Discover the Historic Sydney Harbour Islands
You may have seen several Sydney harbour islands from the ferry, but did you realise that Sydney Harbour boasts eight islands? Five of them are accessible to the public, and I have been lucky enough to spend time on almost all over the years. Today I want to give you some background on each and show you which Sydney Harbour islands are easiest to reach and the best way to explore them.
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For each island we have given the name Eora name of the island and included some background on its history where known.
Fort Denison /Muddawahnyuh
The most infamous of Sydney Harbour Islands, of the eight islands, Fort Denison is the best known and most often photographed.
Known by the Cadigal people as ‘Mattewanya’ from the colony’s very early days when it was just a rocky outcrop, the island was a place of banishment for unruly convicts and was colloquially known as Pinchgut Island. This was said to be due to the scant rations that they were given. However, the name may also refer to a nautical term for a narrow part of the harbour.
The beautiful fort we see on Fort Denison today was built in 1857 to protect Sydney from any attacks that may have resulted from the Crimean War. There was fear that Sydney Cove could be invaded, and there are still cannons in position today.
This island features the most complete Martello Tower in the world and a fantastic view of the Harbour bridge and the Sydney Opera House.
A convict Francis Morgan (no relation I hope!) was executed by hanging after committing murder. His body was left hanging for many months as a deterrent to others.Dictionary of Sydney
Over the years, one of its primary functions was to collect tidal and weather information. It still collects details about tides. These days the island is managed by the Sydney Harbour National Park.
How to get to Fort Denison: There is no scheduled ferry service to the island until the end of this year. It is expected that a ferry service from Circular Quay will be offered several times a day once the new wharf is finished. This was also a stop on the Sydney Harbour Hop on Hop off service.
What to do when you get there: In the past, they offered 30 minute guided tours three times a day. These gave you the island’s history and let you explore the Martello tower. Let’s hope they are back next year.
In the meantime, you can do a google street view tour
Discover more of Sydney Harbour with these ferry rides
Cockatoo Island / Wareamah
From a disused shipbuilding yard and former convict prison, Cockatoo Island has been reborn as a tourist attraction, campground and the site of several annual Sydney festivals.
The island was first used as a convict prison in the early 19th century, and over the years, it served as a reformatory school for wayward boys and a base for training naval cadets.
During the second world war , the island was used busy building and repairing vessels that saw service in the Pacific.
Today, Cockatoo Island, the largest island in Sydney Harbour is a popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Several historic buildings remain, including the Convict Precinct, which houses the Guardhouse, the Solitary Confinement Cells, and the Chapel. There are also plenty of old industrial buildings to wander. We discovered when researching our family historry that our ancestor Hugh Jones was an engineer on Fitzroy Dock in 1859.
You can walk the various paths around the island, many offering unique views of the harbour.
If you like the idea of a night on the island you can book to stay in one of the restored properties or book yourself a campsite. You can bring your own tent or book one of theirs with are set up with everything you need.
The island’s facilities include tennis courts, a licensed café, bbq’s, and camp kitchens and a shower block for overnight guests.
How to get to Cockatoo: Two different ferry routes service Cockatoo Island, both the F8 Cockatoo Island ferry via Balmain and Woolwich and the F3 Parramatta River cat stop here.
What to do when you get there: Head to the visitor centre near the ward and pick up a map for the self-guided walks. You can also pick up an audio guide or join one of the volunteer-led tours.
Shark Island / Boowambillee
Boowambillee (booh-uhm-‘bil-ee) / Shark Island is neither the site of infamous shark attacks nor home to large populations of them but instead was named for its shape. Just 1km offshore from Rose Bay the island is the perfect spot to watch the sea planes take off from the terminal at Rose Bay.
The island was the site of several shipwrecks before a warning light was finally installed in 1890.
It was used as a quarantine station in the 1830s and between 1871 and 1900 imported cattle and dogs were quarantined there.
Shark Island is a popular NYE fireworks venue and hosts a couple of other ticketed events each year, but mainly it is used by people with their own boat or kayak.
How to get to Shark Island: The easiest way to get here is to take the Hop on Hop off Ferry You can visit Shark Island on a regular ferry service or take a water taxi. There is a $7 per person landing fee, and bookings are necessary as only 500 people can use the island at once.
What to do when you get there: Shark Island is perfect for picnicking and paddling.
For more information on visiting the Islands of Sydney Harbour, I recommend you visit the National Parks and Wildlife website
Clark island / Billong-olola
Just off the shore at Darling Point, near Double Bay, this small island is a popular picnic spot for local boaties.
The island was named after First fleet Lieutenant Ralph Clark who in 1789 planted a vegetable garden here.
Clark Island is a popular spot to watch the NYE firework show with excellent views of Harbour Bridge.
The site offers plenty of shade and is a lovely spot for a picnic, especially in summer. There are also some paths through the bushland on the island if you fancy a short walk after lunch.
Park entry fees of $7 per person can be paid online.
How to get to Clark Island: You will need to take a water taxi or join a Tribal Warrior Cultural Cruise to get to the actual island in comfort. You could also rent a kayak and paddle over.
What to do on Clark Island: The island is popular for fishing and picnicking. It also sometimes hosts special events like Wine Island.
Goat Island / Me-Mel
With the indigenous name Memel or Me-Mel, meaning the eye, this island was once home to Bennelong and Barangaroo. In fact Bennelong told the early settlers that it was his island. handed down to him by his father.
Goat Island which is just off the entry to Darling Harbour was initially a sandstone quarry for the new colony and later a gunpowder storage facility. It became the home of the first water police station and most recently a filming location for the Aussie police drama Water Rats. It is also a favourite spot to view the NYE fireworks show.
The island is heritage listed and managed by the Office of Environment and Heritage. You can not visit unless on an official tour and mooring of private boats is not permitted.
Where is it: The island sits west of the Harbour Bridge between McMahons Point and Balmain
What to do when you get there: You can take a heritage tour with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Or book for NYE and watch the fireworks from the middle of the harbour.
The Garden Island Heritage Centre is currently closed due to wharf redevelopment
Garden Island is a naval base located east of the Royal Botanic Gardens. It is a working base and entry is only allowed in specific areas, but this is a great spot for history lovers, especially those interested in military history. These days Garden Island is connected to the mainland.
The main attraction for civilians is The Royal Australia Navy (RAN) Heritage Centre. This museum is open from 9.30-3.30pm every day except for public holidays. Entry is free, and the collection includes an interactive display on the Battle of Sydney when the harbour was attacked by Japanese submarines in 1942. You can also check out the view of Sydney Harbour from the fully operational attack periscope from an Oberon class submarine.
How to get to Garden Island: When the RAN centre is open the Watson’s Bay ferry will stop here. You can also take a 311 bus from the Barangaroo or the city to Potts Point.
What to do when you get there: Tours are offered by the Naval Historical society but must be booked in advance. There is also a free bbq area on the northern headland.
This small island is on the west side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Iron Cove.
At one time it was used by the NSW Government for biological testing – they were trying to find a way to reduce the rabbit population which had reach plague like numbers. Some of the buildings that remain on the island date back to this time.
This was the first of Sydney Harbours Islands to be opened to the public as a recreation reserve. It has a very interesting past from its hey day when its historic dance hall was filled with people having a good time its time when it was used by the US Army for training.
Getting to Rodd Island: This pretty island but hard to reach without your own boat
Spectacle Island /Gong-ul
In the Parramatta river end of the Harbour just off Drummoyne, Spectacle island is littered with functional looking buildings that date back over 100 years leaving very little green space.
At one time known as Dawes Island it has been used since the earliest days of the colony for munitions storage. Firstly as a way of keeping excess gunpowder a safe distance from the settlement and later as the official munitions storage base the Royal Navy.
Spectacle island got it’s name from its shape as it was originally two small islands joined by a narrow stretch of land.
Today it is home of a cadet training school and a repository for historic navy documents. It is not open to the public.
Snapper Island / Ar-ra-re-agon
The war effort also reached Snapper island in 1942 when the American Navy used for training purposes. It is not open to the public.
Sydney Harbour National Park includes Rodd, Goat, Fort Denison, Clark and Shark, are managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Did you know? Facts about Sydney Harbour Islands
If you are a regular reader you will know I love a bit of Trivia so here are a few facts we uncovered researching this piece. All things a true Sydney Expert should know!
According to the Dictionary of Sydney, Sydney Harbour once had 14 islands.
The ones we know most about are these five former harbour islands that have now been reclaimed.
- Bennelong Island – where the Opera House stands today was conencted to the mainland when the old tram sheds that previously occupied the site were built.
- Glebe Island – Located in Blackwattle Bay, Glebe Island was only accessible at low tide until the late 19th century when a causeway was built.
- Darling Island – Mud flats separated this area from the mainland until a causeway was constructed in 1854.
- Berry Island – a popular picnic stop and home of the Gadyan Track, Berry Island was joined to the mainland at Wollstonefcraft in the early 1900s by locals wanting easier access to the bushland.
- Garden Island – is no longer technically an island but as its open to the public and feels very much like an Island we included it above.