The History of Sydney Ocean Pools

When Sydney swimmers ask about swimming spots where they can swim away from the pounding surf, they’re often led to ocean pools. While they’re not as common in other Australian cities, there are more than 30 of these iconic swim spots here – more than anywhere else in the world. They’re a unique feature of Sydney’s coastline, and they’re not just popular with swimmers; they also serve as valuable beach safety measures.

Whether they’re a refuge from rough waves, a place to do laps or a spot where a swimmer can experience the thrill of a rip as it crashes against the rock walls, ocean pools offer an ideal swimming environment. Designed to let the waves wash in and out while excluding sharks and other sea life, they provide a safe alternative to swimming along the city’s surf beaches, where rips account for most surf rescues and coastal deaths by drowning.

But despite their popularity, these ocean and rock pools haven’t been given much public attention, so a recent Facebook post by Meegan Zen prompted Krissy Sherker to investigate the history of Sydney’s ocean pool culture. Sherker’s search for answers led her to the library in Manly, the Northern Beaches and Randwick councils and an online archive. The answers weren’t easy to find, but the research was rewarding.

Most of Sydney’s rock pools were built in the late 19th and early 20th century as recreational and competitive swimmers sought places to swim safely, away from powerful waves and the risk of shark attacks. “Back then very few non-Indigenous people had surf skills, so they needed nice safe places where they could do their swimming,” says Marie-Louise McDermott, who has written extensively about Sydney’s ocean pools and runs the website All Into Ocean Pools.

During the interwar period, ocean pools were supported by increased patrols and the introduction of shark meshing at most Sydney metropolitan beaches. While shark attacks continued to occur, they dropped significantly in frequency and a number of lives were saved by the added protection of pool fencing and shark nets.

Several of Sydney’s ocean pools have survived the test of time, and some are even open to the public again. Those who want to visit can check the websites of their local councils or the NSW Department of Parks and Wildlife for more information, or look out for signs on rocky shorelines. A small entrance fee may be charged. In addition to swimming, most rock and ocean pools are also suitable for picnics. The waters are typically cool to warm, and some have picnic shelters. Some of the most popular are Mahon Rock Pool on Lurline Bay and Greenacre Pool in south-west Sydney. Despite their age, they’re still very much loved by swimmers. They evoke memories of childhood, the intoxicating smell of chlorine, hot chips and long, carefree days splashing and swimming with what seemed like the whole neighbourhood.