Trees Reclaim Shipwrecks in Sydney Harbour

Industrialisation doesn’t always wreck the environment. Sometime it provides a new opportunity for nature to re-establish its roots; literally. In Homebush Bay, in Australia, the native bush has found an unlikely nursery – on an abandoned ship. By Jeremy Torr.

The vegetation colonising SS Ayrfield is astonishing in its quantity (photo credit KarmaDecay)

The vegetation colonising SS Ayrfield is astonishing in its quantity (photo credit KarmaDecay)

Sydney, 21 July 2013. The famous Sydney Harbour houses the Opera House, the Bridge, scores of fancy restaurants and pleasure boats as far as the eye can see. But not so long ago, nearby Homebush Bay was used as a dumping ground and ship-breaking yard for de-commissioned ships. It also housed plenty of toxic chemical plants and sludge pits which killed huge swathes of local natural vegetation and scrub. The whole area was something of a dumping ground for leftover industrial waste. During the, 60s and 70s many old and worn out ships were gutted, then towed to Homebush and left to wait for the men with sledgehammers and cutting torches.

Partly due to the low cost of steel in Australia, and partly due to swankier better-paying jobs in the newly prosperous Sydney stealing the people who would have previously done all the dirty jobs, several hulks were never broken up, but were simply abandoned where they floated.

One of these was the 1,140-tonne steamship SS Ayrfield, built in 1911 and used as a coal and troop transport during both World Wars. Ayrfield was toed to Homebush Bay in 1972, but that was just before the ship-breakers decided the profits were not worth the effort and closed down their operations. So the Ayrfield was left floating on a sea of uncertainty, along with several others. But today, is the most photographed hulk in Homebush, for definite.

Renewal and regrowth

As Sydney became more prosperous and less industrial, efforts were made to reclaim the Homebush areas where toxic chemicals had done so much damage. Between 2008 and 2010 a massive clean up was instigated to clean up the contaminated subsoil left by dumping and chemical works.

These included a brick factory where billion of bricks were made, which provided a convenient quarry to dump demolition materials, industrial and household wastes, and anything that needed hiding. As no records were kept of the location or materials dumped, even by major corporations like Union Carbide, Berger Paints, CSR Chemicals and Allied Feeds. The whole bay’s woeful condition only really became obvious only when the Olympics were planned. 

Surveys revealed rowers and sailors would potentially be splashing around in a cocktail of poisonous heavy metals, asbestos, medical waste, chemical waste – including lethal DDT, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phthalates, dioxins and pesticides – that were all lurking in the area. Urgent onshore action was taken to decontaminate the soil, the area was re-seeded and is now a peaceful and almost healthy protected natural habitat. Whales, dolphins, sharks and oysters returned to the seepage-free bay (though the authorities say oysters still should not be eaten). But the hulks floated on, abandoned and seemingly indestructible. 

As time went by, birds would have taken seeds from the local stands of swamp oak, maybe from small eucalypts and mangrove, and dropped them as they paused for a rest on the rusty rails of the SS Ayrfield. They may even have pooped out seeds from other trees and shrubs, whose fruits they had eaten before in one of Sydney’s lush parks.

Slowly, slowly

The Ayrfield is one of the most photographed wrecks in Sydney (photo credit - RedBubble)

The Ayrfield is one of the most photographed wrecks in Sydney (photo credit - RedBubble)

To begin with the seeds would have withered and died on the rusty steel hull, but as dust and dirt (and bird poo) built up in the crevices over the decades, a fertile soil developed on the steel decks. Some of the seeds germinated, sent down roots and survived. More birds came, sat in the newly-sprouted branches, pooped, supplied nutrients, dropped more seeds and helped to establish more healthy saplings. 

Today SS Ayrfield is now an astonishing floating jungle, totally covered in lush vegetation, a complete ecosystem in its own right. And one that is completely naturally established. No NGO has helped it with potting mixture, no carefully selected tough seedlings were dropped into its gull. Nature took back what the local human population had abandoned. Although SS Ayrfiled is by far the most photographed and impressive floating spinney in Homebush, there are at least four ships’ hulls and several barges visible in Homebush Bay. They are all protected under the Shipwrecks Act which states that all wrecks over 75 years old are not to be messed with. And it’s not just floating hulks that are helping nature recolonise in Sydney. The Sydney ferry Dee Why and the old HMS Wexford were deliberately scuttled off Long Reef in 1976 as the basis for an artificial reef, and are now part of an equally lush and expanding marine ecosystem. 

For more info on Sydney Reef wrecks go to:

For more info on Homebush wrecks go to: