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His job is a day at the beach

Stephen Leatherman is an easygoing Southerner who wears many hats, all resembling sun visors.

Even without deeply tanned skin or sun-streaked hair, Leatherman is a professional beach bum. That is, he's director of the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Coastal Research.

To his students, Dr. Leatherman is "Mr. Beach" _ a mildly eccentric professor of environmental sciences who holds a Ph.D. in that topic from the University of Virginia.

To his two children, he's a father who always wants to vacation at the, well, you know where.

To environmentally bent politicians and journalists, he's an information source.

But Leatherman undoubtedly carries the most clout with chambers of commerce and tourism boards along America's coastline. His approval can mean a million-dollar boost to the local tourism industry. And his thumbs down has been known to scramble city governments.

Fortunately for Florida, Leatherman admires the beaches here. He has spent 20 years studying the nation's beaches, and he always comes back to find some of his favorites in Florida.

"When you think about it, it's hard to beat that aquamarine water, those superwhite beaches with warm water," he said. "It's idyllic, really."

The beach _ what makes it good or bad _ was a career for Leatherman even before he had academic credentials. While most of his college buddies were at parties or football games, Leatherman got a weekend job surveying the Outer Banks of North Carolina. "My social life was almost zippo, but I was learning a tremendous amount."

Colleague Tony Pratt, program manager for Delaware's Beach Preservation Works department, said "beachologists" usually get their start in engineering or geology.

"The field has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years," Pratt said. "People didn't realize there was the opportunity to do this. This is such a fun way to earn your money."

The University of Florida's Bob Dean agrees. He's the head of the Department of Coastal Engineering, the largest graduate "beach" program in the country. Even when he is indoors, his mind's on the beach, teaching graduate students about wave theory, coastal prophecies and sediment movement.

"When I came to Florida in 1966, the state department of Beaches and Shores had one employee," Dean said. "Today there are almost 100."

Although the elite fraternity of "beachologists" is growing, Leatherman remains perhaps the best-known, and certainly the best-published, member of the group. He has written or edited nine books and published 121 journal articles with titles such as "Cape Cod: From Glaciers to Beaches" and The Barrier Island Handbook.

The polite North Carolinian has been interviewed on the Today Show and has been quoted in publications ranging from the Times of London to Conde Nast Traveler to Sports Illustrated.

Leatherman grudgingly admitted he now spends almost half his work day indoors. He researches storms and hurricanes, including Andrew. He advises congressional committees on beach-related issues.

Recently, the Department of Commerce asked for his help in determining the "value" of American coasts. "How will we know how much to charge Exxon for the next oil spill here in St. Petersburg if we don't know the value of the beaches?" he explained.

He also grumbled about "all the university paperwork" keeping him from the seashores, but he seems flattered by the traditional standing-room-only crowd of undergraduates attending his Beaches and Coastlines class.

Of all his projects, Leatherman has raised the most eyebrows and made the most headlines with what he calls the first-ever scientific ratings of America's beaches.

Because of this, he is to beaches what Siskel and Ebert are to movies.

It all started three years ago as he was on the way out of his slightly disheveled office to catch a plane to China. He turned around as the phone rang _ it was a reporter from Conde Nast Traveler, writing a story about the country's best beaches.

"He asked me for the top beaches," Leatherman said. "I sort of rattled off 10 beaches that came to mind. I didn't think much about it. When I came back, I found in my box a copy of the magazine. It said, "American's Top 10 Beaches, and No. 1 is so and so.' I thought, "Oh, no, I didn't say No. 1 _ that was just the first one I thought of.'


The ensuing media attention convinced Leatherman to conduct a more formal survey. With time off from the university and $10,000 of his own savings, he compiled a list of 50 beach criteria, including beach width, sand quality, water and air temperature, wave size, general cleanliness, access and development. He sent the survey to beach experts on 650 ocean beaches in 21 states.

Although Leatherman called the ratings scientific, he acknowledged a bit of subjectivity. "We did favor natural rather than urban (developed) beaches," he said. "And we emphasized sunny beaches, which made people in Maine mad."

An ideal beach, according to Leatherman's survey of colleagues, would be away from development but easy to get to. The beach would be crescent-shaped, for a pleasing vista, with fine, white sand. It would gently slope into clean, warm waters. There would be lots of shore birds, but no annoying insects or jellyfish. Lifeguards and a few clean bathrooms, snack bars, etc. would be preferable.

Leatherman said he wasn't surprised when his ratings generated some unhappy phone calls. "We criticized Long Beach in New York," he said. "They took offense, wanted to send a limo here to Maryland to pick me up. I think it would have been a one-way trip. I was afraid they wanted to put concrete shoes on me."

While he declined the limo, he did visit Long Beach on his own. "They had made some improvements, I must say, but they're still trying to deal with problems with overflows from the sewer systems of New York City."

And what did Long Beach have to say about Leatherman?

"We were angry at first, but it didn't affect tourism at all," said Edwin Eaton, Long Beach city manager. "(The list) seemed to galvanize everybody; we had a common foe" _ Leatherman.

Eaton remarked that Leatherman had last seen the beach six years previously, and that was during the winter. "We can't compare to a beach on the north shore of Hawaii," Eaton said. "We clean our beach every night, every morning. People that come here know it's nice."

The professor also caught flak from sun worshipers in California, whose beaches were excluded from the Top 10 because of cold water, often-dangerous currents and waves, and overdevelopment. Worse yet, Leatherman named Imperial Beach, south of San Diego, the worst beach in America.

"Their problem is raw sewage from Tijuana. Can you imagine, a million people's sewage floating down this river and north to Imperial Beach?" Leatherman asked with a grimace.

He said some angry Californians asked sarcastically if perhaps their beaches "didn't have enough mosquitoes or hurricanes."

And the beaches that are on Leatherman's list?

The majority are in Florida. Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, in the Panhandle between Fort Walton Beach and Panama City, is No. 1 in the continental United States. It placed second after Kapalua, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, for all of the nation's beaches. In the Tampa Bay area, both Sand Key and Fort DeSoto made the Top 20.

Carole Ketterhagen, director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said Leatherman's list is a great marketing tool. "It's definitely an advantage to have a scientific approach," Ketterhagen said. "It heightens the credibility and interest. It gives a survey an objective overview. In other words, we're delighted."

Leatherman said Ketterhagen's appreciation needs to be tempered with foresight. "Pinellas County has fantastic areas to get away to. We need places like that, where people can escape," he said. "But if you overpopulate, overdevelop and overpollute, Florida's just going to be Paradise Lost."