What beaches can teach us: learning while exploring

December 6th, 2023

Heading out to explore beaches and seashores? There is so much to learn from observing our coastlines. Here is some inspiration to get the whole family engaged with nature.
A seagull standing on wet sand at the beach; seaweed scatters the ground around it.

Keep an eye out for the intriguing and the unusual next time you head to the beach. Photo: Geoff Brooks / Unsplash

If you’re planning on heading to the seaside soon, you might be starting to brainstorm ways to keep the kids entertained. So we’ve taken a look through some of our books to find activities to turn a trip to the beach into a fun learning opportunity! Getting outside is a great way to engage with and learn about the environment and ecosystems around us.

Don’t worry, no tests required. Bring your curiosity and sense of adventure and come and learn what beaches can teach us!

Exploring safely

Coming across interesting plants and animals living along the coastline can make for a very exciting trip to the beach, but it’s important to remember that they can be vulnerable to drying out and dying. To explore seashores in an environmentally friendly way, the authors of Field Guide to the Seashores of South-Eastern Australia have provided a conservation code to keep in mind when you’re there.

Conservation Code

  1. You are encouraged to observe and not handle the intertidal plants and animals you encounter.
  2. Return everything you pick up or move, including stones and empty shells, to exactly where you found them.
  3. Do not remove any living plant or animal from the shore.
  4. Avoid trampling on plants or animals while walking across the shore.
  5. Find out whether you are visiting a marine park, reserve or sanctuary, and make sure you are aware of the regulations governing these places.
  6. Take your own rubbish away and pick up any rubbish you find, especially plastics and fishing line. These items can suffocate and strangle marine animals.

When you visit the beach, think about how else you might safely engage with the plants and animals you come across. Perhaps you enjoy taking photos, or writing down or drawing the things that you see.

If you want to find out more about the many species of common plants and animals you might come across along the coastline from Port Lincoln, South Australia, to the Hawkesbury River, New South Wales, and Tasmania, we recommend Field Guide to the Seashores of South-Eastern Australia, by Christine Porter, Ty G Matthews, Alecia Bellgrove and Geoff Wescott.

A copy of Field Guide to the Seashores of South-Eastern Australia leaning up against a pile of seaweed on a beach.

We’re shore this guide will appeal to beach lovers. (Photo: Alecia Bellgrove)

Seaweed wonders

If you’ve ever walked along the beach after a storm, you might have noticed all sorts of treasures from the ocean floor washed up on the shore.

Have you ever seen large piles of seaweed on the beach after a big storm? That’s called a wrack! Seaweed is hugely important to the Great Southern Reef ecosystem, which spans thousands of kilometres from northern New South Wales along the south coast to Western Australia. The sheer number of different seaweeds makes this reef unique.

As well as being used in food, toothpaste and vitamins, seaweed can also store a huge amount of carbon from the atmosphere, which means they can help fight climate change. Some seaweeds, such as kelp, can also be used to make a biodegradable alternative to plastic, called bioplastic.

How many different types of seaweed can you identify on the beach? What kinds of colours and shapes are there?

Join Professor Seaweed and her friends Frankie and Sam as they discover the marine curiosities that are washed up along the coast in our gorgeous picture book The Great Southern Reef, written by Paul Venzo and Prue Francis, and illustrated by Cate James.

An illustrated spread from The Great Southern Reef showing a long line of green and brown seaweed washed up on the sandy beach, surrounded by seagulls.

What kinds of kelp did you see the last time you visited a beach? (Illustration: Cate James)

Beach treasure

Every coastline is different, some are pebbly, some rocky, others sandy. But all beaches are like treasure troves to beachcombers like Ceridwen Fraser, marine scientist and author of our book Beachcombing.

“Sand is essentially small grains of minerals. The geological definition of sand is mineral particles with a diameter between about 0.06 and 2mm – smaller than that and it’s silt; larger than that and it’s gravel. A single cupful will contain millions of grains. If you were to bring a good magnifying glass with you to the beach – you will find an astonishing diversity of colours, shapes and patterns in the sand. Some sand is made of tiny pieces of rock, such as quartz, but many sands include biogenic (of biological origin) materials, such as crushed shells.”

Next time you’re at the beach, look closer at the sand between your toes. What colours, patterns and shapes can you see?

Beachcombing is a guide to the kinds of treasures you might find on Australian and New Zealand coastlines.

Plastic, not so fantastic

Chances are, if you’ve visited a beach and looked carefully at the sand, you’ve probably spotted a few bits of plastic.

Oceans of Plastic author Tracey Gray explains:

“The plastic that we use every day does not break down in nature like wood, cotton or paper. When plastic is exposed to natural forces like sunlight and wave action it breaks up into smaller pieces.

The plastic changes as it reacts with the seawater. Cracks start appearing. The seawater soaks into and leaks out of the plastic pieces. As the plastic weathers in the ocean, it can change its outer texture from smooth to rough, and its size, colour, shape and ability to float.”

Did you find plastic pieces on the beach today? Take a look at any fragments you find and think about what they might have been used for and how weathered they are now. For inspiration to become an ocean change-maker in your home, school or community, have a read of Oceans of Plastic!

A collection of entwined plastic objects and rope in the ocean, surrounded by a school of small black and white striped fish.

Plastic pollution can harm our marine environments. (Photo: Naja Bertolt Jensen / Unsplash)

Reveal the saltmarsh’s secrets

Saltmarshes are full of energy and life. Every day, ocean tides fill and empty saltmarshes. They provide food and shelter for migratory birds as well as microscopic plants and animals.

There is so much to see when you visit a saltmarsh. They are home to birds all year round, and many others visit to feed during the summer. Lots of little animals like crabs, spiders, worms and fish also live in saltmarshes.

The next time you visit a saltmarsh wetland, focus on one particular area and write down or draw all that you can see. How many birds and little animals are there? What do they look like? And what sounds do they make?

Explore the fascinating world of saltmarsh wetlands in Secrets of the Saltmarsh, a lyrical picture book by Claire Saxby and illustrated by Alicia Rogerson.

An illustrated spread from Secrets of the Saltmarsh, showing the green wetland environment and the plants, birds and other animals that live there.

Saltmarshes provide vital food and shelter for many migratory birds. (Illustration: Alicia Rogerson)

For more inspiration on exploring the beaches around you, head to our website and check out our range of coastal science books for explorers of all ages.

Don’t forget to check out our free teacher resources that you can use while reading CSIRO Publishing books.


Cover of 'Field Guide to the Seashores of South-Eastern Australia' featuring photos of a seashore with many rockpools, a starfish, seaweed and a crab.

Field Guide to the Seashores of South-Eastern Australia by Christine Porter, Ty G Matthews, Alecia Bellgrove and Geoff Wescott

Cover of 'The Great Southern Reef', featuring an illustration of Professor Seaweed snorkelling under the water, surrounded by corals, seaweed and marine life.

The Great Southern Reef by Paul Venzo and Prue Francis, illustrated by Cate James

Cover of 'Beachcombing' featuring a photo of a washed up cluster of cream-coloured barnacle shells upon wet sand at a picturesque beach.

Beachcombing: A guide to seashores of the Southern Hemisphere by Ceridwen Fraser

Cover of 'Oceans of Plastic', featuring the title on a blue background with coral and seaweed below, and a photo of plastic floating in the water above.

Oceans of Plastic by Tracey Gray

Cover of 'Secrets of the Saltmarsh', featuring an illustration of a saltmarsh with leafy mangrove trees at the edge of the water, and wading waterbirds in the foreground.

Secrets of the Saltmarsh by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Alicia Rogerson