The eastern seaboard of New South Wales is mottled with ocean pools that are clustered around Sydney and Wollongong and come all shapes and sizes. Set against sublime headlands and tucked into sweeping beaches, these simple swimming spots are understated turquoise sanctuaries. Human-made walls meld with natural rock and are engulfed by the surf twice a day. If our surroundings speak to us of who we are, ocean pools tell of our love affair with the water’s edge.
Ocean pools sit between the tides; they aren’t part of the land but they’re never fully claimed by the surf. In this no man’s land of constant change they are outliers perched along the coast. In 2017 I began tracing the pools, travelling the length of the state from north to south to map them. Charting each pool’s minutiae of contours, platforms, edges and crevices. Having completed this I have stepped back from the detail to read them as a collective. Seen together, our affinity with the coastline is clear, writ large in the rough-hewn concrete of 60 ocean pools.
The author Tim Winton suggested: “We live by the sea because of the two mysteries the sea is more forthcoming; its miracles and wonders are occasionally more palpable, however inexplicable they be.” He’s not alone in this sentiment. Benjamin Law’s love letter to Australian swimming spots named our ocean pools as sacred public spaces. More than 80% of Australians live along the edge of the continent. The pull of the ocean has a strong effect on us.
Our connection with ocean pools is an extension of this and of our casual beach culture. Both revolve around the simple pleasures of the sun and the surf. Rather than being designed, ocean pools are a matter of what is necessary. They don’t compete with the landscape, they facilitate it. Concrete is buried into sandstone or the pool is simply carved into the rock. Some pools have wandering outlines nestled into a natural platform. Others are straight cut rectangles, good for swimming laps. Many are in-between or a mixture of both. What they all offer is a protected alternative to swimming at the beach. Sheltered from rips, shore dumps and wildlife hazards, they’re well used during calm conditions and can shield swimmers from big swells.
The pull of the water is never more evident than at Bronte baths, possibly the most photographed ocean pool in Australia. It’s nestled into the southern headland at Sydney’s Bronte beach. The pool is frequented by salt-encrusted locals, wanderlusting influencers and chain-surfing teens alike. At dusk floodlights illuminate the pool’s turquoise depths, turning it into a stunning watery retreat. Many swimmers seek out Bronte Baths when the swell is big and Bronte’s notorious shore break is too dangerous to navigate.
Resting on the water’s edge, ocean pools are nonetheless at the mercy of the surf and subject to the full force of the ocean. In June 2016 a severe storm surge hit Sydney’s northern and eastern beaches, damaging areas of the coastline. Bronte baths and the coastal walk connecting Bondi to Coogee were among the areas affected. Both were subsequently closed for an extended period while repairs were made. Expectations are that significant weather systems like this will increase in frequency and severity as a result of climate change and rising sea levels.
This brings into question the future of the coast and our ability to live in proximity to the water’s edge. Future-proofing ocean pools against climate change will trigger major upgrades across the state by local councils and may result in the potential closure of some sites. In turn this may also give rise to the construction of the first new ocean pools in NSW since the 1970s. Responding to climate change presents an opportunity to revive ocean pools in a considered, vibrant and enduring way. Within this is the potential to adapt the pools into protective structures, which serve to shield parts of the waterfront as well as providing protected swimming areas.
At their core ocean pools are understated and demur in the landscape. They allow us to experience the water’s edge intimately, safely and with ease. Ocean pools should continue to tell the story of our affinity with the coastline. Through this they may also tell a story of stewardship, conservation and resilience now and into the future.
• Nicole Larkin is a Sydney-based architect