Copy this photo ...

Select a size

for email


To copy the photo to the clipboard, ClickTap on the thumbnail above and select Copy image.
It was a deeply grey afternoon, nothing like the blue skies in all the classic photos of Sydney. With a couple of hours to spare and our legs aching from walking around Circular Quay we decided to take a ferry ride, and Cockatoo Island was the top suggestion on several internet lists.
Our route that day took us straight under the Harbour Bridge, stopping on the way at Barangaroo in Darling Harbour and at Birchgrove. Even on a miserable, mid-week afternoon Sydney Harbour seemed full of water craft, with everything down to the smallest sailboats constantly crossing our path. The captains of the ferries are kept busy safely navigating the routes day in day out. Accidents have happened, but very few considering the amount of ferry traffic.
Although ferries seems to leave constantly from Circular Quay we had worries about starting off on a trip that might strand us overnight on a strange island several kilometres upstream. At that time the ferries seemed to be running about every 20 minutes, but we were concerned we’d miss the last departure from the island. There are many water taxis operating in the harbour area, but at a much greater cost than the ferries. Jumping on the ferry was a spur of the moment decision, and in fact the service runs later than we thought. The advice is to check the timetables and travel planning tools on the very comprehensive Transport for NSW website. Cockatoo Island is (currently) served by two routes from Circular Quayas a dedicated destination and as a stop on the long route to Parramatta.
Physically, Cockatoo Island consists of flat land, some of it artificially reclaimed, around a sandstone knoll, with a total area of about 44, and lying about 4.5 upstream from the Harbour Bridge. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but don’t go there for its natural beautythat was covered by concrete and brick long ago. Go for the history, and the industrial heritage.
Starting with the time of European settlement it became a prison for convicts and then developed into being the site of one of Australia's biggest shipyards, operating between 1857 and 1991 and playing an important role during both World Wars. The island has many derelict and preserved industrial buildings, defences, docks and tunnels, as well as more modern structures still in use, with concrete slabs witnessing where other buildings once stood. We wandered around the perimeter and then cut back through the Dog-Leg Tunnel, under the sandstone knoll, built to make it easier to transport workers and materials from one side of the island to the other before it served as an air-raid shelter in World War 2.
We arrived there knowing nothing of its very rich history. Our stay was short, but we learnt a lot in that brief time. It’s a place that’s worth reading up on before visiting and then taking all day to wander around and put the history into perspective. Add some warm sun and it would be a good spot to just sit and watch the boats pass by in the harbour
The English name Cockatoo Island was given, surprise surprise, because flocks of cockatoos nest there. We saw many cockatoos everywhere we went in eastern Australiabut not one on Cockatoo Island.

The crossing
About 4.9 in 20 direct, or about 6.5 in 30 via Barangaroo
Operating from early morning to late at night, year-round
The boats
The Sydney Ferries fleet consists of 34 passenger ferries, divided into eight classes of boat
AUD $6.79 (2024). Tap on and off with a credit card or Opus card.
Sydney Ferries (Transport for NSW)

Includes maps, fares, schedules
When I took the ferry
November 2023

More photos