Anthropology on the Beach

August 31st, 2012, 1am

Two years ago I spent a few days visiting Georgian Bay, an arm of Lake Huron a few hours north of Toronto. As an Australian who, for the past 35 years, has lived in a beach-side community positioned where Bass Strait joins the Southern Ocean, I feel I know what to expect of a beach culture in a relatively remote European settlement. But, from the moment I arrived at Wasaga Beach, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this could not be an Australian beach.

There were environmental cues of course, but what struck me most was what I would call cultural difference. I sensed these differences and yet could not quite describe them. And since I was coming as a tourist, not an anthropologist to study behaviour in the back of beyond, I snapped a few photos and then relaxed for an hour or two with a friend in a cafe with a view.

Today I took another look at these photos. In the image above, virtually every element would likely be present in an Australian beach scene: a woman about to enter the water, a child digging in the sand, a young man about to address a ball, a man in a hat looking for something in a cooler bag, a fully clothed older couple observing the scene. Yet, do I sense, or perhaps imagine, a tentative quality, a stillness, that would be rare on an Australian beach. This moment seems curiously static, unlike most of the Australian beach pics I have taken over the years.

Perhaps my observations are nothing more than an artefact of the photo itself or an over interpretation of one brief moment in time. As it happens, there is another photo taken close to a minute before the one above.


The woman with just her toes in the water, the young man slightly less animated and a meter further away from the ball, the boy about to set down his pail, a slight gesture from the woman cyclist, the man still fiddling in the red bag. It’s a bit like slow motion. Did the woman ever plunge in, did the ball get kicked, did anyone else arrive or leave? In my thinking about this, I wonder if Australians own their beaches, while Canadians on the beach are “strangers in a strange land”. My Canadian friends will hopefully not be offended by this passing thought of an purely amateur anthropologist.

Nelson, Peter, Lia, Samuel and 1 more said thanks.

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David Wade Chambers

Born in Oklahoma: 30 years in US. 6 years in Canada, 40 years in Australia. Academic field: history and philosophy of science. Currently, teach indigenous studies online at Institute of American Indian Arts (Santa Fe, NM) and Brandon University (Manitoba). Come visit our B&B on Australia's Great Ocean Road. Mate's Rates for Hi community! (

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