Sydney Pools – The Best Places to Learn to Swim in Australia
Whether it’s the opera house or Harbour Bridge, Sydney is famous for its iconic landmarks. But it’s not as well known that the city has the world’s highest number of ocean pools, with Cape Town a close second boasting just 19. And it’s these rock and beach pools that make Sydney a standout when it comes to swimming.
During the interwar years, community fundraising and unemployment relief schemes helped coastal communities acquire ocean pools they would otherwise have been unable to afford. As a result, many of Sydney’s beaches became home to formalised pools such as the Bronte Baths and less formalised ring-of-rocks ocean pools such as the bogey hole at Bronte Beach.
These pools were primarily built for recreational purposes rather than to provide swimming lessons, although they did play a key role in forging ties with country communities and providing a much-needed respite from the harsh Australian sun. For instance, the Bondi and Bronte Amateur Swimming Clubs led a free learn-to-swim campaign in the 1930s that saw members travel to country towns to give swimming instruction.
In the meantime, harbour pools also started popping up across Sydney’s suburbs. One of the oldest is the Mahon Pool, a corrugated iron and painted cream-and-green pool tucked beneath Balmain’s sandstone cliffs. Built in 1883, it was formerly called the Elkington Park Baths before being renamed for Olympic swimmer and local resident John Mahon in 1908. It’s considered the most challenging of Sydney’s public harbour pools because the waves crash into it at high tide and can carry swimmers off course.
The city’s other harbour pool, the Balmain Baths, is a little more tame and was once known as the ‘Crown of Queens Bay’ because it was the only place in Sydney where swimming was allowed at all hours. It’s the oldest of Sydney’s public harbour pools and was Australia’s first home for swimming and water polo clubs, with its distinctive pontoon of diving blocks allowing 50-metre laps to be made. It was restored in 2021 with a heritage-listed $8 million refurbishment that included new water polo lights, a decking floor raised to combat rising sea levels, and engineering works to lay new foundations and raise the pool.
Sydney’s iconic outdoor pools are now under threat from gentrification and the need to meet water quality standards. The City of Sydney is currently reviewing its policy to protect them and has also floated a plan to increase the number of netted harbour pools in the most densely populated suburbs. However, the fate of this plan remains uncertain and it’s not yet clear whether Sydney will be able to preserve its precious ocean pools. This article was first published in July 2022 and has been updated to reflect the latest developments.