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Image credit: The Former Marine Biological Station at Camp Cove, State library of NSW, FL1228185

Former Marine Biological Station

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5 min read
The former Marine Biological Station at Camp Cove, Watson’s Bay was – like Sydney Hotel and Katoomba’s Carrington Hotel – designed by prominent colonial architect John Kirkpatrick.

Camp Cove is notable in Australian history as the resting place for the First Fleet before they landed at Sydney Cove in 1788.

Homeland of the Birrabirragal people

The land encompassing Watson’s Bay is the homeland of the Birrabirragal people, providing them with shelter, food, and abundant fish. The Birrabirragal built shell middens, held ceremonies, and created rock engravings depicting animal life. There is also a rock shelter at the northern end of the Camp Cove Beach that provides insights into the Birrabirragal’s way of life.

In 2004, the Harbour Trust consulted with historians to review available documentary evidence of Aboriginal habitation of the area. This research unearthed illuminating evidence, including the account of George French Angas, a visitor to Camp Cove in 1845. He described watching Aboriginals fishing at Camp Cove: “It is a wild and picturesque sight to watch a party of natives spearing fish by torch-light in the sheltered bays around Camp Cove and in Camp Cove itself…”

Angas’ account also described a small number of Aboriginals camped amongst the bushes near small fresh water lake close to Camp Cove.

The bountiful nature of the area was recognised by the early European settlers, and a fishery was set up nearby in 1792 to help feed the new settlement at Sydney Cove.

Land in the area was granted to Edward Laing in 1793 (Laings Point) and to Robert Watson in 1801 (Watsons Bay). Over time, Watson’s Bay became a village of fishermen, pilots, master mariners, and merchants.

The arrival of the Russian scientist

Nikolai Nikoleavich de Miklouho-Maclay was a Russian scientist who was renowned for his work with marine animals, particularly sponges and sharks. He came to prominence after living in New Guinea with Indigenous Papuans to test Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

Miklouho-Maclay became interested in Australia’s marine life, and he chose Watson’s Bay as the site for his research. He arrived in 1878, and convinced the NSW Government and the local scientific community to set up the Marine Biological Station.

While studying at the station, Miklouho-Maclay identified at least one new type of wallaby and established primary reporting on the hibernation patterns of echidnas.

In 1884, Miklouho-Maclay married Margaret Clarke, the widowed daughter of five time premier of NSW Sir John Robertson. Miklouho-Maclay lived and worked at the station until 1886 when he returned to Russia. He subsequently became ill and, in 1888, died of an undiagnosed brain tumour at the age of 41.

After Miklouho-Maclay’s departure from Australia, the station was acquired by the military and, from 1885, for around 100 years, was used as a residence for married Army officers.

The property was transferred to from the military to the Commonwealth in 1908 for 600 pounds.

The Marine Biological Station today

Today, the Marine Biological Station sits within a resplendent garden of native vegetation and distinctive coral trees. It’s now leased as private residence, but is managed by the Harbour Trust, who periodically open this fascinating landmark for public tours.


Historical people

Meet some of the historical figures associated with the Former Marine Biological Station.

Nicholas Maclay: Russian Polymath

The former Marine Biological Station at Camp Cove was built as a place for Russian expat Nicholas Maclay to study marine life. Volunteer researcher Michele Harper celebrates his remarkable life, including his contributions to science and society, globally.

Helpful links

Learn more about the Marine Biological Station, and nearby Macquarie Lightstation, and plan your trip.