Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Clifton Gardens
I first visited Clifton Gardens in the mid-1960s when the junior rugby league football club that I played for regularly held their annual end of season picnic there. Clifton Gardens was then an old time picnic ground (it opened on Christmas Day 1863), with a wharf, bathing enclosure and shelter sheds being the most prominent features. There was even a dancing hall and skating rink! The shelter sheds are now gone (perhaps they were the remains of hall and rink) but the local council has spruced the area up and it is an excellent place for families and groups to picnic. The water is shallow and, of course, protected inside the shark net enclosure. Clifton Gardens is an excellent site for beginners but like a lot of other harbour dive sites, it is a bit too easy and sometimes not that interesting for experienced divers in the day-time.
|A satellite photo of Clifton Gardens||A map of Clifton Gardens|
Click to enlarge
Located on the northern side of Sydney Harbour just around from Bradleys Head and Taronga Zoo, Clifton Gardens can be accessed off Bradleys Head Road at Mosman. Turn into Thompson Street (the last street on the left before the Zoo and Sydney Harbour National Park) and then (almost straight) into David Street. A hairpin turn at the end of David Street brings you into Morella Road, Clifton Gardens. The picnic grounds themselves are at the bottom of the winding road that comes off Morella Road about 50 metres from the hairpin.
A large parking area is provided and at night or late evening there will be no problem finding a spot. However, note that Mosman Council charges an exorbant fee for parking (on weekends it is a minimum of $9 for two hours and it gets worse) and you get absolutely no facilities other than some dirty toilets (well, they used to be, at least there are new ones now) and the shark net (which if you knew what it was like and wanted it to actually protect you you would want your money back - see later). There are not even barbecues that councils on the southern side of the Harbour provide free. However, at night (after 8 pm - it used to be 6 pm) you do not need to pay. So for summer night dives you can do for free. A total rip off of the highest order.
|The motor bike under the wharf||One of the wrecks, this is the yacht|
There are a number of dives that can be done in this area. The dive main one is around the wharf and bathing enclosure. As indicated above, the dive is much better when night has fallen. While the visibility here is never really more than fair, the night can give the keen diver a memorable dive with the highlight being the anglerfish that can more easily be seen at night. There are also sea horses that frequent the area. I can almost guarantee that you will see at least a couple of sea horses on this dive, so if you have never seen one, dive Clifton Gardens. It is also the most reliable place I know to find anglerfish.
After gearing up it is a short easy walk from the parking area across the grassed area and down the wharf. Near the end of the wooden structure, part of the wharf steps down to the water level. An easy giant stride and you are in the water.
Because of the shallowness of the water on this dive, it is preferable to dive this site at high tide and if you are a bit light on lead, you might add some weight to keep you down at the end of the dive (I always add 3 pound). At low water there can be as little as 2 metres of water over a large part of the dive route.
Once in the water, sink to the bottom where it is 8 to 10 metres deep. At the time of writing (I think this was written in about 1992), a dumped trail bike was located straight below the entry point (in March 2020 it was under the wharf and all that was recognisable was a wheel and the frame). Swim out around the end of the wharf and begin working your way back towards the shore. After 10 metres turn to the south and follow the 8 to 9 metre contour. Travel slowly, checking each piece of wood, rock and kelp for sealife. When you have been in the water for 20 minutes, turn to the west and gradually the depth will come up to 2 to 3 metres. Just before you reach the shark net you will go over a large area of kelp.
|A striped anglerfish at the southern end of the net||Possibly the deadliest marine creature alive and only 150 mm high -|
this blue ringed octopus walked across the bottom
At the net go to your right and follow it all the way back to the main part of the wharf. Examine each pole along the way as you are certain to see sea horses on some of them. These are mostly White's sea horses, also known as the Sydney or common sea horse although you might see some big-bellied sea horses. At times there are huge holes in the net through which you can go and look at the abundant fishlife on the inside. While in January 2007 there was a relatively new net in place, in June 2011 the net has at least a dozen huge holes in it, most big enough for a great white shark to get through. You will see what my comment about paying to park here when the facilities are crap. When a new net is placed here, it is usually set inside the old net so that the growth and sea horses were able to remain in place.
When you reach the proper part of the wharf (where the depth is 3 to 4 metres), you can either turn to the right and go to the end of the wharf where you can exit back onto the steps, or you can go to the left and exit onto the beach. It is best to go to the beach. You can also go through one of the holes and examine the net from the inside and exit on the beach.
|A black anglerfish||Another striped anglerfish|
An alternative to the above is to go back under the wharf examining every pylon. When you are again heading back towards the shore and when you reach the shark net again, follow it to the left (south). All along here there are sea horses. I have seen as many as five within a few inches of each other. As you go, keep an eye open for other interesting things like blue-ringed octopus. The net runs south for about 20 metres and then turns west for about 15 metres before again turning south (left). During times of poor visibility it can be difficult to actually figure out when the net changes direction.
|Two Whites sea horses, one very pregnant||A decorator crab|
The yellow bit is the body
When you get to about 2 to 2.5 metres (at high tide), look on the sand for anglerfish. I have seen a number here, up to four on a dive. Anywhere under the wharf/pool structure and near the net is likely. From here you can either go back the way you have come and then under the wharf back to the beach or go under the big gap in the net and cross the pool, exiting on the beach.
A great deal of the attraction of this dive is the macro life that is abundant under the wharf and bathing enclosure. Ideal for macro-photography, things to look for include cuttlefish, lined-dumpling squid, prickly and pygmy leatherjacket, moasic moray, crabs and small octopus. Other fishlife to be found here includes estuary catfish, snapper, bream, old wife, snakeskin and senator wrasse, rough and yellow-finned leatherjacket, blackspot and blue-spotted goatfish as well as black sole. If you look carefully on the pylons you will see the incredible decorator crab. These crabs look like sponges as they have large sponges growing on their shells. You will have to look very hard to see them.
|A new nudibranch I had never seen before||A dwarf firefish|
Another option is to go a short distance to the right (east) when you get back to the intersection of the wharf and pool and then return to the shore. This is the best option. The water very gradually gets shallower until it is only one metre deep and you must stand up and walk out.
The other dive to do here spends the first part of the dive in deeper water between Chowder Bay wharf and the Clifton Gardens wharf. See the Chowder Bay page for more details.
Visibility is normally never very good on this dive, normally about three to five metres. On a dive here in January 2002, we had only one metre visibility at high tide but it was still interesting! However, visibility can be as good as 10 metres. This is a good dive and can be dived at any time. It is a good fall back when the ocean is too rough. Incoming or high tide is normally the best, but at times low tide can be as good.
Worth doing a lot of times.