It’s time to discover the islands of Sydney Harbour

They provide a fascinating insight into Sydney’s recreational and maritime heritage.

Reading Time: 5 minutes


On my first visit to Sydney, I caught a bus to Circular Quay. There were many destinations to which I could choose to travel by ferry, though an island had the most appeal. When I disembarked at Cockatoo Island, a rather gruff man wearing a boilersuit asked, “And where might you be heading for Missy?”

“Why, I’ve come to see the cockatoos!” I replied and he and the other workmen standing nearby laughed, for at Cockatoo they built ships.  After operations ceased, the island fell into disrepair. Declared a World Heritage site for its convict history and industrial landscape, the island is now under the care of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and provides a venue for concerts, major art exhibitions and the world’s first urban waterfront camping site with remarkable views of the harbour.

Nearby Spectacle Island is historically significant as the oldest naval explosives manufacturing and storage complex in Australia. Now it houses the Naval Repository, a vast uncatalogued cluttered collection of heritage items.

Snapper Island is also located near to Cockatoo Island, with makeshift waterfront buildings constructed of tin and timber, slipways, boat storage facilities, a jetty and two large cabbage palms.

rodd island sydney
Gazebo at Rodd Island. Photo by: Kevin McGrath

Tiny Rodd Island near Drummoyne was named after Brent Clements Rodd who tried unsuccessfully to buy the island in 1859, even paying a deposit of 17 pounds. Long used as a recreation reserve, a dance hall remains along with two summer houses and a gazebo.

The island on which Fort Denison stands was once a rocky outcrop measuring 25 metres high. During the Crimean War between Russia and England (1853-6), 8000 tonnes of sandstone was cut by convict labour and a fort was built to defend Sydney Harbour from possible attack. In 1906, the One O’clock Gun commenced being fired daily so sailors could set their ship’s chronometers correctly, a tradition that still continues today.

Lying further east, Clark Island near Darling Point was named after Lieutenant Ralph Clark of the First Fleet, who in 1789 established a vegetable garden on the island. Sadly, the garden was not a success as the vegetables kept being stolen. Today the island makes for an ideal picnic spot with paths leading through bushland to secluded grassy areas.

clark island Sydney
Clark Island. Photo by Hamilton Lund, Destination NSW

Shark Island offshore from Rose Bay was named because its shape resembles a shark. Used as a recreation reserve since 1879, it was also an animal quarantine station and naval storage depot and provides the perfect venue for a picnic with a gazebo and shady trees. I had the island to myself on the day I visited.

Berry Island was part of a land grant made by Governor Macquarie to Alexander Berry and Edward Wollstonecraft in 1820. The island is now connected to the mainland by a stone causeway built over mudflats and provides a bushland walking track, playground, picnic area and aboriginal rock carvings.

Goat Island is a rocky island that lies off Balmain. Over the years the island was used as a quarry, convict stockade, explosives store, police station, fire station, boatyard and film set. Due to concern over the quantity of military explosives being stored in The Rocks, an explosive proof storage facility was constructed using convict labour from sandstone quarried on the island. It was during this period that the convict Charles ‘Boney’ Anderson was kept chained to a rock for two years after repeatedly attempting to escape. The stone ledge can still be seen as a sad testament to Australia’s convict past.  In 1900, all explosives were removed with the island becoming the depot for the Sydney Harbour Trust’s fleet of tugs and dredgers, slipways and a wharf.

Garden Island is the home port for major fleet units based on the East Coast of Australia and is a major marine engineering and refit centre for the Royal Australian Navy. It is of strategic importance for berthing and maintaining the naval fleet. The RAN Heritage Centre has historic exhibits on ships and naval battles including the Japanese midget submarines that attacked Sydney on May 31, 1942.

cockatoo island
Cockatoo Island. Photo by Ethan Rohloff, Destination NSW

Visiting the islands of Sydney Harbour provides a fascinating insight into Sydney’s recreational and maritime heritage and is well worth the effort. I take my hat off though to a local Sydneysider Murray Cox, who at age 61 set off to discover the 50km circuit of Sydney Harbour in several chunks, by swimming the entire distance!

Travel Notebook

Getting there

For Cockatoo Island and Garden Island, Sydney Ferries depart regularly from Circular Quay. Check out the Transport NSW website for the latest details.

For Shark Island and Fort Denison, Captain Cook Cruises provide transfers from Darling Harbour and Circular Quay.

For Clark and Rodd Islands prior permission from the National Parks and Wildlife Service is required. Access is by Water Taxi from the Commissioner’s steps, Circular Quay.

Spectacle and Snapper are closed to the public.

goat island sydney
Goat Island. Photo by David Finnegan

Where to stay

Cockatoo Island provides refurbished historic apartments and tented accommodation with an outdoor kitchen and spotless amenities block.  While too chilly during winter, on balmy summer nights it is an experience!

Where to eat

While there are cafes at Cockatoo Island, Garden Island and Fort Denison, the other islands don’t have food outlets. Green, Shark, Rodd and Cockatoo Islands are perfect for picnics.

Further information

A self-guided walking map is provided to all visitors at Cockatoo Island. Allow at least 1.5 hours or join a guided tour.

Goat Island and Fort Denison may be visited on a guided tour with the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

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Petra ONeill
Petra ONeill
After growing up in Australia's outback she enjoys visiting remote destinations in Australia for the wildlife, vast open spaces and brilliant night sky and travelling overseas to exotic destinations to experience different cultures. Her bag is always packed and ready for the next trip

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