Where Have All the Horses Gone?

A little lionfish hiding amongst the sessile growth, Clifton Gardens, Sydney, AustraliaClifton 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.

A worm with its feeding tentacles out at Clifton Gardens, Sydney, AustraliaWith 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.

A leatherjacket, Clifton Gardens, Sydney, Australia 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.

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