Logo graphic for the Coastal Resources Division
The Beach

What is a Beach?

St Simons Island BeachThe beach forms at the edge of an island between the ocean and the sand dunes. The sand is deposited by waves and currents and is then blown around by the wind to create dunes. The beaches of Georgia's undeveloped islands are made mostly of fine-grain sand. The beaches are fairly wide and slope gently toward the ocean. This harsh environment is a moderate energy area because the waves from distant storms release their energy as they roll up onto the beach. Winds keep sand in constant motion. In the summer the prevailing winds along the east coast blow from the southwest and in the winter from the northwest. The profile of the beach changes from a broad flat beach in the summer to a narrower and steeper beach in the winter.

All beaches have different parts or zones, although all the zones may or may not be present at any one time. The backshore is the area from the dunes to the berm and is an area rarely touched by wave action. The berm marks the highest limit of storm waves. On beaches whWaves on the beachere high tide goes all the way to the dunes, the backshore and berm will not be noticeable. The foreshore is the area between high and low tide often called the intertidal zone. Usually beyond the low tide line there is a longshore trough (through which longshore currents travel) and beyond that a longshore sandbar or series of sand bars. The area where waves break is called the inshore or surf zone and is usually over the longshore sand bars. Waves roll up onto the beach in a thin sheet of water. This area is called the swash zone.

The organisms characteristic of a beach must be adapted to these and other harsh conditions. They must be able to withstand the crashing waves and periods of inundation by sea water at high tide. They must be able to survive the hot, beating sun and wind during low tide, and the freezing cold of winter. Many organisms like the ghost shrimp, polychaete worms, coquina clams, mole crabs, isopods, amphipods and sand dollars burrow into the sand. They are either filter feeders and use their antennae to extract food from the water or scavenge the algae and detritus from between the sand grains. Gastropods like the oyster drill and moon snail and whelks actively prey on other animals. At low tide, a large variety of shorebirds, raccoons, insects and ghost crabs visit the beach to feed.

Algae is the only characteristic plant of the beach. Algae lives between the grains of sand and occasionally adds a green, gold, pink or purple tint to the sand. Other plants like Ulva (sea lettuce) and sargassum (a brown algae or seaweed) are often washed up onto the beach.

The wrack line or strand line is a lineCloseup of wrack of debris that often runs parallel to the water's edge and marks the high tide line. This wrack line is made up of a mixture of manmade materials that have washed up onto the beach and decaying marsh grasses. This wrack, though unsightly, is important. It provides an ideal environment for micro-organisms, amphipods and insects. The marsh grasses decay over a period of a year and become detritus which is a major marine food source. The grass and other materials in the wrack play an important role in the building of new dunes by capturing sand and seeds allowing new dunes to form. (Text by Margaret Olsen, Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve)


The Shore Protection Act

The Shore Protection Act (SPA) regulates activities and structures in jurisdictional beach and shore areas.  Projects that require an SPA permit include beach renourishment, rock revetments, landscaping, dune crossovers, any structure in the jurisdictional area and any modification to any such structure. If you are planning any construction or activity in or near the shore, beach, or dunes in the State of Georgia, you must contact our office for a jurisdictional determination and to find out if you need a SPA permit for your project. Click here for more information.

Beach Driving

Beach driving is generally not allowed on Georgia beaches. In some very specific circumstances, a Beach Driving Authorization may be granted by the Coastal Resources Division through the authority of the SPA Committee. A Beach Driving Authorization is required when a motor vehicle is used on, over, or across the dynamic dune field or beaches. Those individuals seeking an authorization must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Shore Protection Committee that they meet specific criteria which justify driving on the beach. Click here for more information.

Beach water monitoring for swimmer health

The Beach Water Monitoring program is a cooperative effort of the Coastal Resources Division and the Coastal Health District. The water at Georgia's coastal swimming beaches is tested regularly for the presence of potentially harmful bacteria. Click here for more information

Taking your dog to the beach - seaside etiquette for you and your canine companion.

A trip to the beach can be a very rewarding way to spend quality time with your dog. It is important to remember, however, that the beach is shared with other people, pets, and wildlife. Click here to find answers to the most commonly asked questions about bringing dogs to Georgia beaches.