A sandy beach in the south of Portugal (Faro beach, Ria Formosa) was surveyed from the dune crest seaward to 15 m depth 20 times over a period of 26 months. Wave time-series between surveys were analysed to obtain relationships between wave height and vertical profile variations and to define wave thresholds for important morphological changes. Results show that the active zone of the profile lies between 5 m above and 10·4 m below mean sea level, and that there are clear cross-shore differences in the vertical variability of the profile. Based on the pattern of vertical variability, the profile was divided into four cross-shore sectors: A (berm), 20–80 m from the profile origin; B (sub-tidal terrace), 80–170 m; C (long-shore bar), 170–360 m; and D, 360–700 m. The relationship between the modulus of the maximum vertical change in each sector and the 99th percentile of significant wave height between surveys was always significant. Calculated thresholds for significant wave height generating important morphological changes were 2·3 m in sector A, 3·2 m in sectors B and C, and 4·1 m in sector D. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.