Low tide during lock-down: a critical ethnography of beach usage during COVID-19

Ashton-Smith E1, Reeves J1, Murphy A1

1Federation University


A social research project that happened to coincide with COVID-19 has generated some interesting insights about what the beach means to people. The research aimed to generate in-depth understanding of values associated with sandy ocean beaches, focussed on the southern Bellarine Peninsula, Victoria. Critical Ethnography was employed to explore the divergence between socio-cultural values, policy and science, for conservation and management of sandy beach ecosystems. In-depth interviews and participant observation were undertaken over a period of nine months, coinciding with COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions.

Although not the primary focus of the research, societal responses to COVID-19 accentuated particular aspects of the socio-cultural values associated with beaches. COVID-19 highlighted the ways in which beaches are valued as a space for play and a cultural ambivalence about the validity of play, especially for adults. COVID-19 also accentuated the ways in which beaches are seen as places that are beyond the reach of regulation, and where people experience a sense of freedom, getting away from ‘civilisation’. Community backlash against attempts to close beaches from access demonstrated a staunch attachment to beaches as publicly owned spaces and expectations for open access.

Given that beaches are also under-recognised, threatened ecosystems, the observations gained during COVID-19 offer opportunities to further develop our appreciation of the challenges of managing these unique socio-ecological spaces. Policy and planning systems need to better account for the multiple roles of beach ecosystems within the broader landscape, informed by conservation planning and mapping of beach attributes.


Originally from Melbourne, Elissa moved to the Bellarine Peninsula in the early 2000s to the ‘Sea Change’ town of Barwon Heads and developed an interest in coastal and marine management, and community activism. Elissa commenced her PhD with CeRDI at Federation University in February 2019. Prior to this, she was working in the Natural Resource Management sector as a Landcare Facilitator. Elissa’s PhD research is aimed at generating deeper insights into perceptions of nature and the values and worldviews that influence the way people interact with the natural coastal environment.