Dr. Beach Rates Charlotte County Florida Beaches

by BeachHunter on May 12, 2011

Dr. Stephen Leatherman filling out his beach checklist of 50 criteria.

Dr. Stephen Leatherman filling out his beach checklist of 50 criteria.

You know him as “Dr. Beach.” He’s in the news every year around Memorial Day weekend when he announces his list of the Top Ten Beaches in the Nation.

His real name is Stephen Leatherman and he’s the Chair Professor and Director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami, Florida.

Earlier this month, Dr. Leatherman visited and surveyed some of the beaches in Charlotte County.  His opinion? He didn’t release the specific scores, but said the area has very nice beaches and that it’s the kind of place he likes to visit.

But they didn’t score high enough to make the top ten list.

How exactly does he rank beaches? And what’s keeping Charlotte County beaches off the top ten list?

Dr. Leatherman measures the width of the beach.

Dr. Leatherman measures the width of the beach with a tape measure.

In a nutshell, Leatherman walks out onto the beach in bare feet and gets a feel for the sand. He surveys the environment and takes note of the opportunities for public access. Is the beach safe? Is the water warm and inviting? As he takes his measurements and observations, he fills out his famous checklist of 50 criteria for ranking beaches.

Dr. Leatherman observes the speed and direction of the water currents by throwing a harmless chunk of fluorescein dye into the water and observing its movement.

Leatherman gathers quite a bit of data on the sand, measuring the slope of the beach with a clinometer, taking a close-up look with a hand-held magnifying glass, and taking sand samples from a specific location on the beach to analyze its composition in the laboratory. That’s in addition to the “toes-in-the-sand” test to see if the sand is pleasant to walk in.

He usually measures the clarity of the water with a device called a Secchi disk, but didn’t do that here. Eyeballing it seemed to be good enough to satisfy his checklist.

Close-up of beach sand on Little Gasparilla Island.

Close-up of beach sand on Little Gasparilla Island.

Dr. Leatherman gets a feel for the sand grains on Stump Pass Beach.

Dr. Leatherman gets a feel for the sand grains on Stump Pass Beach. The sand is dark because of a high mineral content.

A look at Dr. Leatherman's sand sifting device, which sorts by grain size.

A look at Dr. Leatherman's sand sifting device, which sorts by grain size.

Charlotte County beaches have plenty of shells and shark's teeth.

Charlotte County beaches have plenty of shells and opportunities to find shark's teeth, both of which merit additional points on Leatherman's beach scoring system.

Leatherman assigns points to each of his 50 criteria. The highest score a given criterion can receive is 5 points, for a total of 250 points (5 X 50) possible for a beach receiving a perfect score for every criterion. So far, no beach has a perfect score.

Dr. Stephen Leatherman flies over Don Pedro Island to get a bird's-eye view of the area's beaches.

Dr. Stephen Leatherman flies over Don Pedro Island to get a bird's-eye view of the area's beaches.

So what were Leatherman’s ratings for Charlotte County beaches?

On the positive side:

  • clean
  • warm, moderately clear water
  • plenty of birds, wildlife and shells
  • not crowded
  • no rip-currents or significant shark dangers or jellyfish
  • good scenery

On the negative side:

  • Public access is lacking or limited at the beaches visited by Leatherman. He visited the Palm Island beaches and Don Pedro Island State Park. He did not, at least not to my knowledge, rate Englewood Public beach or Stump Pass Beach State Park.
  • The beaches don’t have lifeguards.
Dr. Beach communicates is findings to Charlotte County VIP's and media.

Dr. Beach communicates is findings to Charlotte County VIP's and media.

Leatherman mitigated his criticisms by saying that the limited public access by car is not necessarily a bad thing. Appearing in the top ten list generally results in a major increase in visitors and traffic. In an area that takes care not to become just another overcrowded and overdeveloped beach town, getting onto the top ten list may not be desirable.

As to the lack of lifeguards, Leatherman said that the area’s beaches are still quite safe because this area generally does not have rip currents, and shark bites are almost unheard-of. Parents still need to keep an eye on their children, he noted.

When asked for suggestions as to how the area might improve, Leatherman emphasized that to maintain their character, the islands should not pave any more roads, and should try to keep all utilities underground rather than setting poles and stringing wires and cables.

Leatherman pointed out that his work involves ranking major public beaches with ample public access. Palm Island/Don Pedro/Little Gasparilla beaches do not really fit the profile of the beaches he normally focuses on, so would not necessarily be expected to make the top ten list.

He also normally ranks beaches incognito. The fact that he allowed media to come along on this excursion was an anomaly and was the result of what started out to be a personal vacation with a friend that gradually morphed into a media event.

Dr. Beach on Little Gasparilla Island

Dr. Leatherman wades into the water and snaps a picture on Little Gasparilla Island.

Dr. Leatherman walks along Don Pedro Island State Park beach with park manager Chad Lach.

Dr. Leatherman walks along Don Pedro Island State Park beach with park manager Chad Lach.

Little Gasparilla Island Beach, south end.

Little Gasparilla Island Beach, south end.

Dr. Leatherman and son Stephen Jr. get their first look at Little Gasparilla Island's beaches.

Dr. Leatherman and son Stephen Jr. get their first look at Little Gasparilla Island's beaches.

For another take on Dr. Beach’s visit, check out Jennifer Huber’s blog post over at Solo Travel Girl

See Dr. Beach’s list of 50 criteria that he uses to rank beaches.