John Turnbull, Member, National Parks Association of NSW

1966. A small, nondescript bend in the river at Port Hacking is coming to prominence as a remarkably diverse area with particularly high conservation values. In the words of Clarrie Lawler, Secretary of Underwater Research Group of NSW at the time, the “combination of a deep submarine cliff, strong currents and unpolluted water have resulted in an extremely rich growth of marine invertebrates with a resulting large population of fishes… During the early months of 1965 (we) began diving this area and were astonished at the profusion of marine fauna given the seemingly ordinary estuarine situation”.

Over 50 years later, Shiprock remains a stand-out dive for lovers of marine life. Today, thanks to the efforts of those early divers and other members of the community, Shiprock is one of our few sanctuary-zoned Aquatic Reserves in the bioregion. Whilst human impacts are probably more evident today than they were in the ‘60s, we still record between thirty and forty species of fish on surveys at Shiprock.

The dive is easy so long as you don’t mind a climb up the stairs at the end. Take heart though – divers used to climb a “goat track” including a section of rope, before a generous bequest from the neighbouring Sinclair family allowed construction of the stairs.

Always plan to start your dive on the turn of the high tide at Fort Denison. Enter at the base of the steps, and head straight down to the top of the submarine cliff. Descend to 15 m or so, and head right (west), exploring ledges, caves and pinnacles along the way. You’ll have a short period of incoming tide, then enjoy the calm of the turn before the currents pick up. These same currents are the reason why Shiprock is so diverse – the narrowing of the estuary at this point provides the accelerated water flows which feed the immense diversity and abundance of sessile invertebrates, which in turn attract the fish. We regularly find pineapplefish, talma, hawkfish, bannerfish, butterflyfish and several species of cod including the rare black cod here.

Once you reach 100 bar, rise to the top of the cliff, at which point you’ll be in 3 m of water and have the tide pushing you back to the entry point. Enjoy the ride – but don’t surface in the channel, particularly on a weekend, as there can be a lot of boat traffic. Head back to the steps and exit point, and the longish climb back to your car. Once home, allow time to enjoy and process your photos – you’ll have plenty of them!


Featured Dive: Shiprock

  • Category: Shore dive
  • Depth: 16 m
  • Rating: Easy, provided you dive on the high tide
  • Access: Steps down from Shiprock Rd, Port Hacking
  • Special equipment: Torch and camera