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san diego beach at low tideLow Tidings

Our beaches suck. So says Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. “Dr. Beach,” who each year ranks the nation’s beaches based on criteria such as water temperature (he likes it warm), crowds (he likes them small) and sand quality (the whiter and finer, the better).

In Leatherman’s latest ranking, only one San Diego beach even makes it into the top 50: Coronado Beach, by the Hotel del Coronado, clocks in at No. 32. “I like the fact that it’s a very wide beach, and it’s a clean beach, as far as I can see, with no litter washing up,” Leatherman says. “And as far as the water goes, it’s about as warm as it gets in San Diego.”

It’s a telling last line. Beaches along the San Diego coastline—and all of Southern California, for that matter—get knocked down chiefly for their water temperature, which is a lot cooler than at higher-rated beaches in Florida (15 beaches in the top 50) and Hawaii (12 beaches).

“Your water is pretty nippy by East Coast standards,” Leatherman says. “Also, your beaches tend to have big waves, your sand is not lily-white, and the bottom is often very dark. At the beaches in Florida and Hawaii, the bottoms are much lighter-looking, and that’s more inviting to swimmers. The water at your beaches makes you worry a little more, because you can’t see the bottom. But at least you don’t have those shark attacks like they do farther north around Monterey, those great whites stalking you.”

Gee, consider us lucky.

San Diego beaches do have things working in their favor, Leatherman concedes. “You’ve got the Mediterranean climate, of which the rest of us are envious,” he says. “You don’t have mosquitoes or hurricanes, and you have the scenery—the cliffs that frame the beaches are really spectacular.”

Even so, Leatherman says, for his money, “It’s hard to beat the warm, clear water and white coral-sand beaches of Hawaii and Florida”—like top-ranked St. Joseph Peninsula State Park on the Gulf of Mexico, in the Florida Panhandle. “It’s got sugar-white sand, the finest, whitest sand in the world,” he enthuses. “It’s got emerald-green water with visibility to 90 feet, it’s got towering sand dunes, and the beach itself is a big, curving sand spit that goes on for 20 miles, with every kind of accommodation you’d want—even wood cabins in the park—and all sorts of nature, like wolves, deer, foxes and eagles soaring through the air.”

Leatherman boasts impressive credentials: He’s chair professor and director of the International Hurricane Center & Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. Thrust into the role of “beachologist” in 1989 by a travel writer who asked him for a list of the nation’s top 10 beaches, Leatherman was encouraged by the response to develop 50 criteria and embark on a two-year survey of 650 beaches throughout the United States.

Every Memorial Day weekend since 1991, Leatherman has released America’s Best Beaches, a detailed ranking and description of 50 celebrated shorelines (each winner is “retired,” so there’s a new No. 1 every year). San Diego beaches have never fared well, with the exception of Children’s Pool in La Jolla, which in the early 1990s briefly cracked the top 20.

“This was a great little beach for kids because it was not exposed to the big waves, and it was also quite pretty,” Leatherman says. “But then the sea lions moved in and the beach was closed. They crap in the water, and what can I say—that’s a problem.”

America’s Best Beaches is now available in book form through Leatherman’s Web site, www.drbeach.org.
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