Discovernet: Beach culture

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from the collections of Lismore Regional Art Gallery, the Macleay Museum and the Australian War Memorial

'The Outback' is the image often conjured up when people think of Australia - a vast expanse of red desert and kangaroos. In reality, more than 85% of the population live within an hour's drive of the coast! From Bondi Beach in the heart of Sydney to Broome's Cable Beach in northern WA, our coastline stretches some 36,000 km. Australians and international visitors alike have enjoyed these beaches for generations and over the years, our attitudes and activities have changed dramatically.

Many of Australia's beautiful beaches are located within highly populated areas, bringing city living to the shoreline. The beach is far more than a holiday destination - it is an important part of our national identity and culture. Our beaches continue to provide endless inspiration for artists, writers and photographers. In fact, everyone can enjoy being creative at the beach. When was the last time you built a sandcastle?

During the nineteenth century it was decided that the sea air had 'restorative' qualities, ideal in a climate like Australia's. This encouraged people to visit beaches to swim or engage in other outdoor activities. However, the modesty of the time restricted what they could actually do at the beach. Until 1903, laws prevented anyone from swimming during the day between the hours of 6am and 7pm!

The swimming costumes popular at this time were 'neck to knee' - they were large, heavy and very impractical when wet. Many people even visited the beach fully clothed! Society believed that in public places bodies should never be uncovered. This was especially so for women, who wore costumes consisting of bloomers and black stockings - not ideal for hot weather! 'Bathing boxes' were also used; small huts on wheels which could be rolled down the sand and even into the water, ensuring people were seen as little as possible in their swimming attire.

Times change and beach-wear has become gradually smaller and more revealing, often causing uproar at each new development. In the 1950s the bikini became popular among young beach-goers. It caused an outrage because it covered so little of the body and women's tummies were on display! Today in Australia, acceptable beachwear ranges from wetsuits to board shorts to tiny bikinis. Just think of some of the different outfits you see when you go to the beach. What do you wear?

Today the beach is a hub for recreation, including sports and many other kinds of entertainment. It is a place for individuals, groups and families of all sorts - where young and old congregate to enjoy the sun, sea and sand. On any sunny day you can see people involved in dozens of different pastimes, proving the diversity of Australian interests. Cricket, snorkelling, soccer, Tai Chi, fishing and swimming are just some of the activites you can usually see at the beach. How many others can you think of?

One water-sport which continues to gain popularity is surfing. Body surfing was introduced from the South Pacific in around 1900 and surfboards became increasingly popular after Duke Kahanamoku's demonstrations in 1914. Since then, Australia has produced some of the world's best surfers and international championships are often held here.

Australia's beaches have their hazards, with pounding surf, burning sunlight and some dangerous forms of marine-life. For these reasons, Australia was the first place in the world to have surf lifesaving clubs. The Bondi Surf Bathers Lifesaving Club inaugurated in 1906 and since then hundreds of clubs around the country have been established. Every summer, thousands of volunteer lifesavers make our coastline safer by patrolling beaches and providing first-aid when needed.

The popularity of some beaches as holiday destinations is vastly different to the uses they have been put to over the years. For over 200 years, Broome's port has been used to service pearling, cattle and other industries. In the earliest days of european settlement when travelling overland was nearly impossible, food and other supplies such as the weekly post came by sea. Most people wishing to travel also left via the port rather than brave the inland route! The town of Broome is now a major tourist destination and nearby beaches are famous for their white sand and clear water. Evidence of ancient beach visitors can also be found at nearby Gantheaume Point - dinosaur footprints which are over 130 million years old!

The changing uses of the beach over the past two hundred years has resulted in many physical changes to the landscape. Different kinds of recreational activities have required the building of changing areas and other amenities. One example is the Bondi Beach Pavilion: It was built to accomodate the increasing numbers of people who chose to swim at the beach. The pavilion first opened in 1911 with bathing sheds and other basic facilities. This was expanded in the 1920s with the addition of dressing accommodation, Turkish baths, shops, a gymnasium and even a ballroom!

Now surf clubs, cafés, holiday resorts, shops, jetties and parking areas can be found in close proximity to beaches all over Australia. The popularity of our beaches means that they suffer greatly from pollution; both flotsam and jetsam, as well as rubbish left by beach-goers. Even litter on the streets of our seaside cities is washed through the drains and eventually ends up on the beach. It is up to all of us to look after our beaches so we can continue to enjoy them for generations to come. What can you do to help keep them clean and safe?


Coasting on the Web
This site has been developed by the National Museum of Australia. Find out about beach habitats, hazards, history and much more!

Oceans Alive
An ABC site celebrating our marine biodiversity and exploring ways we can help save our oceans.

Surf Life Saving Australia
Find out about this great organisation which helps make our beaches safe. Get involved in a club near you, or learn what it takes to become a lifesaver.

This site has environment news, upcoming surf events, weather reports and more. Check out the surfing conditions via webcam at a beach near or far from you.

'Beach,On the Beach' by Michael Taylor 'Beach, On the Beach' by Michael Taylor. What can you see in this abstract artwork?

surfboat and her crew This surfboat and her crew are competing in a surf lifesaving carnival.

 Enjoying the beach in the early 1900's Enjoying the beach in the early 1900's. Have you ever seen beach-wear like this?!

1940s swimming costumes These swimming costumes are typical of those worn in the 1940s.

'Sun Torso 11' by Peter Powditch 'Sun Torso 11' by Peter Powditch. Bikinis caused an outrage when they first appeared in the 1950s.

San Souci Beach in 1890 Crowds sitting and walking - but none swimming! - on San Souci Beach in 1890.

 1951 Richmond Amateur Sailing Club 
 carnival Contestants in the 1951 Richmond Amateur Sailing Club carnival.

Painting of Port Fairy Fishing Coven A 'shattered glass' painting of Port Fairy Fishing Cove by Victor Yeates. Look closely - can you see the village?

Livesaving clubs There are now hundreds of livesaving clubs in Australia.

Bbeach activities Today people of all ages enjoy beach activities.

Chariot race A chariot race - part of a Surf carnival held in the NT near Darwin, in 1943.

'Newcastle Harbour' by Marilyn Walters 'Newcastle Harbour' by Marilyn Walters. Click on the image to read about the inspiration for this artwork.

Manly beach A crowded beach scene at Manly - can you see the Surfclub?

Broome jetty, 1943 The Broome jetty, 1943. This photo was taken from the deck of an approaching ship.

Emerald Beach ocean outfall demonstration This figure was made as part of a demonstration against an ocean outfall at Emerald Beach, NSW.