Time slows to a halt when you’re on the beach. Blissed out, you may find yourself counting the waves, isolating specks of sand or marveling at the seashells — an infinite collection of miniaturized cosmic miracles.
But choose the right beach, and you’ll find a wealth of movement at a less predictable tempo. Beach wildlife is diverse in form and function, creeping across the sand, gliding above or swishing about beneath the water. Observing these creatures can be both fun and educational, without disturbing the serenity of hours spent where the sea meets the land.
The U.S. boasts 180 coastal or island national wildlife refuges with particularly unusual or abundant coastal life. But there are plenty of unofficial beach creature hotspots, too — with dolphins, oystercatchers, green sea turtles and monk seals among the captivating characters who may interrupt your wave-counting flow.
Still, some beaches are better bets for wildlife than others. So, HawaiianIslands.com combed through crowd-sourced data to find where you’re most likely to see the widest variety of animal life in the sand, sea and sky. Prepare to enter a different seaside time zone: the rhythm of beach wildlife.
What We Did
HawaiianIslands.com curated a list of 100 of the most popular tourist beaches in the United States using Tripadvisor data. We then used iNaturalist.org (an online community database of wildlife observations) to count the animal species observed over the past four years in and around each beach’s coastal area. Finally, we ranked the beaches for the total number of unique species, species per 10 acres and separately for the categories of bird, reptile and marine animal species.
- La Jolla Cove in California boasts 143.7 animal species per 10 acres — the densest variety of animal life at any U.S. beach.
- Cannon Beach in Oregon boasts the highest variety of wildlife altogether, with 471 unique species spotted over the past four years.
- Malibu Lagoon State Beach in California boasts the most bird species (165).
- Canaveral National Seashore in Florida has the most reptile species (24).
- La Jolla Shores in California has the widest variety of marine animal species (177).
Seven Hawaiian Beaches Among America’s Most Diverse
We began by identifying the beaches with the most diverse wildlife in the U.S. by density (the most species per 10 acres) and overall (the most species). Our first data visualization reveals the beaches where you’re mostly likely to see a good variety of creatures in a small amount of time. In contrast, the second chart is best for those with plenty of time to amass a long list of beach creature observations.
La Jolla Cove in San Diego hosts an overwhelming number of species. There are nearly two-thirds more species here than at second-placed Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park in Hawaii. Enthusiasts have spotted 120 species across La Jolla Cove’s 8.35 acres, including abundant sightings of the California Sea Lion. It helps that this fellow loves to lie around with (or even on top of) dozens of his friends and bark really loudly.
Seven of the ten beaches with the densest variety of wildlife are in Hawaii. Situated at the edge of the eponymous 420-acre park, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau welcomes a wide variety of land and water creatures — from “the majestic humpback whale crossing offshore in the winter months, to the small ʻōpae ʻula (shrimp) grazing on the algae in the brackish ponds.”
However, the beach with the highest number of different creatures altogether is to be found in Oregon. Visitors have spotted 471 species at Cannon Beach, in the city of the same name. It is not uncommon to encounter elk grazing in the vicinity of the beach (and they’re hard to miss, coming in at up to 1,000 lbs and 10 feet long). Towards the other end of the scale, you can find alien-looking but distinctly northern American sea slugs, such as the horned nudibranch and chocolate aeolid, in the pools of water left in rocks as the tide recedes. Be warned: they sting.
Malibu Lagoon State Beach Offers Best Diversity of Bird Life in U.S.
The sky above Malibu Lagoon State Beach sees a lot of avian traffic. But bird spotters on the beach needn’t crane their necks to spot a feathered friend — the beach is so popular that many of the birds have become accustomed to having people around, and you can get quite close without startling them. Pelicans, gulls and sandpipers are among the more common breeds found here. The rarer California Least Tern, Snow Goose and Red Phalarope are just some of the ‘bucket list’ birds you might get to tick off. Malibu Lagoon is the beach with the highest variety of bird species, according to our study, and your best moment to spot them is during the spring and fall migration seasons.
Reptile Life is Most Diverse on Florida Beaches
If you like your critter skin dry and scaly, Florida is the place to be. The Sunshine State is home to eight of the top 10 U.S. beaches for diversity of reptile life. Canaveral National Seashore is in first place with 24 varieties. The striped mud turtle is hiding out there in ponds and ditches, although its rusty brown shell makes it tough to spot; the Florida watersnake is another local of similar color. Don’t worry: it only bites if meddled with (and then, non-venomously). More troublingly, the occasional American alligator may emerge from the sea. However, because it’s not their natural, freshwater home, they’re likely to remain timid as long as you keep a sensible distance.
La Jolla Shores and Hawaii’s Shark’s Cove Among Best Beaches for Marine Life
Just a little up the coast from America’s most densely diverse beach for wildlife, La Jolla Cove, you’ll find La Jolla Shores, which is the most diverse beach for marine life. But a Hawaiian beach also makes the top 10: visitors to Shark’s Cove on O‘ahu island have spotted 146 species across its nearly 19-acre footprint, or 77.9 per 10 acres, mostly of the marine variety. Shark’s Cove is perfect for snorkeling, and one creature you probably won’t see here is an actual shark — the cove is named for its shark-like shape rather than the snorkeler’s nightmare. Instead, swimmers may enjoy the company of monk seals, triggerfish, sea urchins and the iconic Moorish idol.
A Beach Moment Like No Other
Whether the beach puts you in a meditative mood or you find yourself restless while your family plays, seaside wildlife makes for an inspiring distraction from regular beach activities. Take your camera, head to one of America’s most diverse beaches for wildlife, and you might even add to iNaturalist’s growing database of over 145,000,000 verifiable observations — or at least grab a unique digital postcard to wow the folks back home.
METHODOLOGY & SOURCES
We collected the number of wild animal species spotted on beaches in the United States via iNaturalist.org. iNaturalist is an online community where users have shared and verified 141 million observations of more than 431,000 species of wildlife around the world.
Using Tripadvisor, we first curated a seed list of 100 of the most popular tourist beaches in the United States. For each beach we counted the animal species observed both on land and at sea within close proximity of each beach’s coastal area. Our seed list of wildlife omitted plants, fungi and protozoa to focus on animal species that have been spotted between 2019 and May 2023.
Each beach area was ranked on having the highest number of unique species observed in total and per 10 acres of beach and sea area after we drew coordinate boundaries to map them. We also ranked the beaches on having the highest number of unique bird species, reptile species and marine animal species observed.
Marine wildlife was categorized according to the information available on iNaturalist.org, including marine reptiles, marine mammals, mollusks, cartilaginous fish, ray-finned fish, crustaceans, mollusks and insects.
Please note: this is not an exhaustive list of how many species exist in each area and is limited to what species are searchable on iNaturalist.org and observed and recorded by users of the website.
This data analysis is correct as of July 2023.