You can sum up Sydney in summer with a series of conflicting sensations. There’s the shriek of cockatoos over the low rumble of thunder. The warm breeze laced with the unexpected scent of frangipani. And the feeling of hot sandstone under your feet before you jump into an ocean pool.
Malabar Ocean Pool overlooks Malabar, a beachside suburb a thirty-minute drive southeast of the city centre. It unfolds across a rocky outcrop pocked with shellfish middens, a trace of the Indigenous Bidjigal and Gadigal clans that once hunted and fished on this headland. But like the 34 other ocean pools that crisscross Sydney’s coastline – from Palm Beach in the north to Cronulla in the south – this lopsided 30m-long rectangle seems to exist in another dimension. It occupies a place between land and sea.
Everyone knows Bondi Icebergs, that turquoise lozenge that regularly surfaces on Instagram feeds, surrounded by the washing-machine churn of the ocean. These less-famous structures were built from the 1890s, when recreation and leisure was centred around the Harbour.
They accommodated colonial swimmers who feared the roiling East Australian Current. Later, they employed workers who found themselves adrift during the Great Depression. Towards the middle of the century, Australia became increasingly obsessed with backyard swimming and suburban aquatic centres.
No new ocean pools have been built in the city since the 1960s. But these days, Sydneysiders are once again taking pride in these spaces, which possess a undeniable visual beauty – one that resonates with an era increasingly dominated by images. This pride is contagious; plans for ocean pools are in the works in the towns of Ballina and Port Macquarie as well as in the states of Western Australia and South Australia.
But these spaces, carved into Sydney’s craggy coastline, remain a defining element of the Harbour City.
They reflect Sydneysiders’ primal relationship with the landscape. They also play a starring role in the city’s life.
Long drawn to the shimmering pockets of water that hug New South Wales’ perimeter, Nicole Larkin, a Sydney-based architect, designer and artist has made it her mission to document the ocean pools scattered up and down the coast through her project the Wild Edge.
Nicole says that although Sydney’s ocean pools, which often occupy natural rock platforms and ancient coves, are humble, they are a compelling part of the city’s identity. Part of the appeal, for her, is the fact that these spaces are accessible. Often, they cost nothing to visit.
“We have an ocean pool at almost every beach and they are simple structures that touch on Sydney’s relationship with the water,” Nicole says with a smile.
“Ocean pools were a safer alternative for kids, older people, people who aren’t confident. They allow you to enter the ocean through a protected space.”
For generations of Sydney women, this sanctuary is McIver’s in Coogee, Australia’s last ladies-only ocean baths. The baths were built in 1876 by Rose and Robert McIver for their young daughter who was refused entry to a nearby swim club. A relic from the era of gender-segregated swimming, it is a seaside oasis encircled by scrubby bushland. Here, for a two-dollar donation, you can sunbathe on the grass while grandmothers in bathing caps swim morning laps and girls in hijabs laugh and splash, dipping their toes in the water.
On a clear afternoon, you can be buffeted by the current, salt fizzing against your skin. You can float on your back, sea and sky and cliffs blurring together, completely unselfconscious and free.
Julie Isbill, the founder of Bold & Beautiful, a squad that meets each day at 7am to swim 1.5km between Shelly Beach and Manly, believes that Sydney’s ocean pools blend the human scale of the swimming pool with the unknown powers of the ocean. This can cement our relationship with the wilderness. It’s also a reminder to take care of it.
“Rock pools are the best of both worlds, a beautiful amalgamation of pool and ocean,” Julie explains. “In Cabbage Tree Bay, we’ve swum with dolphins and whales and we have turtles on occasion. Swimmers can have confidence in the fact that we can live in harmony [with marine species]. One of the Bold & Beautiful swimmers is regrowing the sea grass which is an important part of the ecological system. People really take an interest. To say they are passionate would be an understatement.”
Nicole believes that Sydney’s ocean pools are experiencing a watershed moment. Climate change will bring bigger storms and rising oceans. But part of the conversation about protecting ocean pools, she says, involves thinking about their original purpose – and bringing their pleasures to a wider swathe of the community.
“How can we turn ocean pools into something the whole community can use?” Nicole adds. “I see the future as an opportunity to do something really amazing.”
*Malaysia Airlines flies 14x weekly between Kuala Lumpur and Sydney.