The Ocean Pool

Mahoon pool in still weather, calm surface
Photo by Therese of Swimming Pool Stories

 
I used to swim almost every morning all year around in a tidal pool back when we lived in a beach suburb, before we bought the house and moved out west. I swam about the same time every morning, but the experience was always unique – there were so many factors that varied in addition to the routine elements, that it could never be similar to any other day.

A tidal pool is an ocean-side rock pool, where the water is naturally circulated by sea water. The sides are usually made of concrete, and the pools typically have an open “fence” of poles with safety chains on the ocean-sides, to give swimmers something to grab hold of should they accidentally be dragged out at high tide. There are many tidal pools in Sydney.

At high tide, the pool water flows in and out over the edges. High tide water is fresh & clean & full of interesting ocean odours, and there is a fantastic interplay between the restless surface of the water; the sound of the waves and seabirds, the sight of the ocean and all its lively waves filling the huge space between the pool and the horizon; the salty wind; and the sky.

Sometimes the water surface was so calm it acted as a mirror for the sky; at other times it was wrinkled and stirred, warning about troubling weather ahead. The water always told a story about what had happened and what was to come next; and it was never the same story.

My morning routine was to wake up painfully early, drive to the pool and park my car, go for my morning jog on the coastal walkway, come back & pick up the towel from the car, swim in the pool, drive home, have a hot shower, eat breakfast, dress up & drive to work. That start carried me through the long, dreadful days in the office. Well it didn’t actually, but it helped. I was dead tired most of the time though (mainly due to people stress, confusion and boredom at work).

 
Ocean pool communities

There were of course fish in the pool, and crabs along the edges. The tidal pool was an ecological community and I didn’t want to be part of that, so I never touched the bottom with my feet. There was at some stage rumoured to be a Blue Ringed Octopus sitting on a shelf-like cracked concrete wall (there was indeed a kitten-sized octopus sitting there, I saw it); a spot to carefully avoid. A pair of long-necked hunting seabirds would sit on the tall street lamp between their hunts, dripping wet, and a small penguin-like seabird dived in the pool after fish when there wasn’t too much human traffic in the water. A rumour had it that it had bitten a man in the knee under the water once, presumably by mistake.

 
Whale stranded in ocean pool (dead)
Luckily, there were no whales in the pool, dead or alive.
Image from Sydney Morning herald

 
The pool had a human community of regular morning swimmers, some of whom came all year around like me. These people – young and old, mostly old – recognised me and smiled and said good morning. Many of them seemed like very happy people, and many had been swimming there for decades. Most of these people swam “labs”; so they swam back and forth from end to end, often a specified number of times and typically in only one swim-style (e.g. crawl or breast strokes), most with their heads above the water, moving steadily forward in straight lines till they reached the end, then turned and repeated, over and over.

I preferred to swim alone or far from other swimmers; swimming alongside others in the pool forced me to swim labs to avoid getting in the way and be accidentally hit by the swim strokes of the exercise-freaks; and I found labs boring. During summer and spring, people in the water was a major deterrent. The water was particularly crowded on summer mornings, so one really had to get in magically early to avoid the hordes. I mostly avoided swimming on the weekends in summer for that reason, especially if we slept in.

Alone in the water, I could use it according to my preferences: play. I would swim under the water with my eyes open (blurry is better than blind!), vary moves & orientation, roll, swim in circles, try new things, imitate “the gist” of the swim styles of whatever creatures I had in mind (including Aliens), and float on my back like a sea otter, drifting in the water and the sight of the deep & wide open sky above me. So therefore, I liked best to swim in winter; not because I prefer cold water but because it acts as a filter that keep most people out of the water. I preferred somewhat rough seas for the same reason: it acts as a filter too, although it can be tricky to determine the sweet spot where the waves are big enough to look threatening to some people, but not big enough to be really dangerous.

 
Winter waters

The cold-shock is the main “filter” that keeps most people out of ocean pools in winter. At least that is my best guess.

I always jumped in the water head first to get through the cold-shock barrier as fast as possible. The cold feels like it attacks from all sides at once and penetrates, floods the body and mind with knife-sharp, overwhelming coldness in a shocking rush that lasts from a brief moment to a few minutes. Then the body adjusts, and the cold becomes the new Warm Enough. Once adjusted, the water feels pleasant in a cool, crisp way. The outlines of the body are clear and sharp and draw invisible stripes in the water, as if I’m a sketch which the water draws.

There is a caveat of course; with one’s thermal regulation adjusted to low temperature, it is easy to overlook subtle signs of mild hypothermia like numb limbs, purple lips, and deep “bone coldness”. “Bone coldness”, unlike cold-shock, isn’t just a harmless barrier to overcome but a warning sign to take serious. If mild hypothermia sets in it will take hours to warm up after leaving the water, a hot shower or bath doesn’t cure it. It may last all day.

I rarely freeze as such in cold water or coming up from it once I’ve adjusted. If I’m cold then I often first realise it in the hot shower afterwards, where I may start to shake and feel like I can’t get warm no matter what I do. So I set time limits when swimming in winter water; such as max. approx. 20 minutes in the water no matter how nice and gentle it feels (the time limit obviously depends on temperature, how I feel that day, and other factors).

 
Rough seas

Sometimes the weather was such that huge waves came thundering into the pool (one at the time), stirring up mighty turbulence, then washed up over the land side, fell back and rushed out again like a waterfall that could drag an unguarded swimmer out to sea. Sometimes a series of huge waves would come in after every 10 minutes or so, alternating with moderately big waves, and some people would try to swim in those brief intervals and get out again before the next rough series hit.

Once a big wave came at a certain proximity at a certain speed it was too late to leave the pool (in my opinion), because it is more dangerous to get “caught” close to the rocky sides of the pool than to stay in (under) the water due to the risk of being washed up and dragged over the rocks by the wave.

My big-wave coping strategy was to dive down and stay put at a relatively shielded spot at the bottom, relax and let the force of the water pull and push and “pass through” me, to take the brunt off its impact and minimise my energy use (and thereby need for oxygen) under the water; moving “lazily” in such a way that I stayed nearby where I wanted to be but didn’t use more than minimal energy.

When the surface had calmed down enough I would come up and breathe before the next wave hit, then dive down again, and keep repeating the sequence until the whole series was over. Then quickly leave the pool if I felt exhausted (I usually did). It usually worked well.

It can be really hard to judge if a wave is “big” or “too big” though, and the first time I experienced a “too big” wave, I thought I was going to drown.

Looking at a wall of water that kept growing taller as it closed in on the pool, I terrified concluded that I had made a mistake by staying in, and now it was too late to flee. Just before the wave broke over, I dived down to my “safe-spot”. A deafening underwater thunder crash followed and a hard slap on the back (even though I was at the bottom, the protecting layer of water above me seemed to withdraw right before the wave hit down), then an alarming pressure sensation followed by wild chaotic turbulence tearing and pulling in all directions – no up and down, no real water or air, just froth and being thrown around like a piece of wood, helplessly light.

 
The Mahon Pool, Maroubra, in stormy weather - volatile foamy surface
Photo by Therese of Swimming Pool Stories.

 
After a while the froth calmed and became water again, up became air… I could get up and breathe, and saw the next monster wave tower up, and it all repeated.

That’s was a tiny selection of my many ocean pool memories. I was there often and over a long period of time, and countless times it was an amazing, breathtaking experience, to play in fantastic, salty seawater under a huge, evolving morning sky. It is difficult to fold these big experiences into the narrow mono-band datastreams that words are, and still convey just a little bit of the essence of the greatness of it, but I hope I have done that just a tiny bit.

 
Drylife

The ocean pool life style ended in early 2012, when we moved here. My current morning routine is to first walk my 2 dogs on the firetracks in the bush (which starts about 300 meters away), and then run with one of them in the same place.

The runs aren’t quite as exhilarating as the sense of freedom and interaction when moving around in a 3D space amongst strange marine creatures (AKA swimming in seawater), but they are good too.

I like to run on the firetracks. They’re narrow and full of variation: directions / curves, elevation, texture (rocks, stones, sand, branches and so on). A track full of features is interactive like water, just in a different way. Just like in the water, I use my imagination to interact with the surroundings via imaginary shape-shifting: I’m a horse, a deer, a cat, I have paws; whatever fits into the rhythm and features of the terrain. The terrain sets clear rules for what I can and can’t do; where to put each foot down and at which angle, how elastic my legs need to be for this particular bounce, which adjustment I need to make, which rhythm, how to position my shoulders, when to turn, bounce, jump, stop, speed up. It suggests moves, rhythms and patterns, provides plentiful feedback, tests the attention; fuels the evolving choreography of the rhythm of the feet.

 

 
Thanks to Therese who writes the blog Swimming Pool Stories about swimming pools in (mainly) Sydney, and whose great ocean pool photos brought up fond memories and inspired me to write this post. Some of her photos are used to illustrate this story with her permission.

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