What are Headlands?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A headland is a geographical feature which borders the ocean. It consists of a point of land which thrusts out into the water, so that it is surrounded by water on three sides. Typically, headlands are characterized by being very high, with a sheer drop to the ocean or a small beach. Many coastlines around the world are marked with headlands, some of which are very famous.

Headlands are popular beach vacation spots.
Headlands are popular beach vacation spots.

The formation of headlands takes a long time, as they are created through erosion of the shoreline. Around the world, the ocean is slowly eating away at the land it comes in contact with. Hard stone and rock are more resistant to erosion, while soft stone and dirt wears away quickly. The result is an often irregular coastline, marked with headlands of hard rock and bays where soft stone once was. In a sense, bays are the opposite of headlands, as they are bodies of water surrounded by land on three sides.

Headlands may include a small beach.
Headlands may include a small beach.

There are numerous different types of headlands. A long, very narrow headland is often called a promontory. Promontories are often famous for their rugged beauty, as they provide a clear view of the ocean and a sense of being alone, since the small mass of land does not permit many people. Extremely large headlands will be known as peninsulas, while capes are headlands which are placed in a position which interrupts the general currents of the ocean.

The Cape of Good Hope, Gibraltar, Land's End, North Cape, Cape Henry, Cape Cod, Cabo San Lucas, Cape Horn, and Cape Foulwind are some well known examples of headlands from around the world. Many headlands make popular vacation spots, since they often border harbors which allow ships to dock. In addition, they may have a leeward side with a beach which is sheltered from the wind, and they are often quite striking to look at as well.

If you visit an area with headlands, there are some precautions you should take. Never approach the edge of a headland, as headlands are prone to landslides and erosion, and your weight may trigger a slide which could potentially injure you very seriously. You should also beware of sneaker waves, unusually large ocean waves which can strike when they are not expected. If you are caught by a sneaker wave, you could be knocked off and carried out to sea, which is generally an undesirable turn of events.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Headlands are important because we use them every day without realizing it, and there's a whole different world down there.


It's true that even headlands which look safe might not be. Think of it the same way you might about climbing a tree- even secure-looking branches could give way, which is why children especially are advised not to climb trees.


Ha, "generally an undesirable turn of events" is putting it a little mildly. Either way, especially with things like tsunamis on the rise, we should all be more careful on coastlines. Even safe places might change and become unsafe too quickly for us to notice.

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