Wilderness within reach: Sydney's bush backyard

Manly Dam through the trees

Manly dam is just one nature centre close to Sydney.

Credit: Warringah Council

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Wet and wild

It's not really politic to shout "Shark! Shark!" when snorkelling at one of Sydney's favourite beaches, but I needed to get my snorkel buddy's attention. I had just seen my first ever wobbegong shark a few metres below, nestled into the sandy floor of Clovelly's prime snorkel pool, and I wanted to tell someone.

I had never dreamed I would see such a variety of wildlife this close to the city.

Clovelly Beach and its larger neighbour, Gordon's Bay, are part of a 40-hectare aquatic reserve, located just seven kilometres from Sydney's CBD.

They sit on one of Australia's most populated stretches of coast but once you dive below the water's surface it's easy to imagine you are miles from anywhere. The waters teem with a huge variety of fish, coral, crustaceans and even the occasional shark.

They're not scary sharks: wobbegongs sit on the sandy bottom, not threatening anyone unless prodded or stepped on, and this one was less than a metre long. But they are officially sharks nonetheless and my shouting "Look, there's a shark down there!" had a dramatic effect on my fellow swimmers.

My snorkel buddy, however, was busy taking huge breaths and diving down in an attempt to pat Bluey, Clovelly's famous blue groper.

Groper are astounding fish, all juveniles are female and brown in colour, with one in each territory developing into a male and turning bright blue.

When Clovelly's resident male groper was speared in 2005 (the offending fisherman was later prosecuted for the incident) one of the juveniles grew into the dominant male to replace him.

Around the headland at Gordon's Bay, we had the beach all to ourselves so the kids could play happily on the small strip of sand below the rows of boat racks while I explored the little rocky shoals.

I saw schools of pipe fish, old wife fish and something frilly, the size and shape of a dinner plate, swishing along, which I later discovered was a cuttlefish.

Looking out to sea between the rocky headlands I could imagine we were far from civilisation, until my snorkel buddy showed up with coffee and ice creams.

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