredients can also cause inflammation in loggerhead sea turtles and build up in dolphins’ livers.

Say “so long” to single use. Plastic beverage bottles and food wrappers are among the most picked-up items at beach cleanups, so remember to bring reusable water bottles, and consider snacks without wrappers like trail mix packed in reusable containers or fruit. Don’t pack plastic straws—which can easily blow away—and put all your goodies in a reusable bag rather than one made of plastic. “Some people leave these items behind when they visit,” Leonard says. “But obviously, the beach is not a trash can.”

On the sand

Tread carefully. Sand dunes are important natural protectors that keep coastlines from eroding and protect communities from storms. So make sure your family always follows sign instructions about where to walk. If a boardwalk is provided, use that; if there isn’t a boardwalk or instructions, avoid walking on dune slopes or any plants growing in the sand so you don’t destabilize this fragile habitat and force the sand to blow away.

Admire beach “gunk.” The beach food chain starts with those clumps of algae and seagrass washed up on the sand, so don’t ask your hotel or the local community to clean it up. Instead, Emery suggests to use it as a learning opportunity. “Flip it over and look at all the organisms,” he says. Called wrack, this debris is a tasty snack for invertebrates like sand hoppers, which feed larger animals like shorebirds and eventually foxes. Plus, sea turtle hatchlings sometimes take cover in it. “Some people’s perception of a pristine beach is a flat beach with pure white sand and nothing else on it,” Emery says. “But that's actually the opposite of pristine.”

Give animals space. Kids get excited about seeing animals at the beach, but don’t make those animals waste energy getting away from your kids. Keep the family far enough away from birds, sea turtles, and sea lions so the animal doesn’t change its behavior. (That goes for your dog, too!) And though kids might be tempted to feed leftovers to the critters, that could teach animals to associate humans with food, which can be dangerous for both human and animal. Instead, have kids observe from afar with a pair of binoculars or a camera. (These tips will show kids how to take pictures like a wildlife photographer.)

If you see other people feeding, chasing, or touching an animal like a sea lion or sea turtle, call local authorities for help. Report a stranded, injured, or dead marine mammal or sea turtle to NOAA. (Here are more tips to safely explore the outdoors with kids.)

Leave shells behind. Rather than bringing seashells home to sit on a dusty shelf, snap a pic and talk to your kids about how important these items are to beach ecosystems. These pieces of calcium carbonate are houses for hermit crabs, protection for octopuses and fish, and attachment spots for algae and seagrass (which are crucial critter food). Even shell fragments can help reduce shoreline erosion. (Plus, collecting shells with live animals inside or still-living sand dollars and sea stars is illegal in some places.)

Use an app. Can’t get kids off the phone? Put it to good use by using a beach-saving app. Under your supervision, snap a quick pic with CoastSnap to help scientists gather data about how coasts are changing over time so they can figure out how to better protect them. Or record the items of trash your family removes with an app like Clean Swell, which contributes to an international database about marine trash.

Talk about climate change. While sitting on the beach, take note of the tides and talk about it as a family: Does the water reach the dunes at high tide? Or even rise near beachfront homes? You could be witnessing sea level rise and coastal erosion due to climate change. “Some people don’t have that realization about climate change until they see it directly,” Emery says. “By seeing these impacts for themselves, maybe it will lead people to take part in a larger movement.”

Heading home

Smooth the sand. At the end of the day, have your kids fill in holes they dug and knock down the sandcastles they made. It protects other beachgoers from a twisted ankle—and helps save sea turtles. (This map shows nesting beaches for sea turtles around the world.) The hatchlings can get stuck in human-made sand structures, preventing them from making it to the ocean.

Pack stuff up. Remember to pack up or toss all the toys, wrappers, and other items that came with you to the beach at the end of the day. Even better? Look around and grab any trash that other visitors left behind. “It’s just like the rule of camping—you should leave the beach in a better condition than you found it,” Emery says. 

Don’t buy sea life. On your way home, resist the urge to purchase souvenirs made of animals or their parts, including teeth, shells, corals, and dried-out seahorses. Often these animals were harmed to make these kitschy gifts. And though tortoiseshell products, which are made from the shell of the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, are illegal, the Sea Turtle Conservancy reports that they’re still one of the most frequently seized items from tourists coming back from the Caribbean. Use this guide to tell the difference between imitation—which is OK to buy—and real tortoiseshell.

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