Where Have All the Horses Gone?
Contributed by Simon
Gardens has always rated as one of my favourite Sydney night dives. I know -
a maximum depth of 4m under the jetty means you could snorkel it with short
length of garden hose, but it never fails to deliver a unique and unexpected
encounter with interesting critters.
For the uninitiated, Clifton Gardens lies in Sydney Harbour (Chowder Bay),
right near Mosman, and just down the road from Taronga Zoo. It is a popular
picnic spot, and boasts a "shark-proof" swimming enclosure adjacent
to a jetty, right in the middle of a sandy beach. There are a couple of points
of interest in the bay, including a jeep rumoured to lie somewhere off the old
naval wharf, however it's the jetty and shark net that is of most interest to
the night diver.
On my last visit to Clifton Gardens, I was amazed at the variety of marine
creatures inhabiting the shark net. In a single dive we counted at least a dozen sea
horses, not to mention ornate crabs, baby striped pyjama squid, and many
of the more common estuary fish you expect to see in Sydney Harbour. Years of
encrustation and kelp growth on the old ring mesh shark net provided a rich
habitat for many of these more elusive critters to thrive. A diver need only
swim a few feet to find another amazing critter staring back from the concealment
of the mesh.
vivid memories of this previous dive, I excitedly led my buddy on an above
water tour and dive briefing from the jetty. I waved my torch down into the
swimming enclosure, "...the coolest part of this dive is all the sea horses
and other critters living on the mesh you can see down there" - but something
wasn't quite right. The old steel ring mesh has been replaced with a new steel
net! My heart sank as I wondered what we would find under the jetty. Would we
find sea horses (as I'd promised when talking up the site)? What happened to
all the animals living in the mesh? To be fair, the mesh hadn't protected the
swimmers for years - there were gaps you could drive a VW through, but by the
same token, there were never any shark attacks in the enclosure! (Did I mention
that the best dive is on the outside of the shark net?)
With shattered expectations, we geared up and slipped into the bay. It became
immediately obvious that there was no shortage of marine life in the bay, including
a very surpised numbray (and equally surprised dive buddy who now understands
their name). The pylons and usual debris beneath the jetty yielded the most
interesting initial finds. Within minutes, we were exchanging gestures with
a baby cuttlefish, and bumping into enormous leatherjackets lurking behind pylons.
The net, however, seemed devoid of the critters of the old mesh.
Swimming further out along the jetty, we made some fascinating discoveries,
including baby pyjama squid (think of a cuttlefish, 3cm long, wearing striped
pyjamas, and attempting to bury itself in the sand!), a very inquisitive, colourful
eel, and a large colourful worm that I've yet to identify, but looked like the
creature that lived in a pit in the desert in Star Wars.
After turning to follow the outer side of the net, we swam through a dense
school of pipefish and discovered a solitary seahorse, clinging to the net.
After abandoning the hope of actually finding these critters on the new net,
I've was actually quite excited by this find - even though it was just one horse!
By the end of the dive, we had found only two seahorses clinging to the net.
On the other hand, the variety of both fish and invertebrate life clinging to
the pylons or hiding in the sand and debris beneath the jetty is astounding.
Despite having logged more than five hundred dives around Sydney and the NSW
coastline, there were creatures under that jetty that I've never seen before!
On our way back to the beach, I spotted a curious sea spider loitering around
the outer pylons. Unlike the sea spiders I've encountered previously, which
tend to be quite colourful and resemble daddy-long-legs spiders, this one resembled
a huntsman spider in both colour and appearance, and seemed to be walking upright
on its rear legs.
Choosing moonlight over torchbeams to guide us, we enjoyed a dazzling lightshow
of bioluminescence as we swam back to the beach. It had been an excellent dive,
but what happened to all the seahorses??? This mystery haunted me
for a couple of days, until I stopped by Frog Dive to get some tank
fills. According to John from Frog Dive, one of the universities relocated
the old net to preserve the habitat before the council installed the new net.
The old net is supposed to be lying on the bottom in the bay, under one of the
naval moorings. I look forward to confirming this over the coming weeks!
Dive Site Info
Site Name: Clifton Gardens Jetty & Pool
Site Location: Clifton Gardens / Chowder Bay (Sydney Harbour,
near Taronga Zoo)
Access: Enter either off the jetty, or from the sandy beach
beside the jetty
Facilities: There are public toilets in the park, however these
tend to be locked at night. Parking is "pay and display" during the
day. The park includes typical picnic facilities.
Nearby Dive Stores: Plunge Diving is about 500m from the jetty.
Maximum Depth: 4m at the end of the jetty. You can go a bit
deeper if you swim out into the bay.
Tips: I prefer to dive this site at night, and at high tide
for the best vis. Give it a miss for a few days after heavy rainfall. Excellent
night dive for everyone, but particularly good for those new to night diving.
Hazards: Watch out for fishing lines (and hooks!), and watch
we're you're going - there are lots of pylons encrusted in oysters that can
be real head-magnets for careless divers! Watch your buoyancy and keep an eye
out for numbrays. They'll give you quite a zap if you touch them.