With more than 1,500 miles of Massachusetts shoreline, there is so much to explore and enjoy—from sandy shores to coastline trails to rocky coves. This web page gives 10 ways to find the best beaches, ensure a safe and fun visit, and protect and improve the environment along the way.
1. Find Your Beach
In Massachusetts, you have thousands of coastal beaches, parks, conservation areas, boat ramps, and ways to the sea to choose from. These online resources to help you find your perfect shoreline spot:
- Coast Guide Online - To locate more than 1,900 sites along the Massachusetts coast that are owned by government agencies and nonprofits and open to the public, see this interactive mapping tool developed by Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM). This online viewer, which can be used on mobile phones, tablets, and desktop computers, highlights beaches and boat ramps, coastal trails, and many other public spots, such as rocky coasts, shore-side parks, local harbor walks, secluded coves, marshes and creeks, scenic overlooks, small rights-of-way, and much more.
- Massachusetts Coast Guide to Boston Harbor and the North Shore - Last printed in 2005, this CZM publication includes nearly 400 public access sites from Salisbury to Hingham—from expansive beaches to out-of-the-way scenic vistas. While out of print, PDF versions of 22 maps, accompanying site descriptions, and background information are available.
- Saltwater Ocean Beaches - This Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) site provides information on the state beaches located on the Atlantic Ocean, along with information on which beaches are made accessible with boardwalks, beach mat, and ramps.
- Public Access to Buzzards Bay and Its Shores - This Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program web page gives information on the region's boat ramps, beaches, public access sites, and other information.
- Office of Fishing and Boating Access - This website includes links to online information, publications, and a mapping tool for their more than 200 boat and canoe access sites on coastal waters, great ponds, and rivers throughout Massachusetts.
2. Check the Water Quality
Massachusetts beaches typically have good water quality. In certain circumstances, however, particularly after heavy rains, contaminants can make the water unsafe for swimming. These websites can help you check the water quality (and temperature—another important quality condition!) before heading to the beach:
Massachusetts Department of Public Health Beach Water Quality - This site provides annual beach reports and results of mandatory water quality testing for public and semi-public marine beaches in Massachusetts through a searchable database.
- Boston Harbor Beaches - Produced by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, this site gives monitoring results for beaches in Boston Harbor.
- Coastal Water Temperature - This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Oceanographic Data Center page includes water temperatures for Atlantic Coast sites, including sites in Boston Harbor, Woods Hole, and Fall River.
3. Keep the Water Clean
What you do both at the beach and at home impacts coastal water quality. To ensure that everyone can have clean and healthy water for swimming and fishing, please do your part to keep our waters clean. At home, some of the best things to do are to properly maintain septic systems, reduce fertilizer and pesticide use, properly dispose of oil and other hazardous waste, and NEVER dump anything down a storm drain. At the beach, always pick up pet waste and use public restrooms—and when you are in a boat, please use sewage pumpout facilities. For more information, see:
- ACT: At the Beach - This U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) web page includes tips on protecting beach water quality and staying safe and healthy at the beach.
- Coastlines 2008 - This CZM publication gives in-depth tips on what you can do to protect the coastal environment, from green landscaping to green cleaning.
- Boat Pumpout Facilities - Information on the more than 120 boat sewage pumpout facilities in Massachusetts coastal waters is provided on this CZM page, along with a link to an interactive GoogleTM Map of these facilities.
4. Stay Off the Dunes
Coastal dunes are shifting systems shaped by wind and waves—but they also can be quite stable and provide tremendous storm-damage protection to inland areas. The key to this stability is plants, particularly dune grasses and other plants with extensive root systems, which naturally hold the sand and resist erosion. These otherwise hardy plants are extremely vulnerable to trampling, however. In addition, simply walking on dunes causes sand-landslides that further destabilize the area. So, never walk on or over a sand dune—stick to the designated walkways to reach the beach. These sites give more information:
5. Patrol for Chicks
Threatened and endangered shorebirds share our beaches, and their chicks are extremely vulnerable to foot and vehicle traffic, noise and other disturbances, dogs, and predators that are attracted to food scraps and garbage. The CZ-Tip - Birdwatching on the Coast gives information on threatened and endangered shorebirds in Massachusetts and how to protect them. For specific information on the five species of shorebirds considered threatened or endangered in Massachusetts, see these Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program online fact sheets:
- Roseate Tern (PDF, 291 KB) - endangered.
- Piping Plover (PDF, 219 KB) - threatened.
- Arctic Tern (PDF, 269 KB) - special concern (i.e., species in danger of becoming threatened, species that have not fully recovered from a past decline, or species that are of an essential ecological position that any decline could adversely affect other species).
- Common Tern (PDF, 269 KB) - special concern.
- Least Tern (PDF, 260 KB) - special concern.
6. Leave Wildlife Wild
In addition to birds, Massachusetts marine waters are home to seals, turtles, and other wildlife—beaches and tide pools are teaming with sea stars, snails, and other creatures—and dunes and marshes are covered in grasses and wildflowers. When beachcombing, please leave anything that is still alive where you found it, including sand dollars, sea stars, snails, shellfish, crabs, and other crustaceans. Also, do not step on or collect vegetation, including wildflowers—plants prevent erosion and provide habitat and food for wildlife. Finally, not all sea creatures found on land are in trouble. Seals, for instance, often look stranded when they haul themselves up on land to rest. Baby seals in particular can look abandoned when their mother temporarily leaves them in a safe place and goes off to search for food. Whatever large animal you find, keep at least 150 feet back and never touch or feed it. For more information, see:
- Report a Stranded/Beached Marine Animal - This NOAA Fisheries web page provides the organizations and phone numbers of the authorized volunteer stranding networks that will respond to marine mammal and sea turtle strandings.
- What You Can Do for a Stranded Marine Animal - This web page from the National Marine Life Center, an organization that offers rehabilitative care to sick and injured seals and sea turtles, explains what to do if you find a seal, dolphin, or sea turtle stranded on the Massachusetts shore, in addition to providing area- and species-specific contacts who will respond to the stranding.
- CZ-Tip - Identifying Animals and Plants on the Massachusetts Coast - This CZM tip provides links to help you identify some of the more common animals and plants at the shore, such as birds, seals, turtles, invertebrates, and seaweeds.
- CZ-Tip - Learn What Lurks in a Massachusetts Tide Pool - See this CZM tip to learn more about strange marine organisms and the creative characteristics that allow them to survive this harsh intertidal environment, along with a guide to destinations where you can make your own tide pool discoveries.
- CZ-Tip - Sharing Coastal Waters with Sea Turtles - This tip covers the sea turtles that frequent Massachusetts ocean waters and what you can do to protect them, including reporting a sea turtle stranded on the beach.
- The Secret Life of Shellers - This article on page 11 of CZM's Coastlines 2007 explains the importance of respecting wildlife when collecting shells.
7. Watch for Rip Currents
A day at the beach can turn deadly if you are caught in a rip current, a strong and swift channel of water that flows away from the shore. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves. Each year in the United States, 100 people tragically die in rip currents and lifeguards save another 50,000 from this hazard. By following simple steps, like swimming at beaches with lifeguards, checking rip current forecasts, and strictly following warnings, you can keep you and your family safe. And if you ever get caught in a rip tide, don't panic—try to swim parallel to the shore to escape the current. When you are free from the rip current's pull, you can swim to shore. If you can't swim out of the current, call for help and float and tread water calmly—you will ultimately float out to where the current weakens. These NOAA National Weather Service (NWS) sites give more information:
- How to Avoid Getting Caught in a Rip Current - This website explains the dangers of rip currents, gives safety tips, and provides other information.
- Boston Surf Forecast - This web page gives rip current risks for all of Massachusetts.
- Boston Forecast - All of the weather-related hazard forecasts for Massachusetts, along with the weather forecast and links to predictions of rip current potential, are available on this page.
8. Look Out for Lightning
You're at the beach. It's sunny and warm, but the clouds are building in the distance. It's not raining, but you hear the first rumble of thunder. What do you do? LEAVE THE BEACH IMMEDIATELY! If you can hear thunder, you are at risk of being struck by lightning—and a flat and open area near the water is a dangerous place to be. On average, 58 people are killed by lightning each year in the United States, and many of these people got hit because they waited to take cover. Never stay under a beach umbrella and don't retreat to an open-sided shelter. If you can't get into a closed building, go to your car and keep the windows rolled up. And stay there for at least 30 minutes after the last lightning strike. For more, see:
- Lightening Safety - This NWS web page explains the risk of lightning and the steps you can take at the beach, on the ball field, in the woods, and in other outdoor locations.
- Lightning Safety Tips and Resources - Also produced by NWS, this page gives links to brochures, statistics, guidelines, and other information about lightning and lightning safety.
- Lightning Is Extremely Dangerous on the Beach (PDF, 106 KB) - This Lifeguard's Beach Safety Tip produced by the Maryland Coast Dispatch explains why it is important to leave the beach at the first sign of lightning.
9. Don't Dig Too Deep
Digging in the sand is a common pastime at the beach, but deep holes can turn deadly when quickly collapsing sand smothers someone in the hole. In a June 2007 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Bradley Maron and Dr. Barry Maron (a father-and-son team) and nurse Tammy Haas outlined their study of this issue and documented 52 incidents over the previous 10 years of people getting submerged in dry-sand holes that had been dug for recreational purposes—six of these incidents happened in New England and 31 of the people buried died. So please, never dig a hole deeper than the knees of the smallest person in the hole. See:
- The Letter in the New England Journal of Medicine - This page includes the letter abstract, and you can access the full letter by subscribing.
- Holes on the Beach (PDF, 100 KB) - This Lifeguard's Beach Safety Tip produced by the Maryland Coast Dispatch explains the importance of this issue and the knee-deep rule.
10. Take Care of Your Trash
Litter is more than an eyesore; it is a safety problem for people and wildlife. Animals can be killed or injured when they become entangled in discarded fishing line, six-pack holders, and other items, or when they swallow plastic bags, balloons, and other trash that they mistake for food. People are also injured by broken glass or rusty metal. And food scraps attract pests, as well as predators that kill endangered coastal species. So, always dispose of trash properly. Use trash barrels, if they are available and have room—trash placed in overflowing barrels just becomes litter. If you can't dispose of trash at the site properly, take it with you. To find out more about what you can do, see:
- COASTSWEEP - This website gives information on how to organize and/or volunteer for COASTSWEEP, Massachusetts statewide beach cleanup organized by CZM. Cleanups are held in September and October as part of the international cleanup organized by The Ocean Conservancy.
- Trash Free Waters - Produced by EPA, this website gives information on the trash that enters the coastal and ocean environment (marine debris), its impacts, what is being done to monitor and address the problem, and how you can help.
- Fighting for Trash Free Seas - This Ocean Conservancy website provides extensive information on this topic, including reports and results from the international coastal cleanup.