Lap, paddle or float at Black Head and Forster ocean pools.

Ocean pools hold a special place in the hearts of Australians: safe but salty places to swim for young and old. And who can resist the waves breaking over the pool edge providing a brief passing spray of salty rejuvenation, better than any land-based spa!

Sometimes they’re called ocean baths but an ocean pool can be defined as “a public seawater pool sited on a surfcoast so that waves can wash into the pool.” Sorry, this definition means all those netted swimming enclosures don’t really qualify which makes the limited number of true ocean pools even more desirable.

New South Wales has the perfect rocky coastline for ocean pools but they’re mostly confined to areas from Newcastle southwards. Barrington Coast is lucky to possess two of the just four true ocean pools between Newcastle and the Queensland border: Black Head and Forster.

Oceanpooling is becoming a new phenomenon, where devoted swimmers tick off their list of ocean pools visited, whether it's for a lap, paddle or just to float. It’s so popular that websites and blogs are devoted to it and several news articles too.

This story below is by Kate Mills published on her blog oceanpooling.com with photos by PJ Collins.

Forster ocean pool by Kate Mills 2
Forster ocean pool by Kate Mills 2
Forster ocean pool by Kate Mills 1
Forster ocean pool by Kate Mills 1
Forster ocean pool aerial by Kate Mills
Forster ocean pool aerial by Kate Mills
Black Head ocean pool by Kate Mills
Black Head ocean pool by Kate Mills

Today is a two-pool day and thankfully the weather is respectful of that. The skies cleared as we approached Black Head Ocean Pool and we got in for a dip and were able to dry off in the sun.

Black Head Ocean Pool is a good pool – regular-sized with a good location on the south side of the beach, it is raised up and protected, so even though the sea is still churning, we are able to safely get in. The pool is lively with locals and holidaymakers and I can imagine that if it’s been raining in Black Head for the last week, everyone is pleased to see the sun.

The pool is a concrete pool and stirs a debate with us about the pros and cons of concrete pools. There are lots of positives to a concrete pool. They are regular in shape which is good for laps. They are generally well protected because they are often raised off the ocean floor and the walls won’t have barnacles so there is less slicing your foot or knee as you approach or push off. However, you may feel more immersed in nature when you are in a traditional ocean pool. These are where walls have been built to create a pool, but the floor remains that of the ocean and the pool is filled with ocean life such as sea urchins. These pools team with sea life and one of my best experiences of an ocean pool was to get in to join 4 rather large fish and we swam together up and down for a few laps.

There are of course negatives. Sea urchins are terrible little buggers and if you stand on one it turns what was to be a pleasant swim into an afternoon of pain and tweezers. Swimming with sea life seems like a good idea, but nature is often best appreciated through a window. That said, if I had to choose between a concrete pool and a traditional ocean pool I do prefer the latter. We come to the water to be in nature, so the closer we can get to it the better.

Black Head has reasonable access and changing facilities. The pool has stair steps at one end. As a rule, I like pools to have a ramp, stair steps, and ladder steps so that all bases are covered. Stair steps and ramps are all about ease of access, but ladder steps at the right spot can get you easily into the deep end of the pool if you don’t want to jump in. This pool is not particularly deep, it does have lap lines on the bottom although it is so full that doing laps has some challenges.

We then head south to the Forster Ocean Baths, a simply magnificent pool. It’s in a great location and is probably one of the biggest ocean pools I have ever seen – although I understand that the Newcastle which we will visit tomorrow is larger. The size makes it work. It’s a concrete pool and has an irregular shape, but it’s so big that everyone can be accommodated. There’s a swimming class happening on one corner, the little kids are in the shallow end, the bigger kids have their own spots for somersaults and there’s still room for people like me to get some very serious laps in. As I lap along at the end of the pool, I spy 3 crabs on the southern wall that also have their own spot. With enough space we can all cohabit.

The location is great – at the south end of the beach just below a hill. There are covered picnic and barbecue facilities and probably the best change facilities I have ever experienced at a pool. These are individual changing rooms that are clean and have a with a bench, hook and a door that locks – it really doesn’t take much for a good changing experience. The changing room is often overlooked at pools, but it’s the transition space between water and land and the better it is, the better your transition.

Going to the Forster ocean pool is a great experience. Sure, it doesn’t have the natural intimacy of a smaller rock pool, but it clearly serves its community and makes all kinds of activities in the water a pleasure.

Black Head ocean pool.
Black Head ocean pool.

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