As the tourism capital of Australia, Sydney’s reputation among international visitors lies more in the appeal of its theatres, restaurants, shops, nightclubs and casino than as a popular diving destination. And while no stay in Sydney would be complete without either a leisurely cruise on its scenically beautiful harbour or a trip to one or other of the golden beaches fronting the city’s Pacific Ocean coastline, very few of the 8 million plus visitors who arrive from overseas each year bother to discover for themselves the magnificent underwater attractions of one of Australia’s best kept secrets.
Bounded by the huge river inlets, waterways and bays to the north and south of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), Sydney boasts an amazing variety of spectacular, year-round diving sufficient to satisfy every taste and level of experience, from offshore reefs and deep wrecks to gentle shore dives – and all of them just minutes away from the centre of the nation’s busiest city.
Never completely convinced of its own unique appeal to divers, Sydney’s coastline has, until recently, allowed itself to be overshadowed by the tropical drawcard of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea; a trend that is slowly changing as divers seek more exhilarating experiences.
Like all diving – but especially that taking place in temperate waters – the weather and the seasons determine the conditions. Underwater visibility varies enormously, (particularly at those dive sites close to shore that are affected by the run-off after heavy rains), and ranges between 8- to 30-metres, with the very best visibility and conditions usually occurring during the dry winter months (June – August) when the prevailing off-shore winds flatten the water. Water temperatures, about 23º C. in Summer (February/March), drop to 16º C. towards the end of winter (August/September), requiring more elaborate thermal protection than would be the case in the tropics.
Those same temperature variations, combined with Sydney’s close proximity to the deeper waters at the edge of the Continental Shelf, attract a remarkable variety of marine life, including, albatross, petrels, cormorants, gulls, gannets, pelicans, colonies of Fairy Penguins, dolphins, and even Humpback and Southern Right whales that are regularly sighted along the coastline – and, on occasion, in the harbour itself – during their annual winter migration northward.
Although markedly different from those encountered in tropical waters, the rock reefs around Sydney support a multitude of colourful soft corals, sponges, anemones, sea-squirts, tube-worms and sea-mosses that decorate every surface. Carried southward by the warm summer currents, tropical species often put in an appearance. Octopus, large schools of squid and Giant Cuttle-fish – some measuring a metre or more in length – are commonplace, as are large rays; Banded and Spotted Wobbegongs (a type of carpet shark that grows to three or more metres in length); Port Jackson sharks (a harmless shark about one-and-a-half metres in length); small, timid, catsharks, and the now protected, Grey Nurse Shark.
Colourful leatherjackets, sea-horses, globe fish, porcupinefish, yellowtail; mados, sea-pike, pomfrets, roughy’s, stripeys, tuna, mackerel, marlin and large blue groupers … the list is endless and consists of many species only found in Australian waters.
As the oldest settled city in Australia, the Sydney coastline and waterways are littered with wrecks of every description, some little more than skeletal remains, others – particularly those scuttled in more recent times in deeper waters – relatively intact. In Sydney Harbour alone there are more than twenty-five known wrecks in water depths ranging between 8 and 29-metres. Off-shore there are an even greater number, with regular discoveries still being made.
While many of these vessels lie in water depths only accessible to experienced technical divers, others are in shallow waters just metres from the shore-line and most of the dive operators include one or other of the better known wrecks in their regular boat dive schedules.
Not everybody relishes the prospect of exploring wrecks. For those people who prefer reefs, pinnacles, and dive sites that teem with life, there is a wide choice of locations ranging in depth between 10- and 30-metres.
One of the world’s most scenic waterways, Sydney Harbour has more than its share of magnificent dive sites just a stone’s throw from the City centre. Midway between the eastern and western shipping channels, Sow & Pigs Reef has accounted for many shipping losses. The cluster of sandstone rocks forming the reef lie just beneath the surface, giving way to a sand and silt surround at a depth of about 8 metres. Littered with debris from stranded vessels, the reef supports a colourful variety of marine life, including, wobbegongs and Port Jackson sharks, soft corals, sponges, rays, nudibranchs, wrasse and huge schools of yellowtail.
Close in to South Head, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, ‘Chapel Steps’ is an area of flat rock that descends, in a series of ledges, to the sand at a depth of about 15 metres. A maze of gullies and hidden swim-throughs, it’s an area where giant cuttlefish are frequently spotted hiding beneath the ledges. Among the profusion of sponges and soft corals, divers can still, occasionally, find relics of Sydney’s maritime disasters.
A boat dive that’s guaranteed to impress any diver, ‘The Apartments’, lie just a few minutes offshore from Long Reef. Starting at a depth of about 12-metres and quickly shelving away to 22-metres, huge rocks and boulders lean into the reef, forming caverns and swim-throughs. The most notable of these is aptly named, ‘The Cathedral’, a four metre swim-through whose vaulted ceiling and walls are lined with yellow commensal zoanthids. Sea-tulips are in abundance and the area teems with life, including large pelagics, wobbegongs, and vast schools of yellowtail, pomfrets and roughy’s.
Often considered less appealing than a boat dive, Sydney has dozens of excellent shore diving sites from which to choose. The more popular include Palm Beach (at the top of the Northern Beaches peninsula); Harbord; Little Manly Cove, Camp Cove and Fairlight (both in Sydney Harbour), Gordon’s Bay; Little Bay; Bare Island, at La Perouse, a small island just metres from the mainland on the northern foreshore of Botany Bay; and Shiprock, in Port Hacking.
Typifying the very best of Sydney’s shore diving locations, Shelly Beach occupies a scenic corner of Manly’s ocean beachfront. A horse-shoe shaped cove surrounded by flame-trees, tea-trees, wattles and gums, the white sandy beach and natural reef of tumbled boulders and rocks descending to a maximum depth of 14 metres have made this one of Sydney’s premier diving sites.
The marine life includes regular sightings of Wobbegongs, Port Jackson and Dusky Whaler Sharks, huge Eastern Blue grouper, wrasse, painted shrimps, octopus, cuttlefish, squid, longfin bannerfish, moray eels, globe fish, blennys, bright blue damsel fish and huge schools of ladder-finned pomfrets and sleek sea-pike.
It’s also a place where, among scattered beds of kelp, families of one of Australia’s most unique creatures – the Weedy (or, Common) Sea-dragon – can be found. Looking rather like elongated sea-horses, the sea-dragons can grow to a maximum size of about 40 centimetres in length.
Blending the cultures of Asia, Europe and America, Sydney has greater depth than most visitors realise.
An expanded version of this article first appeared in Asian Diver Magazine in March 1998.