Sydney’s coastal and harbour baths and pools have been pleasing casual bathers for generations. Thanks to photographer Ian Lever’s efforts of the past 15 years, we present for you ten of the best the city has to offer. Words by David Clark, images by Ian Lever
Cut into the base of cliffs and rocks at the edge of nearly all of Sydney’s beaches are the city’s unique rock pools. There are 30 between Palm Beach and Cronulla and together with over 40 harbour pools, make Sydney a Mecca for swimming.
Construction of the pools began in the late 19th Century, partly to protect swimmers from drowning and shark attacks, but many were also a conciliatory gesture by councils because swimming at beaches in daylight hours was illegal until 1903 and landowners didn’t want swimmers on beaches near their properties. Many more were built by unemployed labour during the depression and have been classified by the National Trust.
Although they may belong to a different era, most are free of charge, have changing and shower facilities and are well-maintained. Swimmers are rediscovering their charm.
Nestled into the side of the southern headland at Bronte Beach, the Bronte Baths attract everything from lap swimming grandmothers in floral bathing caps to skylarking adolescents and families. Waverley Council recently gave the baths a $250,000 facelift and although the pool remains an irregular shape, there’s a five-lane lap-swimming area. Alick Wickham, a Solomon Islander, astonished onlookers when he performed a “crawl” stroke there in 1901 – which later became freestyle.
Bondi Public Baths
Built in 1887 at the southern end of Australia’s most famous beach, Bondi Baths recently underwent a multi-million dollar refurb. The swimming complex comprises a 50m eight-lane Olympic-sized pool and a shallow 20m pool suitable for children. It’s also home to four amateur swimming clubs, the most notable being the Bondi Icebergs where full membership can only be attained by swimming three out of four Sundays every month from May to September for five years.
“We are the Bondi Icebergs, The toughest men they breed, Happy and contented, Cold water’s all we need, We’re not soaks or crooners, We just sing as we drink our beer, So bring out all your schooners, ‘cause the ‘Bergs are here.” – Icebergs Anthem, written by Joe Wallace, 1940
Dawn Fraser Baths, Balmain
The Victorian elegance of this corrugated iron and wood structure tucked below Balmain’s sandstone cliffs makes it unique among Sydney’s harbour pools. Built in 1883, they were formerly called Elkington Park Baths but were renamed in honour of the Olympic champ, who lived nearby and learnt to swim there. There’s a pontoon of diving blocks at one end which allows 50m laps.
Mahon Pool, Maroubra
Most rock and beach pools are situated to offer some protection from the sou’westerleys, but not Mahon; built in 1932, the 33-yard pool sits on a rock platform overlooking Lurline Bay and has been dubbed the “impossible” pool because it’s at the mercy of the waves which crash into it at high tide and can carry swimmers off course. The Sydney Swans regularly use the pool for recovery sessions.
MacCallum Pool, Cremorne
Located on the western side of Cremorne Point with stunning views taking in the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, MacCallum Pool was originally a rock pool created by residents as a safe harbour swimming hole, then reconstructed in the 1920s above the high water mark. Although the pool is small and narrow (just two lanes wide) it’s long enough for laps. The pool is seasonal (October to March), but admission is free.
North Narrabeen Rock Pool
Built during the depression, North Narrabeen is large by rock pool standards, but a 50m eight-lane swimming area has been sectioned off with timber boardwalk in the southwest corner. There are no outdoor showers and the sandy bottom means there are no lines to follow for laps. The pool is home to three amateur swimming clubs and also has a free learn-to-swim summer program for anyone aged six to 70.
Palm Beach Rock Pool
Located at the southern end of Palm Beach with sweeping views back to Barrenjoey, Palm Beach rock pool is just the right length, 50m, and has an amenities block. It’s a favourite training place for participants in the annual Palm Beach to Whale Beach swim.
Wylie’s Baths, Coogee
Established by Henry Wylie, a champion long distance and underwater swimmer in 1907, Wylie’s Baths underwent extensive restoration in 1995-97 and was heritage-listed in 2003. Swimming there is like being in an aquarium; the walls and floor are covered in lichen and seaweed, and lap swimmers disturb schools of tiny colourful fish. The constant intrusion of white water at high-tide is a challenge, as the pool merges so completely with the ocean it’s like swimming in a washing machine on spin cycle.
McIvor’s (Women’s) Baths, Coogee
Just a stone’s thrown from Wylie’s are a McIvor’s Baths, dug into the existing rock shelf at the southern end of Coogee Beach. Built in 1876 and later operated by the McIvor family, they’ve been a women-and-children-only pool for almost 80 years, the only one of its kind in Australia with an exemption under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act. The pool is short (just 20m) and the steep decline means it’s not easily accessible for everyone. But it’s a haven for a cross-section of Muslim women, nuns, lesbians and mothers who seek privacy while bathing.
Fairy Bower, Manly
Reached from the promenade linking Manly and Shelly beaches, this small but well-maintained pool hasn’t changed hugely since it was built by local residents in 1929. It’s a roughly triangular shape, with its longest side – about 30m – adjoining the promenade.