Not Just A Day at the Beach

'Beaches were once places where respectable people would never think of going.' A UConn historian traces how beaches evolved into popular summer playgrounds.

Paraphernalia for a day at the beach. (iStock Image)

Paraphernalia for a day at the beach. (iStock Image)

Now that school’s out, many Americans may be planning a dip in the ocean or an entire vacation at the beach this summer.

Yet the evolution of beaches into popular summer playgrounds is a recent phenomenon. And our beach encounters continue to evolve. Climate change is melting Arctic ice and raising sea levels; sharks returning to the Northeast coasts led to growing attacks on swimmers last summer; and overfishing is now widely recognized as a driver of significant change in the ocean.

Helen Rozwadowski, associate professor of history and maritime studies at the Avery Point campus, discusses with UConn Today how a day at the beach is part of a much larger ocean story.

Rozwadowski is author of the book Fathoming the Ocean (Harvard University Press), which examines the history of both scientific explorations of the ocean’s depths and cultural redefinitions of the sea that have given rise to cultural phenomena including maritime novels, the sport of yachting, children’s sailor suits, and the beach as a summer playground.

Q. Early seaside resorts were essentially luxuries for the wealthy. These days, beaches such as Connecticut’s Hammonasset Beach State Park on Long Island Sound attract thousands each year. What factors led to beaches becoming popular vacation spots today?

A. Beaches were once places where respectable people would never think of going. They were the haunt of poor people, outcasts, and criminals. But as upper-class people, who first sought the health benefits of inland spas with hot springs and mineral waters, discovered the salubrity of sea breezes and ocean waters, the rise of the middle class ensured that anyone wealthy enough sought to escape the heat and disease of crowded and growing cities. By the mid-19th century, railroads provided an affordable way for the urban poor to enjoy a day at the beach. Today’s trend of populations clustering near coasts all over the world has put more people within 50 to 100 miles of the shore than ever before in history, and many of them head toward the water when temperatures rise each summer.

Q. The evolution of beachwear – from the all-covering bathing costume to the bikini and bathing suits of today – reflects changes in social mores over the past century. Were there other customs that changed as the public began going to the beach?

A. Just as what people wear at the beach reflects changing social values, so too does what they do while they are there. Sea bathing was initially a highly regulated medical therapy, controlled by professional ‘bathers’ who dunked patients into the ocean based on the instructions of a physician. Swimming did not become popular until around the turn of the 20th century, as it became more acceptable to relish the pleasures of the beach. Similarly, a common activity for early beach-goers was collecting shells and seaweeds, as marine zoology was an exciting new scientific field. Many people would read natural history books to learn the scientific names and classifications of their finds, and keep a salt water aquarium to observe living marine creatures. Today’s beachcombers might collect shells and stones as mementos, but they tend to reach for an entertaining novel or magazine rather than popular science books for their beach reading.

Q. In your book Fathoming the Ocean, you document popular crazes, such as children’s sailor suits, prompted by the public’s growing fascination with the ocean. Are there any examples emerging today?

A. Well, historians tend to look backward more often than forward … but I’ve noticed that bathing costumes appear to be growing in terms of how much of the body they cover, perhaps reflecting a greater awareness of the danger of sun exposure. Going back to the post-World War II period, boaters put aside wooden sailboats, as fiberglass made boat maintenance much less onerous. Surfing gained popularity in the 1950s and 60s, as did scuba diving and snorkeling. The well-appointed beach visit today can include kayaks, paddleboards, boogie boards to expand access to the ocean, and enough gear to require a wheeled cart: umbrella, chairs, sunscreen, a cooler, sand toys, Frisbees or balls, towels, and so on. But there are always some who prefer the minimalist approach, heading to the shore with maybe just a hat, small towel, and water bottle.

Q. Attacks last summer by sharks on people swimming off beaches from Cape Cod to the Carolinas were frightening and traumatic, and we’ve already seen attacks on the California coast this year. It seems as if every summer sharks turn up in ever greater numbers. Is this the case, and if so, why?

A. While shark attacks have increased in frequency, I’m not sure that scientists today would make confident statements about increasing numbers of sharks or their greater proximity to shore. In any case, it hardly makes sense to talk about ‘sharks’ as a single category, when there are more than 400 species with different habits, prey, and environmental preferences. Sharks represent a major gap in scientific knowledge, one that we are scrambling to fill. White sharks off Cape Cod, for instance, do appear to be more numerous, likely because growing seal and sea lion communities provide a dependable source of food. In other instances of more and bigger sharks close to shore, warmer waters and more prey may be attracting and supporting larger populations of sharks.

Q. As sharks reclaim water off beaches that we’ve become accustomed to using, is it the death knell of seashore vacations, or can we learn how to co-exist safely with sharks?

A. People can drown in just a few inches of water, yet we still swim in the sea. Even some of last summer’s shark attack survivors have said they understand that the shark was engaged in natural behavior. The cultural perception of the ocean as a timeless place that offers a retreat from the stresses of everyday life makes most of us approach the sea without thinking much about sharks. In reality, the ocean is an environment that human bodies can visit but not inhabit. A better approach would be to share the waters we use recreationally, recognizing that the presence of these animals might change the ways we enjoy the ocean. Consider that in the past, oil-bearing elephant seals on beaches anywhere in the world invited exploitation, while today such a sight at Año Nuevo State Park in California draws tourists who watch with fascination from a distance, leaving the beaches to the seals during the months the seals use them.

Q. Does global warming pose an existential threat to a relaxing trip to the shoreline?

A. This depends on the suite of cultural responses that unfold in the future. New Englanders already find the water at southern beaches such as Tybee Island, Ga., too warm for comfort. Cool breezes and a refreshing dip in the sea will always appeal, but if shoreline developments are damaged by sea level rise, or destroyed abruptly by violent storms such as Superstorm Sandy, will we build new resorts, towns, and other coastal infrastructure? If natural changes result in the loss of sandy beaches in favor of muddy or grassy areas, will we be content to let that happen? This discussion is mainly about holidays, but anticipated sea level rise is already prompting some small island nations to plan for a retreat to land. Future changes to the shoreline will, no doubt, require adapting our recreational habits as well as our modes of living with and by the ocean.

Q. The world’s oceans provide humankind with critical sources of food. Yet overfishing has decimated the stocks in fisheries around the world. In the future, will people need to accept that the ocean is a world that is not our own?

A. We are in the midst of a cultural redefinition of our human relationship with the ocean. In the late 19th century, a movement to conserve natural resources and preserve wilderness areas began in the United States. But no one proposed a ‘sea ethic’ until marine ecologist Carl Safina did early in the 21st century. Just as environmental thinking convinced western culture that land’s history is important, to implement a sea ethic requires that we embrace the reality that the ocean, like land, is susceptible to human actions and has changed over time. Climate change, and its likely disproportionate effects on the ocean, underscores the urgency of accepting a new view of the sea.