The opera house’s scenic backdrop

Sydney Harbour National Park, Australia

Sydney skyline from North Head, Sydney Harbour National Park


Sydney Harbour National Park protects a number of islands and foreshore areas around one of the world's most famous harbours. The park's landscape is one of steep hills, long, narrow ridges, deep rocky valleys and intricately eroded cliffs. Home to native wildlife living in rare pockets of bushland, the park also offers superb swimming spots, bushwalking tracks and picnic areas to visitors, always with a view of the harbour’s staggering coastline.

Sydney Harbour National Park was established in 1975, but the protection of Sydney Harbour's foreshores and islands from development dates back much further. Long before the creation of Sydney Harbour National Park, Sydney residents were visiting these public places to relax beside the bush and the water, and some of the islands were set aside as recreation reserves as early as 1879.

The park area also has strong associations with Aboriginal history: Before Australia became a British colony, the area around Sydney Harbour was occupied by the Eora, Guringai and Daruk Aboriginal nations. When European settlers and convicts arrived, the Aboriginal people were forced from the area, and by the mid-19th century, the dispossession of Sydney's Aboriginal people was virtually complete. Today, there are many Aboriginal people living in and around Sydney - and, despite the great spread of the city, Aboriginal sites have survived in certain undeveloped locations. The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council works with the National Parks and Wildlife Service to protect the Aboriginal sites in the park.

Sydney Harbour also played a leading role in the history of white Australia: It is the place where the first penal colony was set up by the British authorities. Since then, Sydney Harbour has continued to play an important part in the development of the nation.

Fortifications were established to defend the colony, and maritime navigation and trade, the backbone of the Australian economy, spread out from Sydney Harbour. Incoming migrants were welcomed and quarantined inside Sydney Heads.

Convict-built buildings and military fortifications, Aboriginal sites and a heritage lighthouse speak of the park’s rich cultural heritage. Cadmans Cottage, constructed in 1816, is one of Sydney’s oldest surviving buildings and is now home to the park information center.

Sydney Harbour National Park is administered by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, and falls under Category V of the IUCN Protected Areas Management Categories.

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Size and Location

The park lies within the Sydney metropolitan area, on the east coast of the Australian continent. It consists of several discrete units, which altogether cover an area of 392 hectares.

Flora and Fauna

The mammals of Sydney Harbour National Park are generally those which have been able to adapt to the urban environment. Brushtail possums, which are found all over Sydney, are common in the park - as are grey-headed flying foxes, which flap among the trees after dark. Long-nosed bandicoots, which used to be a common suburban sight, have a colony on North Head, one of the few remaining in Sydney.

The park also provides habitat for ringtail possums, echidnas, water rats, brown antechinuses, and bats. Most of these animals are largely nocturnal, so the best chance of seeing them is at night.

Another native mammal in the park is the water rat, which can grow up to a body length of up to 40 cm, not including the tail, and is an excellent swimmer.

During winter, whales can be spotted on their annual migration north.

Around 150 bird species have been seen in the park in recent years. At least 44 species breed here, mainly in the woodland, forest and heath areas. Seabirds nest on the cliff ledges around North Head and South Head - including the great cormorant, white-breasted sea eagle, nankeen kestrel, masked lapwing and rock warbler.

A colony of the endangered Little penguin is also found in the harbour. Little penguins generally breed on offshore islands, and this is the only known mainland colony in New South Wales. The penguins are frequently seen in the harbour's waters.

Apart from a variety of snakes and lizards, there are also several amphibian species found in the park, including the rare red-crowned toadlet.

The majority of Sydney Harbour National Park is heathland and scrub - a low, shrubby community of plants, found in places where a large rock platform lies very close to the surface, so there is not much soil and either too little or too much water. Heathland plants generally don't grow above two metres.

Many heathland communities in the park are being gradually taken over by native tree species. This is mainly because there have not been any major bushfires in some areas for several decades. Some heathland plants, such as banksias and tea-trees, depend mainly on fire for the regeneration of populations.

Grassy woodlands cover approximately 25 per cent of the park's area. They feature a light canopy of trees - such as bangalays and red bloodwoods - growing above a rich understorey of shrubs.

In other areas, dry eucalypt forests are the dominant vegetation. The most famous of the Sydney sandstone trees – the Sydney red gums – grows in these forests. These angophora trees, closely related to eucalypts, have smooth, pink-grey bark which flakes off every spring to reveal a new orange layer underneath.

Red bloodwoods, broad-leaved paperbarks and Sydney peppermints are other tree species characteristic of the park, as well as the majestic Port Jackson fig trees.


Pest animals are a major problem in Sydney Harbour National Park, threatening the native animal species, which are already restricted to small, isolated pockets of bushland scattered around the harbour. Foxes and feral cats - together with domestic dogs and cats - hunt the park's small marsupials, such as possums, antechinuses and bandicoots. They also leave scents in the park which can disturb native wildlife and stop them from feeding or breeding properly. Other introduced animals - particularly rabbits, rats and mice - compete with native species for food.

A large number of exotic plants, or weeds, have also found their way into Sydney Harbour National Park. They have spread from neighbouring gardens, and have also grown where people have dumped their garden refuse in the park. Urban stormwater has flowed into the area, carrying soil, weeds and excessive nutrients with it. These exotic plants take over bushland areas, replacing native plants by depriving them of light and nutrients. The most widespread - and destructive - weeds in the park include lantana, crofton weed, morning glory, bitou bush, pampas grass, asparagus fern, privet, camphor laurel, alligator weed, blackberry and pellitory.

In some areas of the park, dieback is occurring. This is a sickness in trees, which progresses from the tips of the shoots, along the branches, eventually to the trunk where it can lead to the death of the tree. Dieback is a complex problem, and scientists are not sure of its cause. Possible explanations include the reduced numbers of birds feeding on insects in the trees, pollution, changed drainage patterns, or the fact that some areas have not had a bushfire for many years.

Sea level rise induced by climate change is predicted to have a significant impact on management, maintenance and visitor access, particularly on Fort Denison and Goat Island.

The national park administration has a long tradition of working with volunteers in numerous projects, addressing a number of issues such as bush regeneration, threatened species management, and cultural heritage preservation.

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