South African sea pools

The beauty and politics of tidal pools

Strandfontein Tidal Pool. Photo: Jay Caboz

South Africa’s coastline is populated by around 90 tidal pools – places of sanctuary from the wild South Atlantic Ocean and witnesses to apartheid – some of which are captured in this extract from Chris Romer-Lee’s book Sea Pools: 66 saltwater sanctuaries from around the world, published by Batsford.

At a few places along the coast of what is now known as the Southern Cape, low tide reveals walls of loosely piled rocks and stones, too porous to retain the retreating sea, but impenetrable to the fish who might have crossed over at high water. What they have in common with the tidal pools of more recent times is the relative calm of the water within, with the waves exhausting their power against the sheltering walls. Like the bathing pools, these were built to modify the environment in the interests of humans. They were built in the past for trapping fish to eat, which brings pleasure, along with sustenance, but it is difficult to imagine that the children of those first people didn’t gain pleasure from simply splashing around in the water, or even floating on their backs in the dark and warm shallows, looking up at the southern sky.

Tidal pools make an interzone between the ocean and the land, they sit on the edge between things, and this gives them a certain charge, a hint of what would be theorised as the sublime – a place to experience the terrors offered by nature without suffering their full consequences – offering a state between exposure and enclosure. All along the South African coastline, children still stand on the edge of the seawalls, now made of concrete, often crumbling, and dare the waves of the rising tide to wash them off and into the pool behind them. Because of where they are, these children will often be predominantly of one ethnicity or another, one class or another, although increasingly those boundaries are being worn down, like the walls themselves, through the work of time.

The tidal pool as a type has two origins in South Africa, one ancient and indigenous, one more recent and colonial, brought over by the British to tame the wildness of the Southern Ocean, to make it into something more amenable to the idea of a summer beside the seaside. In the Western Cape, known to those who lived beyond its ever-encroaching eastern border as iNtshona-Koloni, formal segregation was established under British rule, and later hardened under the high apartheid of the 1960s to the extent that access to the ocean was to be allowed in one place or another only to one race or another, ‘Whites Only’ signs on the benches and the beaches ensuring that the pleasures of nature would not be shared, and that a mixing of bodies wouldn’t lead to a further mixing of genes.

There are no simple pleasures in South Africa: everything has a history in the remaking being worked out, economically, socially, environmentally and in the intersections between each and all the others. But the sea pools remain for the moment, many in decay, but all poised between time and tide, between historical pain and remembered pleasures.

There are no simple narratives in South Africa.


Dalebrook Tidal Pool. Photo: Jay Caboz.


Location Cape Town, South Africa
Built First formal wall built in 1903;pool augmented in 1907 and 1914
Designer/Engineer Mr F.B. Steer
Size 30 x 30m

This is one of the most loved and frequented tidal pools in Cape Town; it’s also one of the most photographed, particularly at sunrise.

Harmony Park, Cape Town. Photo: Jay Caboz.


Location Strand, False Bay, Cape Town, South Africa
Built 1991–92
Designer/Engineer The Planning Partnership and Interplan Architects
Size 300 x 150 x 1.5m

In August 1989, Archbishop Desmond Tutu defied orders from the apartheid government and led hundreds of protestors to picnic at ‘whites only’ Strand beach. Less than 2km away from Harmony Park Resort, at Strand Tutu declared, ‘We have proved these are God’s beaches.’

King's Tidal Pool. Photo: Gerhard Britz.


Location Pennington, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Built 1920
Designer/Engineer Carl Hall
Size 25 x 20m

Along the south coast of KZN there is evidence of at least three basic pools set within the sand and rock. Two are still working, one of which is King’s Tidal Pool.

  • SEA POOLS: 66 Saltwater Sanctuaries from Around the World, edited by Chris Romer-Lee, is published by Batsford, priced £25
Kevin Fellingham