The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Be a better beachgoer: Eco-conscious and wildlife-friendly

(Benji Spence/Illustration for The Washington Post)
6 min

Summer isn’t summer without the beach. For millions of Americans, hitting the sand is a near-sacred ritual, a time to catch waves, soak up the sun, build sand castles, enjoy picnics, spot wildlife and go exploring. The pandemic disrupted many seasonal trips to the shore, but beach time is back on the calendar. Hooray! We all could use a little beach therapy.

Now is also the perfect time to reevaluate and revamp how you behave at the beach, because all that fun in the sun places stress on the coastal environment and the animals that inhabit it. Yes, you’re there to have a good time, but there are ways to be more mindful, minimizing your negative effects or even taking on a stewardship role during your oceanside visit.

Here are a dozen tips from three experts on how to be a better beachgoer, ensuring your favorite strip of sand remains vibrant, so future generations of sea lovers can get their beach therapy when they need it.

Plastic ain’t fantastic. One of the biggest contributors to beach litter is single-use plastic, such as chip bags, candy wrappers and juice boxes. “Buy food and drinks in bulk and put them in reusable packaging instead,” says Anne Marie Moquin, founder and executive director of Beaches Go Green, an environmental education nonprofit. Transfer snacks into Tupperware or silicone pouches, put meals in lunch bags or bento boxes, and bring beverages in water bottles or thermoses.

Thoughtful toys for tots. Yes, it’s fun for your little ones to play with their plastic pail, shovel and seashell mold in the sand, but there can be a potential environmental downside. “Plastic toys break easily, leaving behind shards and pieces,” says Zach Plopper, senior environmental director at the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to the protection of oceans and beaches. These end up polluting the environment and can be accidentally eaten by animals, causing them serious harm or even killing them. Pack metal or wooden toys instead.

Summer reading picks: 3 new mystery novels with vacation settings

No-fly zone for balloons. When hosting a party at the beach, don’t bring balloons. They often blow into the water, where turtles, birds and other animals sometimes mistake them as food and eat them, creating health problems or killing them. Additionally, the balloons and their strings can entangle aquatic creatures, so they can’t swim or move, leaving them defenseless and unable to feed themselves properly.

Destroy what you build. It doesn’t matter how much time and effort you and your children spent building an epic sand castle or digging the giant moat around it: If you are on a beach marked as a sea turtle habitat, fill in the trench and knock down the structure. “Sea turtles have massive, heavy bodies, and they’re out of their element when they come on shore,” says Moquin, noting that they can die if they fall into a hole and get trapped. Sand structures also can prevent them from reaching birthing areas.

Pack it in, pack it out. “Most things are left on the beach totally by accident,” says Richard Arterbury, founder of the Ocean Blue Project, a nonprofit that organizes cleanups of oceans, beaches and rivers. To prevent this from happening, either take a strong mental inventory or create a list when you arrive, then double-check everything before you leave.

Don’t compost. The beach isn’t a compost bin. “One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing people leave behind orange peels or an apple core,” Moquin says. “ … Even though those items are biodegradable, I don’t want to see your food waste on my beach for days, weeks and months.”

Use safer sunscreen. Many sunscreens advertise that they are “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly,” but those terms don’t have firm definitions, and their usage isn’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or any other governmental body. So it’s best to read the fine print carefully. Only purchase mineral-based sunscreens powered by zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Make sure the sunscreen is labeled “non-nano,” meaning there are no nano-size particles in it, which can be ingested by coral. Don’t buy any containing oxybenzone or octinoxate, two ingredients known to be harmful to reefs. “Avoid sprays, because they’re wasteful and get on the sand,” says Moquin, who recommends Stream2Sea products. “Creams and sticks are always better.”

9 beaches for living out your best ‘coastal grandmother’ summer

Read the signs. Signs posted at the beach aren’t optional reading; they are there to alert you to where you can’t go, what you can’t do, and what you can’t take, so you don’t mess with the local ecosystem or its inhabitants. Moquin urges beachgoers to generally stay off dunes. “They are storm barriers,” she says, “and home to many different animals.”

Respect the animals. The beach isn’t a petting zoo. “I want people to fall in love with the creatures of the ocean, to have amazing experiences with them and have a connection to them, because that’s when they want to protect them,” Moquin says. “But don’t touch them. For example, if you take a starfish out of the water, even for 10 seconds, it could suffocate and die.”

Choose eco-friendly watersports. Sure, Jet Skis, motorboats and wakeboards are thrilling amusements. Unfortunately, they all leave a carbon footprint, have a potential to pollute, and their noise can have negative effects on wildlife. Stick to swimming, snorkeling, surfing, paddleboarding, kayaking and sailing.

Take only pictures. It’s fine to pick up sea glass, fishing buoys and other nonorganic treasures on the shore, but limit the number of shells you take. “They are a part of the beach ecosystem, providing habitat and protection for lots of little critters,” Plopper says.

Pitch in. Bring a reusable bag to clean up while you’re walking the shoreline. If you forget to bring one, it’s (unfortunately) likely that you can find a discarded bag or box at the beach to use. It may seem like a little gesture, but it will help remove trash while serving as an inspiration to fellow beachgoers. “If we work together, we can really make a difference,” Arterbury says. “Don’t forget that.”

Martell is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md. Find him on Instagram: @nevinmartell.


Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.