Best Places for Underwater Photography in Sydney, Australia

macro underwater photography

It’s no exaggeration to say that Sydney is celebrated as one of the most iconic destinations in the world, and it’s a great destination for underwater photography!

underwater photography Sydney

As the largest and fastest-growing area in the country, visitors flock to this historical city from all reaches of the globe to tour the spectacular Harbour Bridge, the towering sails of the Opera House, and the jaw-dropping beaches scattered along the coast.

However, many fail to realize that Sydney is home to over 550 different species of fish, which is more than the entire Mediterranean Sea has to offer!

This unique selection of species may be attributed to its geographical position in relation to the Eastern Australian Current (EAC), which serves as an underwater superhighway, bringing thousands of rare, tropical species into the sheltered coves of Sydney Harbour.

This means you’ll be able to enjoy premium and affordable shore diving in one of the most expensive cities in the world!

Dive Conditions in Sydney

As a seasoned local diver, I choose to dive in a drysuit year-round, as temperatures tend to range from 14 to 23 degrees Celsius throughout the annual calendar.

Although you can certainly get away with a 5mm wetsuit in the summer months, I find it painful and unnecessary to dive wet in the depths of winter, especially if you spend 2 hours in the water at a time.

Sydney underwater photography

Due to the fact that most shore dives are situated in areas with heavy boat traffic, I’d insist on always diving with an SMB and being incredibly aware of potential tides and currents that the site may be subjected to.

And as a photographer, be aware that most shore dives require a lengthy trek to and from the site, so make sure you haven’t left any lens caps on, your hot shoe is powered up, and your batteries are well and truly charged. Preparation is key when diving in the harbor.

Read more: 6 Essential Dive Skills for Underwater Photographers

1. Clifton Gardens (Chowder Bay)

Located in a conveniently sheltered pocket of Northern Sydney Harbour, this top-shelf muck dive has to be one of my absolute favourite places to dive in the world.

Scattered with empty beer bottles, discarded fishing line, fallen pylons, and decorated human trash, you’d think you’ve stumbled into the ghetto of an underwater wasteland (ironic considering its location in one of the most expensive areas in Sydney).

underwater photography australia

But don’t let its derelict appearance deter you, as you’ll find that phenomenal sea dwellers have taken our throwaways and transformed them into junked gems.

Despite its modest size, this remarkable pier dive offers up the opportunity to see more critters than you could possibly imagine. If you only had one day to dive in Sydney, then this is the one you’d want to do!

You can expect to see an abundance of common octopus, moray eels, a wide variety of anglerfish (both native and foreign), nudibranchs, pineapple fish, Eastern frogfish, common cuttlefish, weedfish, and much, much more.

Keep a close eye on every beer bottle that crosses your path, as you’ll likely find a blenny head poking out of the opening, and eggs lining the inside of the glass.

It is also a sanctuary for white seahorses, as baby horses are marked and released every so often as a way to track their movements and behaviour.

As a result, the population of this endangered species thrives within the compounds of Chowder Bay, especially after the installation of Seahorse Hotels was erected in 2021.

underwater photography Sydney

The real magic comes to life at night, as all critters decide to emerge from their dens to feed and mate.

Night diving presents the opportunity to interact with critters that are less likely to appear during the day; blue-ringed octopus, pyjama squid, Southern calamari squid, Luminous Bay squid, bobtail squid, decorated crabs, gobbleguts carrying eggs in their mouth, and during certain times of the year, you’ll even see the famous nudibranch dubbed “Sean the Sheep”.

underwater photography Sydney

This site is definitely recommended as a scuba dive, as the silty sediment that blankets the floor is incredibly volatile. Even with scuba, the slightest kick of the sand can make you lose your bearings.

Never expect visibility above 5 meters as a general rule, and in fact, consider yourself lucky with anything above 3 meters.

With this in mind, I’d advise sticking with your desired macro setup (I usually take my 60mm or my 90mm down with me), and maybe even strapping on your snoot to black out the muddy, dull surroundings that can counteract an otherwise incredible shot.

When Clifton is graced with flawless visibility, I’d advise taking a close focus wide angle (CFWA) setup like an 8-15mm fisheye and mini dome. Those ethereal sun rays lighting up the pier and shark nets can set the scene for a dramatic wide-angle shot.

Clifton Gardens is the site all local divers flock to when the swell kicks up, as it is sheltered with absolutely no current.

underwater photography Sydney

However, things to be mindful of are fishing lines (due to large numbers of fishermen casting their lines off the pier), numb rays that bury themselves under the sand (touching one of these creatures is the equivalent of touching an electric fence), and the silty sea floor, which can not only disrupt your dive but other local photographers looking to grab the next shot.

Read more: How to Get Rid of Backscatter in Underwater Photography

2. Kurnell

Kurnell is a glorified underwater Mecca for local divers, with the most diverse range of marine life condensed into one slender shoreline. 

underwater photography Sydney

Located on the southern end of Sydney, Kurnell’s dive sites are divided into 3 distinctive profiles: The Leap, The Steps, The Monument. In my opinion, the further west you go, the smaller and less abundant the critters.

Things to be aware of on this stretch of coast are the tidal charts, current, and surge, as well as heavy boat traffic.

The Leap

This site can only be done on the incoming tide (close to high tide) and offers one of the most enjoyable drift dives in the Greater Sydney region.

You’ll have to trek down several flights of stairs built into the cliff face and then “leap” into the water, which if the swell is greater than a meter will have to be timed perfectly.

Once you’re in, descend to 20 meters heading northeast, and then allow the tides to drift you west towards The Steps.

underwater photography Sydney

The Leap is surrounded by bommies peppered with colorful sponges, adventurous swim-throughs, towering rock shelves, and an abundance of marine life ready to be photographed.

This is one of those sites that can be dived with either a wide-angle or macro setup and should be decided purely based on the visibility reports, or what you’re ready to photograph on the day.

On wide-angle days with exceptional visibility, you’ll encounter massive schooling kingfish, schooling yellowtail, turtles, Eastern blue devil fish, balling striped catfish, blue groupers, wobbegongs, giant cuttlefish, and every now and then the occasional cheeky seal.

However, most people visit The Leap to dive with weedy seadragons, as you are likely to encounter as many as fifteen on a single tank.

Underwater photography locations Sydney

Should you decide to take a splash with your macro setup, you’ll have the opportunity to photograph an abundance of anglerfish, pygmy pipehorses, nudibranchs, common octopus, potbellied seahorses, moray eels, lionfish, and more.

Read more: 8 Tips to Create Beautiful Underwater Animal Portraits

The Steps

This incredible local site is another favorite of mine and can be done on any tide, with a preference to dive it on the incoming, heading Southeast towards The Leap, and drifting back with the tide.

The site got its name from the brutal steps built into the cliff face; a guaranteed method for getting warm before and after you’ve hit the water.

underwater photography Sydney

Although your wide-angle encounters decrease, the macro life is explosive and plentiful, so I’d advise diving with either a 60mm or 90mm macro lens (depending on how small you’d like to go).

I’ve found this site to be a hotspot for strange and bizarre critters that are either local to Sydney waters or that have drifted off the EAC.

This includes several variations of anglerfish, common octopus, pygmy pipehorses, potbellied seahorses, nudibranchs, weedy seadragons, and schooling yellowtails.

Due to its position in relation to the EAC, I’ve even been able to spot ornate and robust ghost pipefish here during very specific times of the year, as well as nudibranchs only found in the tropical regions of Indonesia.

The Monument

I very rarely dive this side of Kurnell, as I find most of the marine life found at this site is on the super macro side of the spectrum, and in much smaller numbers than what can be photographed at The Steps.

However, it’s certainly worth doing if you’re passionate about nudibranchs and other super macro critters.

3. Shark Point

This site is definitely not for the faint-hearted, and you better get task-fit quick if you’re looking to dive it in the near future, but I would classify this site as the best wide-angle dive Sydney has to offer.

However, due to its east-facing entry into the open ocean, you can only dive here when the swell is conservatively below 1.1 meters, ideally coming from the south, with light northerly winds.

I’d also advise giving it a miss if visibility reports are coming back as less than desirable, as the site’s true beauty only shines bright with flawless winter conditions.

Underwater photography Sydney

To see the best parts of the site, you’ll either need a 15L or twin tanks filled with Nitrox, as the swim back to the exit (which differs from the entry) is incredibly far.

Shark Point’s prelude to a hair-raising entry begins with a 300-meter trek over rocks, portions of which you’ll have to put your camera down to climb down boulders.

Once you reach the entry point (a gutter directly exposed to the elements of the open ocean), you’ll need to remain back, time a lull in the swell’s period, and then quickly put your fins on before taking a giant stride off the cliffs into the gutter.

Be sure to kick away from the point of entry, so as to avoid being swept back into the gutter.

Although this may all sound like too much trouble, I can assure you, it’s worth it.

There are many different profiles you can follow to dive this site, and I’d only advise doing it with a seasoned local diver (due to navigational technicalities), but the wildlife encounters are plentiful and abundant.

Aside from the numerous swim-throughs, towering boulders blanketed with colorful sponge gardens, and jaw-dropping topography, you’ll have encounters with grey nurse sharks, seals, wobbegongs, Port Jacksons, giant cuttlefish, Eastern blue devils, weedy sea dragons, giant smooth rays, and if you’re really lucky, humpback whales!

underwater photography Sydney

But the real beauty of this site comes together just north of the entry, at a giant boulder known as “Big Rock” or “Roundabout Rock”.

Here, you’ll have the opportunity to surround yourself with schooling yellowtail, pomfrets, and Old wives fish in such great numbers, it will blanket out the sun, and restrict visual access to your dive buddy only meters away!

This spectacle can be so overwhelmingly hypnotic at times, you can’t help but lower your camera and just enjoy the show.

Top Tip: When photographing these schooling fish, be mindful of your strobe power, as their reflective scales can blind the frame.

My preferred setup for this site is an 8-15mm fisheye for CFWA, as you can usually get up close and personal with wildlife while capturing the flowing kelp and towering topography in the backdrop.

underwater photography locations Sydney australia

Things to be mindful of at this site are navigation, awareness of air consumption (be sure you start to leave “Roundabout Rock” for the exit with at least 120 bars in your 15L tank), NDL (if you choose to dive one of the deeper profiles), boat traffic, and above all, knowing when to say no to the dive if conditions look a bit sketchy.

Read more: 8 Essential Skills and Techniques for Underwater Photographers

4. Shelly Beach

Located in the Northern Beaches, Shelly Beach is likely to be the top contender for most locals when it comes to Sydney diving.

Home to the protected Aquatic Reserve known as “Cabbage Tree Bay” (CTB), Shelly is a sure contender for wide-angle photography, so get ready to explore the area with high expectations.

australia underwater photography

However, I choose to dive this site during the winter months, as you’ll not only receive the best visibility but also immerse yourself in the annual giant cuttlefish migration.

Dozens of these spectacularly photogenic sea creatures flock to the kelp-covered shallows of CTB, making them ideal candidates for wide-angle photography.

Personally, once again, I’d opt for an 8-15mm fisheye setup for some CFWA shots, as you can get up close and personal with the gentle giants while capturing the sun-drenched surroundings of the area.

underwater photography Sydney

Another optimal time to explore the shallows of CTB is during the summer months when you’ll be able to encounter juvenile dusky whale sharks. These beautiful creatures spend their younger years in the bay before embarking on a vast migration into open ocean.

I’d say most wildlife encounters in CTB can be done freediving, and it is even encouraged with the dusky whalers, as the tank’s bubbles tend to scare them off.

There are two profiles to Shelly Beach, both of which lie on either side of the beach. To the left, you’ll be able to enjoy Cabbage Tree Bay (as explained above), and to the right, you’ll have a more extensive ocean sector to explore, with a wider range of marine creatures at your disposal.

You’ll find grey nurse sharks, weedy sea dragons, Port Jackson sharks, wobbegongs, giant cuttlefish, blue groupers, cctopus, moray eels, weedfish, smooth rays, eaglerays, and schooling yellowtail.

underwater photography Sydney australia

If you’re lucky, locals have even had encounters with dolphins, penguins, and schooling cow nose rays (usually found in the middle of the bay). There’s even an old motorbike wreck that now serves as an artificial reef, which can be found in about 7 meters of water to the left of the rock shelf.

Although this side of the beach has a wider variety of marine life, be sure to follow your compass, and have an extensive understanding of the site. No matter how many times I’ve dived Shelly Beach, there’s always the odd adventure where I lose my bearings and get a little lost.

If you keep a close eye on reports coming out of Shelly Beach, you’ll find that at least once a year, it receives a huge influx of golden jellyfish that swarm into the bay and linger for a few days.

This phenomenon is probably one of the most photogenic opportunities of the year, and is definitely something to take into consideration on your annual dive calendar.

underwater photography locations Sydney

On a day when Shelly is receiving beautiful natural light, you’ll spend hours on end freediving into a salty golden paradise – just be sure to cover yourself from head to toe, as these natural beauties pack a powerful sting.

Read more: How to Photograph Ocean Giants

5. Bare Island

Some of you may remember Bare Island from the action-packed Blockbuster film “Mission Impossible 2”, but to local Sydney divers, this extensive site is impossibly beautiful and teeming with macro critters of all shapes and sizes.

For years, locals thought nothing more than diving the Western wall of Bare Island, however, since the creation of local dive maps on www.viz.net.au (created by local exploratory diver Marco Bordieri) we have been fortunate enough to have our underwater wonderland extended to a whopping 211,000 meters!

macro underwater photography

Bare Island is home to one of the most impressive displays of soft coral gardens in Sydney, a vast array of odd bottom dwellers, and intricate overhangs that house large schooling fish and sleeping carpet sharks.

Aside from the odd weekend during winter where you will be blessed with flawless visibility, I’d advise strapping on one of your preferred macro setups for this dive.

Should you decide to take a splash with your 90mm setup, you’ll have the opportunity to find a wide range of nudibranchs, pygmy pipe horses, potbellied seahorses, sea spiders, flatworms, and tiny painted anglerfish.

However, my preferred setup for Bare Island is the 60mm macro, as I find the most interesting creatures are mid-sized marvels. You’ll be able to find the odd weedy sea dragon, flying gurnards, Eastern frogfish, sizable anglerfish, estuarine catfish, octopus, moray eels, and lionfish.

However, the main attraction for diving Bare Island has to be the weird and wonderful critter known as the Red Indian fish. Endemic to Australian waters, they can be found amongst sponge beds scattered around the site.

They are extraordinary masters of camouflage, so be sure to try and spot them with your torch, as they usually hide amongst red sponge corals.

I usually find photographing these creatures with a snoot adds an extra level of drama, but if they have chosen a particularly lush abode, it may be worth capturing the surrounding backdrop.

seahorse photography australia

If visibility reports for Bare Island are trending upwards, strapping on a wide-angle lens may not be such a bad idea. The site is graced with the presence of wobbegongs, Port Jacksons, schooling fish, and beautiful sponge gardens.

Just be conscious of the fact that the site tends to level out at 12-16 meters, and for some reason does not receive a lot of natural light, so I’d probably advise choosing a CFWA setup to get up close and personal to your subjects.

It’s risky business surfacing at any stage during this shore dive, so be sure to take an SMB with you should you need to make an emergency surface mission.

Aside from consistent boat traffic, be mindful of the currents that pick up near the end of the western wall, and have a sufficient understanding of how to navigate the site.

Bare Island is exposed to South/SSE swells; however, diving the western wall well within the bay means it receives quite a bit of shelter from the Island and coastal cliffs.

underwater photography

You’re probably OK to dive it with direct swells up to 2.5 meters; however, expect quite a bit of surge underwater. Also, be incredibly cautious of gusting winds picking up from the West – many times I’ve surfaced with dangerous exit predicaments caused by howling westerlies.

6. Gordon’s Bay

Gordon’s Bay is a unique dive site located in the eastern suburbs of Sydney and features an underwater nature trail that has been constructed and maintained by volunteers of the Gordon’s Bay SCUBA Diving Club.

gordon's bay diving underwater photography Sydney

It is suitable for divers of all levels, with a maximum depth of fifteen meters, and is accessible from a footpath leading directly into the water.

By following the trail, divers are guided through the most exciting, highly concentrated sections of the bay, including reef passages, extensive rock walls, and sand flats.

This 600-meter trail forms a loop to assist divers to and from the entry and exit points, making it the perfect site for new divers that are unfamiliar with the site. Gordon’s Bay features a wide range of marine life, typical of many Sydney ocean dives.

underwater photography Sydney

There is a resident school of long-finned pike which can invariably be found along a long wall at around 6 meters depth. You’ll also have encounters with common stingrays, fiddler rays, and numb rays which can be found on the sandy flats.

Other species regularly spotted are Eastern blue groupers, wobbegongs, and estuary catfish, in addition to schools of mado, stripey, and sweep.

However, the main attraction of the site can be found on the ropes used to secure the marker buoys, which have become a regular home for collections of squid eggs.

underwater photography Sydney

In recent years, the overhangs of the bay have also housed a large collection of cuttlefish eggs suspended from the ceiling.

So be sure to have your macro setup ready to capture these seasonal phenomena as they unfold. Just be careful not to scratch your dome or port attempting this kind of shot, as the eggs tend to be buried deep within the overhangs of the site.

As a fairly protected region of Sydney, Gordon’s Bay is not subjected to any currents, boat traffic, or fishing lines. Just be sure to check the swell direction and size on the day to ensure it is not in line with a direct SE hit.

For more information on the site, I’d encourage a quick visit to www.gordonsbayscubadiving.com or www.facebook.com/GordonsBaySCUBADivingClub.

In conclusion

These are a handful of the best shore diving sites in Sydney, and they deliver some bountiful photographic opportunities on a daily basis. Your choice of site will be purely dependent on the conditions that week, and what you’re looking to photograph at the time.

Just don’t underestimate the swell reports, and be aware of the hazards at every location, or you’ll find yourself making news headlines that read something like: “Local diver rescued by tugboat in Sydney Harbour.”

underwater photography Sydney Australia

One of my favorite things about diving in Sydney is the close-knit community that has been built and nurtured by local enthusiasts.

I’ll always pull up to a site and have a nice chat with several other divers gearing up for a splash, many of whom are local underwater photographers that can direct you to the star critters of the day.

There’s also an abundance of online groups like “Viz – Sydney Diving Visibility Reports” on Facebook, which encourages local divers to post and discuss the conditions they encountered on their most recent dive.

If you’re interested in finding out about the many other sites that are dispersed around greater Sydney, you can visit https://www.michaelmcfadyenscuba.info/news.php and browse through an in-depth analysis of all Sydney dive sites.

Otherwise, just remember that preparation is key, safety comes first, and never underestimate Sydney’s ability to deliver some weird and wonderful creatures. Enjoy!

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Talia Greis is a self taught, internationally acclaimed underwater photographer from Sydney Australia. Born and raised in the coastal city regions of the Eastern Suburbs, her appreciation for ocean life exploded while diving Ningaloo Reef, WA. Her focus is geared toward wide angle photography, creature portraits, and abstract captures, in an attempt to understand, and showcase the marvel of our oceans.

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