Each spring, Dr. Beach does what he’s done for the past 30 years. He pores over data and photographs to produce his much-anticipated America’s Top 10 Best Beaches list.
Stephen Leatherman didn’t set out to refashion tourism or become a hit with the media or even land himself on the Oprah Winfrey Show. His only goal was to promote and protect healthy, safe, good quality, family-friendly beaches. The FIU coastal scientist and professor in the Department of Earth and Environment and the Institute of Environment actually became Dr. Beach long before his annual rankings of beaches.
It all started in 1989. Leatherman was a professor at the University of Maryland, teaching a popular course on waves and beaches — even though the closest beach was hundreds of miles away. His students, who tended to come from non-scientific disciplines, called him “Dr. Beach.” Like sand, the name stuck to him.
When one of Leatherman’s students started working at a national travel magazine, he told the editor Leatherman was the beach guru and could identify the nation’s top beaches for an upcoming story.
Having served on a special team commissioned by President Jimmy Carter to study the nation's beaches, Leatherman knew America’s beaches better than anyone.
The editor called him. Leatherman rattled off a few suggestions of very good beaches. Then, he forgot all about it.
Later a magazine appeared in his office mailbox. The cover mentioned a top beaches list. Intrigued, Leatherman flipped through it. He found the list — and his name with the beaches he’d mentioned.
Calls started pouring in. Counties with beaches on the list wanted to understand how to move up the list next year.
“I thought, ‘well, gosh, everyone is so interested in this,’” Leatherman said. “People love lists and beaches, and I had all of these notes about beaches, so I knew I could continue to do this.”
So, he did.
But first, he wanted to find a better, more scientific way to compare the beaches. For two years, Leatherman consulted his thousands of photographs and maps — and developed 50 criteria scored on a five-point scale. Everything from clean water and sand to beach safety is taken into consideration.
A “perfect” beach would earn a 250. Leatherman’s never given a perfect score. The beach to take the top spot in 2018, Kapalua Bay Beach in Maui, Hawaii, came close at 241.
The lineup always changes. That’s partly because the national winners are retired, and partly because hurricanes, red tide or too much seaweed can disqualify an otherwise worthy contender.
“Every beach can have a bad day,” Leatherman says.
Leatherman tries to also help turn those bad days into good ones. He’s given guidance on how to make beaches better and even helped transform a few, including Mission Beach in San Diego, California.
He’s also witnessed how those bad days can cause long-term trouble. Sandspur Beach at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys is one example where major hurricanes — including Hurricane Irma in 2017 — have led to severe beach erosion.
Normally, Leatherman makes incognito missions with his clipboard and tools to check up on the beaches. This year was different. Unable to travel, Leatherman relied on his network of coastal managers across the country to provide up-to-date data.
He’s looking forward to getting back out there. A beach vacation is still his favorite vacation. And, as more people get vaccinated, Leatherman hopes the list becomes a source of inspiration for others to plan summer getaways.
Leatherman never expected the list would become the “biggest thing” he’d end up doing. An expert on coastal erosion and rising seas, he’s written 20 books and more than 200 articles for top journals including Science and Nature. He’s also provided expert testimony for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on 11 separate occasions.
“I like to make difference. I feel like with this list I can make a difference to help push important issues especially improving beach safety and health,” Leatherman said. “I still got a full tank of gas. I’m not ready to stop. I’m enjoying what I’m doing, so why not keep doing it?”