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The beach

Cable Beach, Broome, north-west Kimberley Coast, Western Australia.

Cable Beach, Broome, north-west Kimberley Coast, Western Australia. Photograph courtesy of Bill Bachman and Wildlight Photo Agency. Bill Bachman.

Most of Australia's population lives close to the coastline and the beach has long occupied a special place in the Australian identity. The Australian coastline is where three of the world's great ocean's meet: the Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans. The beach is also a place where people from all over the world meet, mix and live.

The coastline of the Australian mainland stretches more than 30,000 km. With the addition of all the coastal islands this amounts to more than 47,000 km. The coastal landscape ranges from broad sandy beaches to rocky cliffs and mangrove swamps.

A beach can be defined as a stretch of sand longer than 20 metres and remaining dry at high tide. Based on this definition, the Coastal Studies Unit at the University of Sydney has counted 10,685 beaches in Australia.

Natural formations

Photograph of the Twelve Apostles limestone stacks, Victoria.

The Twelve Apostles limestone stacks, Great Ocean Road, Victoria. Image courtesy of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.

Over time, the waves breaking on the coast of Australia have created countless coves and caves as well as remarkable formations, such as the Twelve Apostles limestone stacks off the coast of Victoria.

Sand and silt deposits have produced long, sandy beaches such as Ninety Mile Beach in the Gippsland region of south eastern Victoria, and Western Australia's Eighty Mile Beach which is approximately halfway between Broome and Port Hedland.

History of the beach

The recorded history of people in their interaction with the beaches of Australia is peppered with disaster, tragedy, discovery and delight.

In the past 600 years, visitors as far away as China, Portugal, Spain and Holland visited Australian beaches. The evidence of their visits lies in the remains of ships wrecked along the coastline as well as artefacts, cave drawings and paper maps. It has always been risky sailing in Australian waters, and so many failed to reach their destinations. The Encyclopedia of Australian Shipwrecks records more than 16,000 wrecks.

For tens of thousands of years the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have fished the coastal waters. People on the north coast, from the Arafura Sea to the Torres Strait, used to trade with those from present day Indonesia and Papua New Guinea on the beaches of Australia. Until the present day, senior Goorewal women of New South Wales use their knowledge of the natural calendar, currents, winds and biology of the sea creatures to journey to the coast to collect shells for food. The making of necklaces from shells in family patterns has been passed down through the generations.

Beach fishing.

Beach fishing. Image courtesy of Take a Break Away.

A place of work

For many Australians the beach is a place of work. Early occupations for people in coastal communities included pearling, oyster farming, whaling, sealing and fishing. Today, occupations associated with the coastal environment range from fishing, marine biology and national parks and wildlife rangers to the wide variety of occupations associated with the tourism industry.

Fish are a multi-billion dollar industry for Australia... - worth more than $2.2 billion to our economy every year. Fish are also a healthy source of food with Australians consuming around 16kg of fish and seafood per person each year, purchased from fish markets, supermarkets and food outlets.


The Australian Fishing Zone (AFZ) is the third largest in the world, covering nearly nine million square kilometres. It extends to 200 nautical miles from the Australian coastline and also includes the waters surrounding our external territories, such as Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, and Heard and McDonald Islands in the Antarctic.

The leisure industry is a major employer of people along Australia's coastline. A safe and enjoyable visit or holiday to the beach relies on local government maintenance personnel, retailers, campground operators and hoteliers, tourism operators, and the thousands of people who staff retail food and drink outlets close to popular beaches.

As a place for leisure

Photograph of a sand sculptor, Manly Beach, Sydney.

Sand sculptor, Manly Beach, Sydney New South Wales. File photograph. Copyright Commonwealth of Australia.

There are no privately-owned beaches in Australia - beaches are public places for all to enjoy. Australians make use of the coast as a destination for relaxation and fun. Many people live close enough to a beach to visit regularly, and others use the beach for annual holidays. Popular destinations range from crowded city beaches and popular holiday spots, to quieter beaches located in coastal national parks.

Some people go to the beach simply for the sun and surf. Others go to sail, parasail, fish, snorkel, scuba dive and beach comb. Coastal sight-seeing is a very popular pursuit for Australians and international tourists as there are many scenic coastal drives with well appointed lookouts.

Beaches around the country attract large crowds for celebrations such as New Year's Eve and Australia Day. City beaches such as Manly in Sydney and Glenelg in Adelaide provide entertainment and fireworks on New Year's Eve, and on Australia Day many beaches host citizenship ceremonies and provide family entertainment. It has become traditional for international visitors who are in Sydney at Christmas time to go to Bondi Beach where up to 40,000 people visit on Christmas Day.

Many international visitors spend time at some of Australia's famous beaches such as Bondi and Manly in Sydney, St Kilda in Melbourne, Surfers Paradise on the Queensland Gold Coast, Cottesloe in Perth, and Glenelg in Adelaide.

Boys and the boards, Manly beach, New South Wales, 1938-46.

Ray Leighton, Boys and the boards, Manly beach, New South Wales, 1938-46, photograph: gelatin silver. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an14035743-1.

Surf lifesaving

Thousands of trained volunteer surf lifesavers keep Australia's popular swimming and surfing beaches safe every summer by providing beach patrols and first aid services.

Australian surf lifesavers have rescued more than 500,000 people in the 80 years since records have been kept, with the number of rescues each season in recent years fluctuating between 8,000 and 10,000.

Australia's surf lifesavers also engage in regular competition to maintain their skills and fitness. These competitions, or surf carnivals, are held at club, regional, state, national and international levels.

Coastal and marine protection

The Australian Government manages an estate of marine protected areas under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Marine protected areas in Australian waters may be managed by state, territory or federal government agencies, or a combination of government agencies.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Australia has rights and responsibilities for over 16 million square kilometres of ocean - more than twice the area of the Australian continent. Within this area live thousands of marine species, some of which are unique to Australia and all of which contribute to making Australia the most biodiversity-rich developed country.

Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef, off the east coast of Australia, is one of the wonders of the natural world - it is the world's largest coral reef ecosystem. It was declared a World Heritage area in 1981.

The Great Barrier Reef area abounds with wildlife, including dugong and green turtles, varieties of dolphins and whales, more than 1,500 species of fish, 4,000 types of mollusc and more than 200 species of bird life.

As reflected in the arts

Max Dupain, Sunbaker, 1937.

Max Dupain, Sunbaker, 1937, photograph. Image courtesy of Art Galleries Schubert.

By the late 19th century the beach had become a common subject in Australian painting. Tom Roberts's Slumbering sea, Mentone and Charles Conder's Sketch of Littlehampton Beach were among the earliest depictions of beach life in Australia.

Since then the beach has periodically returned as a subject for Australian artists in images such as Max Dupain's famous Sunbaker and Bondi as well as in the work of contemporary artists such as Anne Zahalka's The Bathers and Cole Classic . These works show variously the worship of the sun and the beach by some Australian as well as a place for family activity and recreation.

Some Australian writers have become closely associated with the beach. Tim Winton's novels often feature the Western Australian coast, e.g. Whaling story. Robert Drewe's The drowner , Bodysurfers and Book of the beach form an extended examination of the beach in the Australian psyche.

The dream of making a 'sea change' from city to seaside was explored in the popular ABC TV drama series SeaChange . Surfing culture is the backdrop to Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette's novel Puberty blues and the classic teen film of the same name.

The beach is also the scene for confrontation and meetings between different cultural groups. Whilst this is obviously true for Europeans and Aboriginal peoples, it is also true in modern times. In the late 1950s and early 1960s this confrontation might have been between the 'pasty faced, motorbike riding' Bodgies and Widgies, associated with The Sydney Push and the suntanned surfers.

The surfing craze gave rise to popular music hits such as He's my blonde-headed stompie wompie real gone surfer boy by Little Pattie in 1963.

The Stomp was inspired by the actions of walking on hot sand. It became the official surfie dance of the 60s in Australia. To do the dance properly, dancers had to be barefoot.

In the 1970s and 1990s novels explored the darker side of beach culture, such as the thriller Summer city and 1990's drama Blackrock . More recently, the confrontation between the Bra Boys of Marouba and other cultural groups from the suburbs was the subject of a film documentary in 2007.

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The arts

The Australian coast

Last updated: 17th March 2016
Creators: Creators: Mijo Consulting, et al.

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