A saltwater swimming pool at Kogel Bay resort on False Bay, Western Cape, South Africa. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
A saltwater swimming pool at Kogel Bay resort on False Bay, Western Cape, South Africa. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

In tidal pools all along the False Bay coast, people and marine life share water dammed behind white-painted walls. But how much risk of injury is a community prepared to take to make these pools safe for the octopus, urchins and anemone that make their home in these shared spaces?

Lisa Beasley is trying to change the way the city clears the tidal pools’ walls of algae, a process that has used a lot of chemicals that harm local sea creatures. But not everyone in the tidal pool swimming community is happy about this.

With one hand, Beasley puts gentle pressure on my back. She is holding me down, pushing against my natural buoyancy so that I stay underwater long enough to see the octopus. With her other hand, she flashes a torch into the crevices in the pool’s walls. We spot it, peering out from its hidey-hole with two beady eyes, its arms curled elegantly under and around its body.

It’s thrilling: this gorgeous, alien intelligence and I are mere feet away from each other, barely 30m from the train track and 50m from the main road.

Today, in the early mornings, rain or sunshine, the False Bay pools — St James, Kalk Bay, Dalebrook and Wooleys — are filled by swimmers doing their lengths before going to work

After months of daily swims in the St James pool, Beasley has learnt where the octopuses like to hide. When conditions are conducive, the pools are home to many sea creatures: octopus, urchins, nudibranch, klipvis, alikreukel. It’s in these protected spaces that creatures seek shelter from the wild open oceans to breed.

Not so long ago the life in St James tidal pool was at risk of being poisoned by a toxic stew of cleaning chemicals. Its eight resident octopuses would have died had Beasley not interfered.

The City of Cape Town’s protocol for cleaning tidal pools – the walled in, pool-sized swimming areas that have been built along the Cape coastline – used to involve draining the pools, scrubbing down the inside and outside of the walls with chlorine and copper sulphate designed to kill the algae that makes them slippery and dangerous for swimmers.

The council manages 22 tidal pools along its coastline, which for years have provided safe, family-friendly spaces. Dalebrook (1,022m²) and St James (1,229m²) in False Bay are two of the most popular; pools in Monwabisi (36,964m²), and Camps Bay (7,880m²) are among the biggest.

The St James pool, bordered by colourful changing huts, has become a landmark. The wall dates back to the early 1900s. "It was originally a San fishing trap," Beasley tells me. "The tide would bring the fish in, and then when the tide went out, they would be caught in the pool."

Today, in the early mornings, rain or sunshine, the False Bay pools — St James, Kalk Bay, Dalebrook and Wooleys — are filled by swimmers doing their lengths before going to work, while in the afternoons and during holidays families picnic on the beaches or rocks into which they’ve been cut.

In 2004, Beasley had an accident near Worcester, where she base-jumped off a mountain cliff. "I pulled my parachute open too soon, which caused me to repeatedly hit the cliff on the way down. I broke my skull, my collarbone, my feet." Released from hospital three months later, she was "alive but depressed". She couldn’t walk unaided for three years.

"I couldn’t go to the beach. I couldn’t exercise," she says. Four years after her accident Beasley started free diving. In the water, she feels a rekindled sense of freedom and no pain.

"Every time I come down here," she muses, "I see something new, and see how things move and change."

In summer the St James wall takes a beating from children who charge along the wall and slide off it into the water. "They grab the seaweed and throw it at each other. At first I was upset that they were killing the seaweed but I noticed how on the shaded side of the pool — the children prefer the sunny side — it grew and the animals moved there too.

"And in winter when it’s quiet, that wall doesn’t get enough sun, so the seaweed and animals move back to the sunny side again.

"It’s amazing to see how the pool shifts and adapts."

After six months of swimming in St James and watching how more and more animals appeared in the pool, Beasley heard that the city had scheduled a routine cleaning. Furious and panicked by the imminent annihilation of the sea-life, she spent a day on the phone tracking down someone, anyone, who could help her.

Beasley was in luck. The coastal co-ordination unit met Beasley in September 2017 and was willing to contemplate a change in protocol. It postponed cleaning until a new approach could be found.

"The city was willing to let me experiment with ways to clean," Beasley says. "The managers were patient." She raised R25,000 to buy a high-pressure cleaner used to remove algae off the tops of walls and stairs. Now, St James, Dalebrook, Kalk Bay and Wooleys pools are drained only when necessary and only enough to expose the areas, like the stairs, that need to be cleaned. Animals that may be affected by cleaning are relocated. Excessive kelp loads and excess sea urchins are placed outside the tidal pool.

Mayoral committee member for community services and health Zahid Badroodien says the decision to change the protocol was made in consultation with all city stakeholders, the local ward councillor and members of the public through a review of inquiries and comments.

While Beasley and marine life might be happy, a group of concerned residents is not. Late in 2018, they complained that the pools looked terrible and were dangerous.

Worse, people have hurt themselves. Author Mark Gevisser, who swims every day in one of the pools, slipped while walking along the wall of Kalk Bay pool in February 2018. He smashed his head, suffering concussion, a deep cut and six months of facial pain.

Gevisser wrote to the City of Cape Town telling them of his fall. The city immediately arranged to meet residents, agreed that there was a problem and attended to the pools. Badroodien says that at first, whitewashing of walls and rocks was excluded from the protocol but this was subsequently added back in as the methods were refined.

Evaluations of effects of lime on the environment, he says, show it to have a negligible effect and it was included in the process.

Researcher Bilqees Davids, who studied biodiversity of the pools for six months last year, says: "Safety is crucial to bathers. However, biodiversity is arguably just as important. I don’t believe that all parties involved will ever be content."

What about a compromise? She suggests cleaning one pool the old way, and leaving the others to the animals.

May is the founder of Twyg, a platform to promote sustainable living. A documentary that follows Beasley’s journey, Tidal, can be accessed on Amazon, Vimeo on Demand and Reelhouse.