In the Land Down Under, there’s an oceanside pool where women—and octopods—swim free.
Sydneysiders have long been suckers for a celebrity sea creature. There’s Bluey the Groper, a giant blue fish made famous by camera-wielding snorkelers in Clovelly Bay—and the public outcry after he was reportedly shot with a speargun. (Bluey’s death has since been disputed, but it was likely the only time a fish made national news in Australia as a murder victim).
Then there’s the Opera House Seal, a New Zealand fur seal who got a little lost, turned up on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, and now has his own hashtag (#sydneyseal). And finally, there’s the octopus at McIvers Baths.
Now, I grew up in Australia during the ’80s. And during that era, it was not uncommon to develop a hysterical fear of the blue-ringed octopus, thanks to a grainy educational tape schools would show on rainy days. The tiny but deadly creatures with their angry, electric-blue markings could reportedly be found hiding under the sand in shallow rock pools, poised to kill with their venom at any moment. Those tapes scared an entire generation of children out of touching the bottoms of pools. Some (me at least) didn’t even like putting their hands in the sink.
So when I heard there was a resident common octopus—harmless, unlike its blue-ringed cousin—lurking around one of my favorite swimming spots, I knew it was time to make my peace.
It’s sort of like a Sydney baptism—a place to clear your head, get your gills wet, and soak up some southern hemisphere sun.
McIvers Baths, popularly known as the Coogee women’s pool, is a natural saltwater pool bordering the ocean; sea creatures wash in and out with the tides. It also happens to be the last remaining women-only seawater pool in Australia. Built into the side of an old rock wall on the eastern beaches, it’s an incredibly special and not particularly well known patch of Sydney.
When friends fly in from overseas, I meet them here, we swim, and they decompress. It’s sort of like a Sydney baptism—a place to clear your head, get your gills wet, and soak up some southern hemisphere sun. Above the pool, the grassy knoll is an unofficial reading and meeting spot where locals sun themselves pre- and post-swim. Down the slightly slippery, slightly mossy stairs, the pool itself is filled with sea urchins and tiny crabs who do their best to hide from seagulls by camouflaging themselves in the same earthy russet colors as the rock crevices they hide in. It’s magical, really, this secluded rock pool that’s been providing the women of Sydney a sanctuary since 1886, where little dartfish, whiting, and toadfish caught by the tides swim up and down alongside women taking unhurried laps. It’s probably all these tasty sea treats that attracted the octopus here in the first place.
Because the pool’s rules strictly prohibit men, swimwear is optional at McIvers Baths.
In the abstract, this may sound tantalizingly after-hours. (I can’t be the only one to have spent a little too much time staring at sexy 19th-century Japanese octopus art on the Internet. Or can I?) But there’s a big difference between hearing about an octopus cohabiting in a natural pool and, well, cohabiting with an octopus in a natural pool.
Because the pool’s rules strictly prohibit men, swimwear is optional at McIvers Baths. I like to call it A Great Time to Get Nude. Part of the experience is getting in and out of the sea and feeling the warm air on your salty, bare skin as you dry naturally on the little stone ledge that leads into the water. What I didn't expect was to feel a tentacle shyly wrap around my ankle.
But there he was (a male, I assumed). The famed octopus of McIvers Baths. Resting on a nearby rock, seven tentacles tucked neatly under his glossy, mottled middle. He looked into my eyes, and I looked into his, that eighth leg folded inquisitively around my sun-dried ankle. Now, if I were a better person, I would have stood still and let that octopus fondle my leg. Appreciated the rareness of the moment. Maybe even enjoyed it. Who knows what we both might have learned?
But I’m not.
Instead, I let out the most bloodcurdling shriek a human can utter, and the poor octopus shrank away, back into the depths.
In all my swims, I’ve never seen him since, though I’m given to believe he’s still slithering about. Octopus, if you’re out there, I’m sorry. Let’s try it again sometime. You know where to find me.
Where to take the plunge
Sydney has no shortage of excellent swim holes, most charging around US$5 for a dip. Here are five to try.
Andrew (Boy) Charlton
One of the greats, this Olympic-size heated, chlorinated seawater pool in Woolloomooloo looks straight out over Sydney Harbour. Named for famous Aussie freestyle swimmer Andrew Murray “Boy” Charlton, “ABC” has eight 50-meter lap lanes. Open September through April.
Attracting the bronzed, the beautiful, and the leathery alike, this year-round seawater pool is home to the 88-year-old Bondi Icebergs, Australia’s famed winter swim club. It’s been a Sydney favorite for more than a century and is set right on the ocean, overlooking one of the world’s most recognizable beaches. Entry includes use of the sauna.
Dawn Fraser Baths
Founded in the 1880s and named after one of Oz’s greatest Olympic swimmers, this saltwater tidal pool is the oldest of its kind in Australia and steeped in Victorian character. (Check out those wooden pavilions and the glamorous old bathhouse.) During low tide, a little beach is popular with families, while the lap lanes host the oldest swimming club in the country. Open from October to April.
North Sydney Olympic Pool
Olympic by name, Olympic by nature. In fact, 86 world records have been set in this 50-meter heated waterfront pool. Like ABC, it is part chlorine and part salt. It also happens to be smack bang in one of the city’s most stunning locales—directly underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Open year-round.
Formerly Redleaf Pool, this harbor tidal pool and beach occupies some of the finest real estate in the city. Just beyond the wooden enclosure surrounding the pool, dozens of yachts bob near multimillion-dollar homes. And yet this pool, unlike most in Sydney, is completely free.