Sydney’s ocean pools are one of the things Imogen Wiseman loves best about the city.
“I’m from Adelaide originally and there’s nothing like it there,” she said. “It’s unique to Sydney.”
Ms Wiseman and her two boys, Iggy, 7, and Jet, 5, who live in Pagewood in Sydney’s south, are regulars at Mahon Pool, carved into a sandstone rock platform below the northern headland at Maroubra Beach.
“From a parent perspective, the biggest bonus is I’m not dealing with sand, but it’s still a seawater swim,” she said. “I prefer going there to the beach because there’s so much more the kids can do like explore the rocks … and the environment is always different.”
It’s a case of come for the swimming, stay for the sealife, with Iggy and Jet enthralled by the small black crabs that live under the rocks.
Mahon Pool is one of dozens of ocean pools in Sydney, from Oak Park Rock Pool in Cronulla to Palm Beach Rockpool in the north, and one of nearly 100 in NSW.
Ignacio Palacios, creator of a coffee-table book called Sydney Rock Pools, said he would like Sydneysiders to better appreciate the ocean pools.
“A lot of people in Sydney and Australia take them for granted but they are actually unique in the world,” Mr Palacios said. “I am a travel photographer and I travel everywhere and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It’s almost – but not quite – true. Marie-Louise McDermott, who has done a PhD on ocean pools and heads up the not-for-profit organisation All Into Ocean Pools, says Cape Town, South Africa, is another city with a lot of ocean pools. They were historically built for similar reasons to Sydney – to help a population with weak swimming skills deal with hot weather and avoid sharks, surf and rips.
Dr McDermott said the earliest recreational pools in Sydney were built around the harbour – one of the first was Dawn Fraser Baths in Balmain dating from the late 19th century. It’s now in need of $6.7 million in urgent repairs to accommodate rising sea levels. Maccallum Seawater Pool in Cremorne, Greenwich Baths and Northbridge Baths were built in the early 20th century.
After recreation shifted to the surf coast, construction of ocean pools boomed from the Great Depression to the aftermath of the Melbourne Olympics. None have been built since the late 1960s, when in-ground swimming pools became more popular.
Dr McDermott said the ocean pools were still relevant for beach safety, especially in areas where the surf lifesavers patrolled only on weekends and public holidays, or for people who were not strong swimmers.
“They’re a wilder swimming environment than the standard in-ground pools, much more like an adventure playground, and the safety comes from the structure rather than the lifeguards,” she said. “Because they’re a little bit dangerous, the people who use ocean pools tend to look out for each other.”
Some of Sydney’s ocean pools are well known and designed for laps, such as Bondi Icebergs or Wylie’s Baths in Coogee, while others are hidden and known only to locals, such as the Ivor Rowe Rockpool, a round natural pool under the cliffs of south Coogee.
Some have traditions: Bondi Icebergs requires members to swim through the winter months, while McIver Baths in Coogee is for women and children only with an exemption under the Anti-Discrimination Act. There are four other ocean pools in Coogee for mixed use.
Mr Palacios said he photographed all the pools in his book at sunrise and sunset. His favourites were Mona Vale ocean pool or North Curl Curl on the northern beaches, and Bronte Baths and Mahon Pool in the east.
“We always found people in the really early hours of the morning who’ve been swimming at those rock pools for many years and do it every day,” Mr Palacios said. “They’d tell me interesting stories about sharks or dolphins trapped in some of the pools.”
Dr McDermott said the ocean pools were mostly well maintained by local councils. Some of the bigger pools are bolstered by commercial income, such as Bondi Icebergs, which is home to a club and restaurant, and Wylie’s Baths, a popular wedding venue.