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TIDAL POOLS CORNWALL: The ultimate guide on becoming a sea pool specialist.

'Children's Sea Pool' at low tide at Priests Cove in West Cornwall.
Ray Pool - a tidal pool near Rinsey Head in Cornwall at mid-tide.
A deep miners tidal pool near Cape Cornwall at low tide.
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With over 30 tidal pools in Cornwall, these sea water swim spots are scattered at the bottom of cliffs and blend in with the beautiful Cornish coastline.

Highly sought after by local sea dippers and visitors alike, this guide on tidal pools in Cornwall is part of my mission to help educate you (and anyone who will listen) on the different things to consider when looking for one of these pools and taking a dip. You will become a sea pool specialist with a bit of practice and taking into consideration these tidal pool topics:

What exactly is a tidal pool?

“an isolated pocket of seawater found in the ocean’s intertidal zone”

Yes, I agree the definition is a tad vague. In my experience, the consensus is: if you can squat, get your shoulders in and do a few breast strokes you’ve found yourself a decent pool!

In Cornwall, the size of a tidal pool can be up to 10ft deep and others just big enough to sit in. These smaller ones are also referred to as plunge pools. Some are man-made and others are a natural wonder of the ocean. Each ‘isolated pocket sea water’ has its stories told and passed on by those who visit and enjoy them.

Who uses / has used the sea pools in Cornwall?

Miners, C18th aristocracy, fisherman’s children & now dry robe strutters. Throughout history Cornish tidal pools have been a saltwater haven for people from all walks of life.

Miners

Word of mouth tales speak of miners planting dynamite in rocks and blasting to create a safe pool to wash in. An extremely dirty and dangerous job, miners’ faces would get covered with coal dust on a daily basis so they created their own natural washing rooms just beyond the unforgiving crashing atlantic waves.

Lords & Ladies

Did you know cold water bathing trended amongst the C18/19th Century European aristocracy before Tiktok?! This is evidenced by the nine tidal baths hand carved out of the cliffs of Portreath. Commissioned by Lord de Dunstanville for his wife’s and daughter’s ‘pleasure’ and ‘health’. Furthermore at Stackhouse Cove, a freshwater bath in a cave carved out for young lady Susannah Acton and a saltwater bath and gullies can be found on the beach along with some long natural pools amongst the rocks.

Local Children & Community

Tidal pools like ‘Children’s Pool’ at Cape Cornwall (1950s), Perranporth’s Chapel Rock Pool (also 1950’s) and Porthtowan’s Tidal Pool (1908) where all created to provide a safe haven for children and the local community to learn and practise swimming safely. The natural pool at Polperro has a fine set of steps built down to the water and word of mouth stories say the village fisherman learned how to swim there as boys.

Outdoor Swimmers of Today

After combing through research and old photographs of these pools, I think it’s wonderful that sea pools, ‘wild’ swimming and cold water therapy are trending once more. In a time where we are indoors more than ever and disconnected with the outside – the re-discovery and ignited excitement for tidal pools in Cornwall and all over the world is a sure way to measure people’s desire to connect with the sea and nature once more.

3 tidal pools to showcase the different types of tidal pools in cornwall.

Why are Cornwall's sea pools so popular?

I think the attitude towards nature and the outside world shifted globally after lockdown. The people of Earth were restricted to their indoor spaces and, I believe, this gave them a newfound respect for nature, desire to be outside and love for the outdoors.

Outdoor swimming boomed post pandemic as did many other outdoor recreational activities – this has certainly been the case in Cornwall. More people seek out tidal pools as a way to get fresh air, experience natural beauty & enjoy the mental health benefits that come with cold dipping & getting outside.

On top of this is the undeniable allure of a picture perfect swim. Social media can be a great source of inspiration and adding things to an adventurous itinerary but it’s also one of the main reasons I am writing this guide. To give more context to the trend. To provide more information about tidal pools in Cornwall than a w3w location.

Where are the tidal pools in Cornwall?

Where there are wild seas you will find a sea pool. In Cornwall, you will find most natural & man made tidal pools on the North and West coasts where the prevailing wind and rough seas batter the coastline.

North Cornwall

As mentioned before, some Cornish tidal pools where/are used as a calm haven away from powerful waves and unpredictable currents. So it makes sense that the majority of them were built to aid communities living on the North Coast. On a map see Boscastle all the way down to St Agnes.

West Cornwall

Furthermore, the West coast is old mining territory so there are many dynamite pools peppered along the base of cliffs close to the sites where they used to extract precious metals like tin, copper, arsenic, silver & zinc. On a map see St Ives down to Cape Cornwall.

South & East Cornwall

There are some pools on the South and East coasts, however due to prevailing off-shore winds, the sea is often calm on these shores so you can just go straight in the sea. There simply isn’t a demand for pools to be constructed. Saying this, there are some great natural tidal pools like Ray Pool at Rinesy and also Polperro’s own Chapel Pool.

Everywhere and nowhere!

With only 6 hours between high and low water, often challenging access, constantly changing tides and different refill points, some tidal pools can be around all year round or a few times a year – that’s part of the magic.

How to safely access Cornish tidal pools.

Getting to any tidal pool in Cornwall should be done preparedly, cautiously & considerately.

Being prepared is what this guide is going to help you to do, so digest it all and put it into practice. Cautiousness is “the quality or habit of being careful about what you say or do, especially to avoid danger, mistakes or risks” which is a great sum up of putting safety first when getting to a tidal pool. Finally doing all the above with consideration for the people, wildlife and weather conditions around you – there will be times when you just can’t get to a pool for any number of reasons other than safety and difficult access. Be mindful and considerate at all times.

Sea Pool Access Checklist:

🪨 Proper good footwear grippy, supportive and stable. You will be climbing so don’t wear your flop flips!

🪨 Pack lightkeep it to one light bag with your essentials so your balance and concentration are top notch.

🪨 Keep hands freepop your phone in your pocket and your limbs free to help with movement & balance.

🪨 Scout take the time to pause & scout the terrain and make a mental note of the conditions. Before you commit to the climb or scramble, have a little lookie.

🪨 Go with someone even the most experienced of us could fall, slip or have an accident. You don’t want to be alone when that happens.

🪨 Know your own limitsBoth yours and whoever you are with. For whatever reason you have a wobble, breathe before deciding to go any further. After all there are many other pools out there to try.

🪨 Weather, sea & timemore to follow in this guide but you MUST know what is happening in your immediate environment. Nature is beautiful but we must respect and understand it.

🪨 Prepare to try againyou might have got the tides wrong or  be unfamiliar with how the local geology impacts the weather. Always know that it’s not going anywhere so try another day.

Three images left to right of different ways to access a tidal pool in Cornwall. Across rocks, assisted by stairs and down a cliff.

Below are three main ways of getting to the pools in the first place.

Across Rocky Reefs – be ready to scramble over the jagged, uneven barnacle-covered reefs to get to a tidal pool. Sometimes big boulders, sometimes loose ankle-breaking stones, sometimes slippery slate. Balance & grippy footwear are your friends.

Down Cliff Faces – ‘find the natural staircase’ is one of my personal philosophies. Go prepared, cautiously & considerately. Follow the checklist. Also, make sure you have the energy stores after a cold water swim to climb back up.

Assisted by Stairs – far and few between, some sea pools have man made stairs and even carved out steps to help you into the pool. We like these helpful assists!

Now you know how to access a tidal pool safely on Cornwall’s coastline. However, there is no point going if it’s underneath the waves! Next up is understanding and reading the tides so you can get to the sea pool at the right time of day.

Reading the tide times: beyond the tide time table.

If you have yourself a tide time book or check the tide times on your phone – that is a great start, however there is more to reading tides than a static set of times. The reality is a continuously shifting seascape that changes everyday according to gravity, local geography & weather.

As you know, tidal pools are located in the intertidal zone: the area between high and low waters. Twice a day they get exposed and refilled by the tides as they ebb and flow.

The following short video clearly explains how tides work:

In basic terms, depending on the tide times you only have a certain period of time to locate, dip, change and leave a tidal pool. Following is a list of factors to consider into your planning:

🌊 High and low tide is not the same throughout Cornwall. There is approx. 1 hour difference between the tide times in Penzance and Bude.

🌊 ~ 6 hours between high and low tide

🌊 SPRING TIDES = Large Distance & NEAP TIDES = Short Distance (between high & low water)

🌊 The speed of the tides ebb & flow changes depending on its distance – spring tides come in faster than neap tides because they have a further distance to reach in the same amount of time ~ 6 hours

🌊 ~ Every 2 weeks the tides will reach their highest point (spring tides) – this happens gradually over each day so the distance between high and low tides is never actually the same.

🌊 Full moon springs are more powerful than new moon springs

🌊 Tides move fastest half way – typically in hours 3-4 of a their 6 hour cycle.

🌊 Some pools are only accessible at spring low tide

🌊 Cornish beaches and tidal pools access can get cut off by the tides – for example, the pool may be fine but your access to dry land may already be submerged by the sea. This can happen easily at Porthtowan & Whipsiderry.

I know that this is lots of detail and information, however understanding the constant changes tides go through and the invisible forces at work will help you become a master sea pool specialist. Next up are just some of the wonderful creatures that inhabit the intertidal zone.

What wildlife live in our Cornish tidal pools?

The tidal pools in Cornwall are home to a colourful range of wildlife. From fish to seaweed and birds – the intertidal zone is a unique habitat that we should respect. Following is just a snapshot library of the thousands of species that could be calling a tidal pool home. When dipping in the sea and amongst this wildlife think about the impact you may have on this natural environment.

The obvious one is to avoid stepping or sitting on anything and not to remove anything from its natural habitat. Next is the type of sun cream or skin creams you are wearing might contain harmful chemicals and finally also the volume of noise that could impact birds looking for food.

A selection of wildlife you can find in tidal pools Cornwall.

Beadlet Anemone can split themselves into two or more identical clones and undergo a process called ‘fragmentation” when faced with a threat or disturbance.

Sea Hares release a purple or reddish ink-like substance into the water that confuses predators and also have large “wings” or parapodia that can be used for swimming

Prawns have developed an acoustic signalling system to interact and communicate with one another underwater by quickly closing their pincers to create a clicking noise.

Hermit Crabs engage in cooperative behaviour called “housing swapping” where they exchange shells with each other to find larger and more suitable homes for protection.

Sucker fish have a suction cup-like disc that helps them attach to surfaces and stay in place while they feed on plants and small organisms found on rocks & underwater surfaces.

Pipefish are slender fish and expert camouflage artists. They align themselves vertically and sway back and forth expertly with the seagrasses and weeds. Also, the males carry the eggs!

Snakelock Anemones can retract their tentacles and close up their body to form a protective “blister” or “pudding” shape, This helps them retain moisture and survive until the tide returns.

The Shanny can take in oxygen through its skin and the lining of its mouth in order to survive low oxygen environments & even jump from pool to pool. Also known as the sea frog.

A selection of Cornish wildlife in tidal pools.

Mermaid’s Purse is the common name for the egg cases of skates and some species of sharks. The tendrils help anchor the case to underwater structures like seaweed or rocks.

Turnstones actively scavenge for food by flipping over rocks, pebbles, and seaweed with its bill in search of hidden prey. This behaviour gives its name, as it “turns stones” to find its meals.

Cormorant & Shags dive considerable depths and as their feathers are not as waterproof as other waterbirds you will often see them “wing-spreading” to help air-dry their feathers.

Oyster Catchers are monogamous birds. They form strong pair bonds that often last for life. They also have loud and distinctive calls to communicate and defend their territory.

Corallina Officinalis is a type of red algae that can grow up to 12 cm in length and forms a bushy red carpet. Coral Weed shares a similar name with coral, but it is not a true coral

Coralline Algae (encrusting) secrete calcium carbonate, which forms the basis of their hard encrusted structure. This calcification process helps them create a solid surface.

Gut Weed reduces the amount of nitrogen in the water column through a process called nitrogen fixation – an important role in the nitrogen cycle of marine ecosystems.

Japweed has an invasive nature. Its ability to outcompete native species leads to reduced biodiversity and disrupts local ecosystems. It grows up to 10 cm per day during spring!

Dulse is a sustainable food source as it grows rapidly and does not require freshwater, land, or fertilisers to cultivate. Its rich in iodine, iron, and potassium & tastes smoky like bacon.

The intertidal zone is full of colour and life all around Cornwall’s shores so be sure to protect it and leave no trace.

What conditions are best for sea pool swimming?

When planning your tidal pool visit in Cornwall, it’s just as important for you to be able to read the sea & wind conditions as well as the tides. They are intrinsically linked as wind can directly & sometimes dramatically increase the tides speed & height – this depends on its direction, swell and localised weather conditions.

Scenario: it is a really sunny but windy day in Autumn and you want to go for a dip. The sea is looking wavy on the North coast so you and your friends head down to Porthtowan tidal pool for a lovely sheltered swim. It is 1 hour after low tide and usually the sea is nowhere near the pool even on a neap tide, however when you arrive the waves are crashing and spilling close to the rocky access point. You all turn back and have a hot choco in the cafe watching the waves come in.

What do you think has happened?

Explanation: The wind was a localised onshore gale force & coupled with the large swell it had created some massive waves. The energy, power & volume of water in the waves meant they could reach much further than usual when they arrived on the beach. Even though you went at the right time of the tide and it was a sunny day, the sea conditions meant you would’ve been cut off by a stormy tide had you decided to go to the pool and not take note of what was happening to the sea.

This is also how waves can sometimes breach a pier or promenade when the sea is stormy and a spring high tide.

How waves are created.

Wave Types

This is a brilliant diagram that clearly shows the different types of waves that are created. When you go on your surf or advance weather apps, you will notice it tells you what the swell is of the waves. This will help you gauge whether your tidal pool will be safe to visit.

Wind Direction

Lastly, a quick lesson on wind direction – here is another great diagram that quickly explains the terminology of wind direction. This is a great thing to note when popping out for a tidal pool swim because it means you can work out how sheltered from the wind you will be.

For example, if it’s really windy at Portreath but the wind is hitting the harbour wall first, you will be sheltered. Or if you are at Trevone and it’s a full onshore hooly you might want to pack an extra layer to warm up from the cold.

The same thought process goes if you are swimming in the ocean. My rule of thumb is to swim in places in Cornwall where the wind is off-shore and below 20 mph – 9/10 the waters will be sheltered and calm.

What is a tidal pool refill point?

Every tidal pool is located at their own unique point of the intertidal zone. Depending on where they are will depend on when the sea fills them between high and low tide. Typically a tidal pool closer to the land will be refilled closer to mid-high tide and a pool far away will fill closer to low tide. The natural geography of where the pool is in the rocks is important to consider too.

Knowing where your pool is located in the intertidal zone will help you figure out how long you have to stay and enjoy your swim. Some, like Trevone, have a high refill point as it is very close to land so there is more time between when the tide ebbs away and flows back in. On the other hand you have the large pool at Trescore Islands that is only fully exposed a on a super spring low tide and the time you have there is significantly reduced.

So although the general rule of thumb is to go to the pool on an outgoing low tide, there are a few exceptions!

💦 all pools have a their own unique refill points
💦 the time spent at pools can vary dramatically
💦 this time period will also be effected on the tides/sea conditions
💦 aim to visit a pool on the outgoing tide
💦 if at first you don’t succeed, try again

The difference between sand pools & tidal pools

Technically, a sand pool is a tidal pool according to the official definition. Nonetheless, sand pools are temporary by nature. Let me explain.

As the tide ebbs and flows on our shores, the sand underneath is constantly shifting. Powerful waves and currents typically move more sand. The sandbanks from rips are created when the water is escaping back to the ocean and natural structures churn up the sea bed by interrupting the flow of water.

With sand being carried and dumped, that is when sand pools get created. Usually at the base of a cliff, in a cave or next to larger rock structures on the beach – sand pools can be very deep or very shallow and that depth can change on a daily basis. A swimming pool one moment could be gone the next rising tide!

Three examples of sand pools come to mind: Nanjizal, Song of the Sea Cave on the West Coast. Sheeps Dip at Gwithian Sands and also Porthcothan Cave. So if you are visiting one of these, don’t be too disappointed if they are only ankle deep!

3 images that are examples of tidal pools in Cornwall. Porthmeor Cove, Portreath Beach and A quarry.

Pre & post dip swim tips.

Once you’ve got the planning for your visit to a tidal pool in Cornwall all sorted, then it’s time to actually enjoy the water. I’ve written a full beginners guide to sea swimming, but here is a short checklist to keep you going.

🩱 Get clued up about sea conditions.
🩱 Dip with a friend or shore spotter.
🩱 Bring a small thermometer.
🩱 Protect your head, fingers and toes.
🩱 Warm yourself up before getting in.
🩱 Don’t faff, just get in.
🩱 Pack loose, warm layers and layers of clothing.
🩱 Post‑swim hot drink and/or snack.

Hypothermia facts for your cold water swim.

Tidal pools are often colder than the sea in the Cornish winter and early spring. When participating in outdoor swimming it’s important to be aware of the risk of hypothermia. People easily get cold from the water and wind chill so here are some facts to keep in mind:

Hypothermia occurs when the core body temperature drops below 35°C. It can affect swimming performance even dropping below 36°C. It’s usually classified into different levels of severity: mild (32.3-35°C) and moderate (28-32.2°C).

Spotting Hypothermia

Pay attention to the signs of hypothermia, including shivering, confusion, and lack of coordination. If anyone is experiencing these symptoms then seek medical advice first – if you call 999 they will calmly talk you through the best way to deal with a hypothermic person. Mild hypothermia can be easily treated, however untreated, it will become a medical emergency.

What can you do to help?

Remove any wet clothing and get to a warm location away from the cold and wet environment. Provide insulation and warmth, however do not rub skin or provide direct heat (a hot shower for example). Warm liquids NOT hot and do not offer alcoholic or caffeinated drinks as they can hinder the rewarming process and cause dehydration.

Go hunt for your next tidal pool in Cornwall.

Hopefully you are now feeling better prepared for your next Cornish sea pool adventure. If you have any questions about any of the tidal pools you plan to visit then please feel free to email me. I often include a tidal pool dip in my guided walks in Cornwall. If you want to come with an expert guide and experience the Cornish coast see my upcoming events for more details.

Thanks for reading “TIDAL POOLS CORNWALL: The ultimate guide on becoming a sea pool specialist.” I hope you are safe out there and have learned something new! Please feel free to share and link this article – copywriting is prohibited.

Read more:
Portreath’s Tidal Baths

There are baths cut into the cliffs of Portreath, a visit at low tide and you will discover many of Lady Basset’s Baths.