In this article, the representations of the ocean in Afrikaans poet Ronelda S. Kamfer’s grond/Santekraam (2011) and in ‘Water’, a poem in Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia (2017) are compared. Meg Samuelson’s identification of trends in the representation of the ocean in 21st-century South African prose fiction is used as a reference point. The aim here is to determine whether the same trends are present in these examples of 21st-century South African poetry. The ocean is depicted in the work of both Kamfer and Putuma as a metaphor for repressed historical trauma. In ‘Water’ the historical trauma relates to the ocean as route of slavery and colonialism; in grond/Santekraam it relates to slavery but also to a historical event, namely the forced resettlement of the fishing community of Skipskop. In some of the novels that Samuelson discusses, the ocean symbolises the unknowable, the irrational and spiritual. In ‘Water’ the ocean has a similar connotation. In grond/Santekraam the ocean is not depicted in spiritual terms, but in two poems an underwater town becomes a space in which a mythological version of events can be re-imagined. The unknowability of the ocean floor is depicted as a space in which the tragic influence of historical events on the present can be explored. The way in which the ocean is represented in the poetry of these two South African female poets therefore overlaps with how it is depicted in prose but also differs in the specifity of its metaphorical connotations.