Opinion

The Floor of Sydney Harbour

“Over centuries, Sydney Harbour has figured as an invisible ecosystem, traditional country, an industrial underwater, and a place of myth and fantasy. It represents such a large part of the city of Sydney, yet it continues to be hidden in history, and invisible to citizens going about their daily lives.”

Image by Public Domain Pictures. Sourced from Pixabay.com

Ann Elias introduces the concepts behind her new research project titled The Floor of Sydney Harbour in partnership with SEI and Sydney University researchers working in the arts, humanities, and sciences.

In addition to living the life of an academic as Challis Professor of Zoology at the University of Sydney, William Dakin (1883–1950), a marine scientist, made regular science broadcasts on the radio for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. From 1934 to 1944 he spoke passionately about oceans, coastlines, and the marine life that dwells in the littoral zone and goes mostly unseen by human eyes. He believed that myths of the land and the bush had repressed the oceanic dimension of the Australian psyche, and found it anomalous that half Australia’s population had no experience of the bush or the ‘hot dry centre’, but instead lived on the coast. And so he set about subverting the myths of Australian identity by reminding his many listeners about the origins of human life in the sea, and how this beginning had left Australians with ‘the ocean in our blood’.

From the terrestrial to the maritime, and from the land to the underwater: this was a shift in thinking that Dakin hoped would resonate with listeners and jolt them to rethink assumptions about place and identity. Broadcasting from Sydney where the harbour plays such a defining role in everyday life, Dakin’s story had extra impact – in the 1930s there was no aspect of the Sydney environment more mysterious than the floor of Sydney Harbour. No location was so close and yet so invisible as the underwater that lies beneath the surface of the waterways that form the region of Sydney. How many people had seen, or knew, this other world? Of the million people who lived around Sydney Harbour in the early twentieth century, and travelled from place to place by ferry, how many realised that beneath the surface was a wilderness, a universe of its own?

These were questions posed by a contemporary of Dakin’s, a colleague at the University of Sydney, a man by the name of Norman B. Friend who was also a suit diver and often wrote about the underwater of Sydney Harbour for the popular press. His stories of descending to the depths of the Harbour and of witnessing monster sharks locked in deadly combat were chilling enough, but the way he characterised the surface of the harbour as a deceptive membrane separating the tranquility of life above from the ‘turmoil and bloodshed’ of life below, did nothing to endear the public to the Harbour’s floor. Above the surface, the Harbour glistened happily but below was an uncanny, frightening place. The public, though, was fascinated. So ten years before William Dakin broadcast about the ocean on national radio, Norman Friend descended Sydney Harbour with another diver, both fitted with transmitters to send wireless messages to the Sydney public. Broadcast from their radios, listeners heard the hollow sounds of brass helmets banging underwater, the noise of air bubbles escaping from helmets, and the heavy breathing of the men as they plodded around forests of seaweed. The floor of Sydney Harbour seemed an alien place, as remote as outer space. Not until the 1950s, when cameras and scuba gear became available to the public, did that image begin to change and the underwater seem more domestic and less hostile.

Over centuries, Sydney Harbour has figured as an invisible ecosystem, traditional country, an industrial underwater, and a place of myth and fantasy. It represents such a large part of the city of Sydney, yet it continues to be hidden in history, and invisible to citizens going about their daily lives. But a group of Sydney University researchers working in the arts, humanities, and sciences are about to change this by documenting, interpreting, responding to, and theorising the floor of Sydney Harbour to re-imagine the city, reveal its secret and unseen dimensions, and understand the cultural meanings of this maritime place. In partnership with the Sydney Environment Institute, they will synthesise environmental and cultural studies to address human and non-human interactions in an aquatic environment of critical concern in an age of climate change. Watch this space.


Ann Elias is Associate Professor in Critical Studies at Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney. Research fields include Australian modernism, camouflage as a social and aesthetic phenomenon, flowers and their cultural history, and early underwater photography, including of the Great Barrier Reef. Books include Camouflage Australia: art, nature, science and war (2011) and Useless Beauty: flowers and Australian art (2015). In preparation is a book for Duke Press on representations of the underwater at the colonial tropics in the early twentieth century.