Growing up in Australia, swimming is an integral part of our national identity, and the beach was an influential part of my childhood. I remember building the most beautiful crafted sand castles, jewelled with shells diligently collected along the beach. I barely had time to marvel at them before my terrorising sister would swoop down like a magpie and swiftly knock it to the ground. At least that is my memory; I am sure if you asked her, the roles were reversed. I spoke about it with my father recently for an impartial perspective, and he admitted we were both pretty terrible.
I remember eagerly barracking Ian Thorpe swimming at the Olympics being captivated by his rhythm and grace in the water. Australia dominates the swimming events, having taken 58 Gold Medals, a tally second only the USA (who, by the way, has a population 15 times Australia). Our family holidays were always by the sea, Port Phillip Island, Batemans Bay, Surfers Paradice. In fairness, every Australian's normal life was likely by the beach as 85% of the population live within 50kms of the coast.
I love the beach, and I love swimming, but on the other hand, I hate sand. I know it is a cliche to say it gets everywhere, but it is harder to get rid of than a cane toad infestation. My disdain has only grown with age, especially as a photographer; sand has become my sworn enemy. I am not much of a fan of chlorine, so to keep alive saltwater swimming I seek refuge inside the many sea baths that dot the Australian coast. I relish the idea that I can climb on the rocks and swim laps in a saltwater pool, protected from the sharks, rip tides, and the sand. With over 30 ocean pools between Palm Beach and Cronulla, you are never too far from one of Sydney’s cherished ocean baths. Here is are a list of our favourites, and one from Melbourne for good taste.
Three rock pools were built along Newport Beach at the turn of the century, and three pools washed away. At a town meeting to reinstate the pool in the mid-1920s, it was argued that "the site of the proposed pool is unique and generally considered to be one of the finest on the coast". Seeing as Australia has a coastline of over 35,000kms, it might sound a little arrogant, but you can not deny their sentiment. At the bottom of Newport Beach, you will find this 50-meter long sea bath with a natural rock platform as the floor.
Features: 50m Rockpool, Change Rooms, Toilets, Shower
North Narrabeen Rockpool
One of the most renowned rock pools along the northern beaches, North Narrabeen is located at the entrance to the Lagoon bearing the same name. There is a picturesque wooden boardwalk splitting the 50m lap pool, from the rest of the pool. Back in the 40s, there was even a Winter Club that met here called the North Narrabeen Shivering Sharks.
Features: 8 lanes, 50m Rockpool, Boardwalk, Change Rooms, Toilets
Indeed a neighbourhood pool, the Collaroy Rockpool would not be mobbed by socks and sandal-clad tourists, nor will you be fighting for a spot against other photographers, but the oblong shape of Collaroy, as well as the classic look dating from the 1920s, make it a lesser known treasure.
Features: 8 lanes, 50m Rockpool, Toddler's Pool, Toilets, Showers
North Curl Curl Rockpool
The council were stuck between a rock and a hard place after a boulder fell into the centre of the pool during a storm in Sydney. It was the size of a small minibus, and they even thought about blowing it up. Luckily they operated quickly at low tide to move heavy equipment and work quickly to break it up before the tide came in and swept their track away. The secluded rock pool is once again open to the public, but be careful when you enter, the stairs are submerged during high tide, so you will need to scamper over the headland.
Features: 30m Rockpool, showers out at the SLSC building
South Curl Curl Rockpool
North Curl Curl and South Curl Curl might sound similar, but their position on complete opposite ends of Curl Curl beach acts as a metaphor for how polar opposite they are. South Curl Curl was completely renovated in 2011, and the open, longer, obstacle-free pool contrast the North's smaller, hidden, cave feeling.
Features: 8 lanes, 50m Rockpool, Toddler Area, Showers, Public Toilets
Fairy Bower Sea Pool, Manly
One of the older sea pools in the Sydney area, in fact it was two fishermen from Fairy Bower who became the first lifeguards in Sydney. The oddly shaped triangular pool might make it hard to do a proper 20 laps, but it makes up for it with its famous sculpture “Sea Nymphs” which stood on the edge of the pool. Sadly, heavy storms in 2016 destroyed the statue. Do not panic though, thanks to a grassroots campaign the figure returned to its former grandeur.
Facilities: 20m Rockpool, public toilets, showers
Undeniable the most famous Sea Bath in the world, the Bondi Baths, host to the Bond Iceberg Club is steeped in tradition. Created in 1929 by a group of surf lifesavers who were looking to practice during the winter months, the club established stringent rules for members; they must swim at least three out of every four Sundays a month for five years, or risk expulsion from the club and banishment from the premise for a year. Luckily anyone else can swim as a guest, so you do not need to brave the inclement winter weather.
Features: Two separate pools, an eight-lane 50m pool, and a five-lane 25m pool, Showers, Toilets, Lifeguards
While not as famous as the nearby Bondi beaches, what Bronte Baths lacks in fame, it makes up for in beauty. It is one of the most photogenic Rock Pools in Sydney, and unlike Bondi, it is a fabulous place to relax and enjoy the ocean air without battling the throngs of tourists. The lanes are slightly shorter at 30m, and there is a wooden turn paddle in the middle separating the lap swimmers, from the rest.
Features: 6 lanes, 30m Rockpool, showers, toilets
Ivor Rowe Rockpool
Compared to the rest of the pools on this list, the name might be slightly misleading and maybe should consider changing its name to Ivor Rowe Rock Tub as it is barely ten meters wide. In the heat of summer, when you are just looking for a quiet place to cool off, it serves its purpose well. Just make sure you don't get stuck there at high tide, or you might have a scramble trying to get back to shore.
Just up shore from the famous surf beach of Maroubra, you will find the perfect getaway for the city-weary traveller. The rock shelf is teaming with life and sometimes they get into the pool itself, so do not forget your pool shoes, otherwise the black spiky sea urchins might try to prick your feet. Come during wild weather and you will be delighted by the waves violently cracking against the side of the pool and filling it withh foam.
Features: public toilets, showers
Middle Brighton Baths
I wanted to jump down to my hometown of Melbourne for my last bath. The city might not be as well known for its beaches as Sydney, but that does not mean the culture capital does not have a few tricks up her sleeve. The finest of them is the Middle Brighton Baths. Unlike many of the natural rock pools in Sydney, Brighton sports one of the few remaining cages open water sea baths in the country with a wooden decking that surrounds the entire enclosure.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, so if you have a photo of your favourite Sea Bath, please add it to the comment section below. And if you do not have any, we would be happy to create a custom photographic journey exploring Sea Baths in Sydney or Melbourne with Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours. I would like to make a shout out to Ocean Pools NSW whom I used as one of my many references for this article. He has built a remarkable resource for pools in Sydney and beyond.
Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local.
Federico captures the sky of Sydney, from the craggy sea pools of the Sydney coast to the Harbour Bridge, he blends an element of cinematic glory into each of his my images.