By Jamie Tunnell
On Friday, June 8, Ocracoke pulled in international attention as its small section of life guarded beach was named number one beach in America for 2007.
The official announcement was made that day on the beach at 12:15 pm and included comments from NPS Ranger Kenny Ballance, Hyde County Chamber of Commerce Director Margie Brooks, Hyde County Commissioner Gene Ballance, Executive Director of the Division of Tourism, Film, and Sports Development Lynn Minges, Congressman Walter Jones’ District Director Millie Lilley, and, of course, “Dr. Beach.”
Dr. Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, is a North Carolina native who now is the chair professor and director for Florida-based National Healthy Beaches Campaign through Florida International University. He has been naming the top 10 and 20 beaches of America since 1991 and Ocracoke has placed on that list every year since 1996. In 2007, for the first time ever, Hawaii or Florida did not place #1, and Ocracoke took the spotlight.
“Ocracoke has the full package,” said Leatherman. “There’s the miles of unspoiled beach but also the quaint village and history and tourism.” Leatherman tallies from one to five points for 50 criteria for the beaches that he examines. Ocracoke scored 237 this year. The second place beach, Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida, scored 234. “Ocracoke lost points for the past few years after Isabel came through,” explained Leatherman. “You all stayed at number two and three for a while then, but now you’ve recovered.”
Leatherman only considers swimming beaches on this list, which often cuts out Maine, Oregon, and California. “If I was looking at surfing beaches or other criteria, it would be a totally different list,” said Leatherman. Criteria include beach driving, amenities, views, rip currents, wave size, and air and water temperature. He stressed the importance of beach safety and referenced his new book on rip currents, “Dr. Beach’s Survival Guide.”
“I’m considering making lifeguards a hard requirement for the future. It needs to be a tougher standard for beaches to work towards having,” said Leatherman. “It is crucial for Ocracoke to have that small section of life guarded beach not only for safety but for education.”
Now that Ocracoke has reached the top, it will be retired as a national winner and not be considered for future Dr. Beach lists. While Leatherman has received criticism of this, he will keep on retiring the national winner to give others a chance.
So what does this new acclaim mean for the island? The 2002 national winner was St. Joseph’s Peninsula State Park of Florida. Katie Flanagan, information director for the Florida Division of Recreation and Parks, shared attendance and economic statistics for the winning year and two years after. The park saw the immediate expected boost from 2001 for July, +26 percent, and August, +44 percent, after the announcement. It still hasn’t dropped back to its averages pre-national acclaim. Attendance also continues to rise for Fort De Soto Park, national winner in 2005.
“Dr. Beach definitely boosted business here the week after his announcement,” said Tommy Hutcherson, proprietor of the Variety Store. “Usually, during the second week of June, not all kids are out of school and folks still have graduations to attend, so business is not normally at the hectic pace just yet. But this year the island was jumping with people, especially with day trippers coming from the northern beaches to check out ‘the number one beach in the country.’ With all of the media exposure Ocracoke has received in the past couple of weeks, we can expect a very busy summer.”
According to Hatteras ferry office statistics, traffic from Hatteras to Ocracoke the week after the announcement averaged 2,419 vehicles on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the most popular day-tripper days. In 2006, the average for this second week in June was only 1,638 vehicles.
“We’ve always known it was number one,” said Betty Helen Chamberlin, proprietor of Captain’s Landing. “We’ve had lots of phone calls, but not necessarily reservations. They are usually just looking for information about the island.”
Chamberlin said her shop had the most traffic it’s ever had. Other businesses shared the same sentiment–phone calls for information on what ferry to take and how far it is from their location.
To see the true impact of this award on Ocracoke, it would take extensive surveys and depend on tourists to remember where and when they heard about the island. You’d have to consider other factors too: hurricanes, undependable ferry vessels, and the weather.
Ocracoke has been on its share of lists over the past few years. In 2006, the Travel Channel dubbed it a ‘best beach’ and it was featured in Islands magazine as one of the 30 Best Undiscovered Beaches.
Earlier this year, CNN rated it in the Top Ten for Shelling. And with all that attention and based on past Beach announcements, island residents fully expected to see Matt Lauer standing on the life guarded beach on Friday morning to film the Today Show. Powerful rumors had circled the island several times about where he was staying, where he had been spotted, and what time everyone was gathering on the beach for the live filming. Ocracoke School sent home permission slips to all the parents of the students to announce a 2:30 filming on June 7 at the school. That day, the students and newly graduated pre-K class gathered on the front steps of the school where they met a lively Dr. Beach and the WITN-TV crew. In the past, the Today Show has cut to live feed of Leatherman at his #1 pick, but they have never filmed from that location.
When asked about next year’s list, Leatherman replied that he would start tomorrow. It’s a full-time job for this traveling scientist: he’s been to every beach in the U.S. twice and he revisits the top 20 every year. He gets reports from nationwide colleagues on other beaches if they’ve made big improvements and are potentials for the list. So, the good news: international publicity. The bad news: international publicity. The ugly: the misinformed. It’s a tough award to accept knowing that most businesses and services here operate at full potential without being full. And we’ll just have to take the phone calls and point them in the right direction.