Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 19


Get advice from


Beaches are places to be treasured,
Pigeon Island, Jamaica, 2001.

Getting started

While the activities described in this manual are quite simple and straightforward, it often helps to get other teachers and environmental professionals involved in your programme. They can usually provide additional information and may be able to provide some assistance with interpreting your results. For example there may be a community college or university in your country who, as part of their outreach activities, may be willing to help. Similarly environmental and planning departments often have education programmes and may also provide additional support. Sandwatch teams in other countries are another source of assistance.


Select the beach
to monitor



The key factors to consider here are:

Safety: the beach should provide a safe environment for the students, e.g. if there are very strong currents and/or very high waves, there is always the risk a student will go bathing with disastrous consequences. Safety must always be the prime concern.

Accessibility: choose a beach that is easy to get to, preferably near the school and within walking distance. In some countries private beaches exist, so make sure the beach is a public beach.

Importance of the beach to the community: try and choose a beach which is used by the residents of the area and therefore important to the local community. This will provide for local interest in the students’ monitoring activities and will also be an important factor during the design and implementation of beach enhancement projects.

Issues of interest: particular issues such as heavy use at weekends, favourite destination for local residents, history of erosion during storms, may be another reason to select one beach location.

Size of the beach: this is another important issue. In some areas, beaches are small (less than 1 mile [1.6 km] in length) and enclosed by rocky headlands. These ‘bayhead’ beaches, as they are called, represent an ideal size for a monitoring project. However, in many countries there are also long beaches which extend for several miles (or several km). If one of these very long beaches has been selected as the beach to be monitored, it is recommended to determine a particular section (about 1 mile or 1.6 km) for the monitoring.

Small beaches enclosed by
headlands, also known as bayhead beaches, and seen here at Anse Ger in St Lucia, are ideal for Sandwatch monitoring.


Some beaches like at Byera on the east coast of St Vincent and the Grenadines are very long, and in these cases a particular stretch should be selected for Sandwatch monitoring.

Define the
boundaries of
your beach



What is a beach?

A beach is a zone of loose material extending from the low water mark to a position landward where either the topography abruptly changes or permanent vegetation first appears.

Applying this definition to the diagram below, which is called a cross-section, the beach extends from the low water mark to the vegetation edge.

Figure 1 Cross-section of a typical beach.  

Beaches are often made up of sand particles, and in many islands the term ‘beach’ may be used only for sandy beaches. However, a beach may be made up of clay, silt, gravel, cobbles or boulders, or any combination of these. For instance the mud/clay deposits along the coastline of Guyana are also beaches.

Sandwatch focuses on the beach, and also the land behind the beach; this may consist of a sand dune, as shown in the cross-section, or a cliff face, a rocky area, low land with trees and other vegetation, or a built-up area.

A beach is more than just a zone of loose material found where the water meets the land; it is also a coastal ecosystem. An ecosystem is the basic unit of study of ecology and represents a community of plants, animals, and micro-organisms, linked by energy and nutrient flows, that interact with each other and with the physical environment. Ecology is the study of the relationship of living and non-living things.

Sometimes, geologists, ecologists and others look at the beach from a broader perspective, taking into account the offshore zone out to a water depth of about 40 ft (12 m). This is where seagrass beds and coral reefs are found, and these ecosystems supply sand to the beach. Much of the sand in this offshore area moves back and forth between the beach and the sea. This broader view may also include the land and slopes behind the beach, up into the watershed, since streams and rivers bring sediment and pollutants to the beach and sea. Thus, often there is a need to look at the wider perspective of the ‘beach system’.


Who to involve in Sandwatch



Sandwatch focuses on measuring changes, identifying problems and addressing issues in the beach environment. So everyone – students, teachers, community members – needs to get involved. In most countries, teachers have taken the lead, getting their students involved in observing and measuring various components of the beach over time, and analysing the information collected, in particular:

  • making observations of the beach;
  • carrying out simple measurements of different components of the beach;
  • repeating those measurements accurately over time;
  • recording the information collected;
  • compiling the data;
  • analysing the information;
  • making conclusions;
  • preparing reports, graphs, stories, poems, artwork and drama pieces depicting the results.
  Students and teachers work on
their data in the classroom after
a morning’s observations on the
beach, St Lucia, May 2001.

As the students interpret their results and identify the problems that need addressing, they share their findings with their local communities. Then together they implement projects to enhance the beach environment within a framework of sustainable development.

This publication describes various activities dealing with different components of the beach. Schools can select particular monitoring activities depending on the age level, interests and school subjects. Most of the activities described in this manual can be performed by students between the ages of 8 and 18 years, although obviously with a different level of analysis. All the activities described involve work on the beach followed by work in the classroom; in most cases the work in the classroom will take considerably more time than the work on the beach (two to four times as much).


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