Winter swim around Little Henty Reef

I have long wanted to swim around the inner reef at Little Henty Reef in the Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary. The reefs are not far offshore from Hayley Point at Marengo. The weather and sea conditions here are unsuitable most of the time for such a swim. However, the weather and ocean omens were pointing strongly to early Monday 29 June being a good time to go – and indeed it was. A large high pressure system had parked over the state and stayed for a few days. Monday dawned with the ocean in repose, a cloudless sky and not a breath of wind – cold winter perfection.

The 12 hectares of protected ocean in the sanctuary contain two reefs, and a rich profusion of marine life including a colony of 100 or so Australian fur seals on the outer reef. The protected area is about 750m long and 200m wide. Its southern and eastern areas are subject to big surf and strong currents as they are fully exposed to huge swells from the Southern Ocean. The north-western portion of the sanctuary is more protected, and the smaller reef there semi-encloses a little bay inside Hayley Point. I have swum in this bay a lot with my swimming friends, but there are nearly always tidal currents and often strong rips immediately to the north in Mounts Bay. In big swell the shore break in Mounts Bay can also be something to contend with. There are many days when even the little bay is not suitable for swimming.

Some of the underwater beauty of Little Henty Reef is shown in an earlier post on this blog, written after my first snorkelling swim there earlier this year: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/01/13/my-first-underwater-look-at-little-henty-reef/ On that occasion I snorkelled along the protected western side of the reef.

Little Henty Reef at Apollo Bay

Apollo Bay, where I do most of my ocean swimming. The next bay south (top right in the image) is Mounts Bay, with the small settlement of Marengo on the point (out of frame). This bay is less protected, and has stronger surf and currents than Apollo Bay. The white water visible top right of the image is part of Little Henty Reef in the Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary. Drone photo by Andrew Langmead
Little Henty Reef in winter. The inner reef is in the foreground, and the rocks beyond are the outer reef which the Australian fur seals use as a base for feeding expeditions offshore. The area of reef above water varies considerably according to the tide. On a good high tide the inner reef is completely submerged. The outer reef has higher rocks and is never fully submerged by the tide. But in big surf on a high tide there is no dry place on this little island. The seals seem to cope whatever the elements throw at them. The water in front of the inner reef is the little bay in which we swim. It is open to the ocean at the southern end, and has a small pass between the rock and the shore at the northern end feeding into Mounts Bay. Strong tidal flows and other currents can be found at either end of this little bay, as well as in the rest of Mounts Bay. The currents are difficult to predict as to their existence, direction and strength because of the unique topography of the sea bed with the reefs and associated channels and highly varying water depth. This is a place to be approached with caution and respect at all times for swimming, snorkelling, surfing and boating. Drone photo by Andrew Langmead
The northern tip of the inner reef almost completely covered at high tide. The prolific bull kelp gardens fringing this reef can be seen on the right of the reef in this image. The seabed drops away either side to considerably deeper water. Drone photo by Andrew Langmead
The northern tip of the inner reef. This blog post was prompted by a most enjoyable swim yesterday around the reef in this image, in calm conditions with the tide about half out. Drone photo by Andrew Langmead

The image above of the Garmin swim track superimposed on a satellite photo of Little Henty reef (not representative of actual sea conditions on the day of the swim, but showing the mix of waves and currents the place can produce) shows the route swum yesterday. The right turn across the reef back into the little bay was at the southern end of the exposed rock of the reef on the half tide. It was shallow where we crossed the reef at the southern end, and we had large bull kelp fronds brushing our wetsuits as the sea gently surged against the edge of the reef.

The view from the beach in Mounts Bay to the south east, looking over inner Little Henty in the foreground and the other reef beyond it.
The two elements of Little Henty reef. Seals can be seen on the larger outer reef which is 500-600m offshore. The inner reef less than half that distance offshore. The telephoto lens foreshortened this view making the reefs look closer together than they in fact are.
Australian fur seals on the outer Little Henty Reef.
Real estate is at a premium on the outer reef on a high tide.

The swim around Little Henty Reef on 29 June 2020

Because suitable weather windows for a swim around the reef at Marengo are not common, I went for a dawn check of conditions. I had wanted to do this swim for some time. Conditions looked ideal. The people in the water are the regular dawn cold water plonkers. Great benefits are said to be available from a simple dunk in cold water without actually swimming anywhere. They all seemed invigorated by their dunk. Good on them!
The air temperature at dawn was around 4°C, and the water temperature was about 14°C.
The view north from the southern end of the beach at Mounts Bay, Marengo. Calm.
Mike and I swam together out to the northern tip of the inner reef, and Nadine rode shotgun ahead of us in her kayak. This was taken between the beach and the northern tip of the inner reef. The reefs are rich in all sorts of marine life. In winter, salmon visit the area and when the salmon are running, beach fishermen are found along the beaches in Mounts Bay and Apollo Bay. Some beach fishermen were present around dawn on the morning of this swim. Over the years sharks have occasionally been spotted swimming along the gutters and sandbars parallel to the beaches, following and presumably feeding on the salmon. The seal colony is also a spot not without its attractions for the occasional shark. Some local fishermen and surfers are of the view that the area is a bit ‘sharky’. Some think otherwise. I see sharks as a factor to consider in swimming around the reefs and channels in the area. So having Nadine keep an eye out for us from her kayak added some comfort in this regard. Water visibility was very good on this morning and Nadine reported having a good view of things below the surface. This photo taken with my ageing GoPro does not do justice to the visibility we experienced, but it gives some idea.
Swimming out towards the northern tip of the reef and the morning sun.
Nearing the reef.
Seaweed including bull kelp beside the reef.
Nadine keeping a good lookout.
Bull kelp on the exposed eastern side of the reef. Even though there was no swell, the regular surge from the ocean was causing the kelp and other plants to wave backwards and forwards.
On the eastern side of the reef. Marengo and Point Hayley in the background. Large areas of bull kelp protruding above the surface – too thick here to swim amongst the kelp.
Swimming along the eastern side of the inner reef.
Algae, kelp, seaweed, sponges, marine invertebrates of all sorts, and that’s just what we could see at a glance as we swam over the submerged southern end of the reef and back into the little bay.

L to R: me, Mike. Eastern side of the inner reef. Photo taken by Nadine Lyford.

Swimming past the prolific bull kelp areas on the eastern side of the reef. Photo below taken by Nadine Lyford.

Happy with my body position – credit must go to my new winter wetsuit. It was a privilege to swim in this cold, clear and wild corner of the ocean. My new 4/3 lined winter wetsuit kept me completely warm on this swim. I also wore light neoprene boots and a lined neoprene cap – completely cosy. The wide-angle lens used to take this photo could create the impression that we were swimming just offshore from the beach at Marengo. In fact we were over 350m out from the high water mark in the corner of the little bay below the walkway with the rails (visible in the middle of the image), swimming along the seaward side of the reef.
More bull kelp.
The sheltered western side of the inner reef was also partly in the shade from the early morning sun.

Back in the little bay.

Image on the right: bumped into swimming friends Michelle and Vicki who were also enjoying the winter perfection at Marengo on one of their regular morning swims in the bay. Some of my Apollo Bay swimming friends recently did a swim around the inner reef at Little Henty, and enjoyed it greatly.

This was neither a long nor a fast swim. But it was a memorable ocean swim. What a pleasure and privilege to swim in this pristine and wild corner of the Southern Ocean.

100 Days, 100 Ocean Swims, 130 kms

The 100 day swim challenge I set myself just after a state of emergency was declared in Victoria because of the Covid-19 pandemic, was to swim in the ocean every day for 100 days and to swim a total of more than 100kms. No daily swim would be less than 1000m. I started the challenge on 18 March and finished it today, 25 June. Over that period I swam a total of 130kms. The majority of the swims were solo swims.

The 100 consecutive days of swimming in the ocean included some interesting sights and conditions. Combinations of weather, swell and pollution at Apollo Bay due to a harbour dredging project made it difficult on some days to find some ocean suitable for a distance swim. The 1000m minimum distance aspect of the challenge was met save for one day when I had three attempts at doing the swim and on each occasion had to give it away for various sound reasons of unsuitability. The unsuitable locations that day were Marengo, the harbour and the bay. These three aborted swims totalled only 750m.

Day 100 The finish

Very low tide, no swell, offshore NW wind, cold morning, sunny skies. The ocean truly was having a rest day today. Finishing the 1833m swim at Tuxion (which is what locals call the beach at the end of our street). I started just south of Milford Creek and swam to the harbour wall and back to Tuxion. First swim with my new Rip Curl 3/4 steamer wetsuit – excellent. I was warm throughout and could speak clearly at the end. There was a good current running north to south when I swam today which is always fun. The swim back was a little slower.

This gutter, rip channel and the the inner and outer sandbars at the beach at the end of my street, exposed here by the low tide, are not normally visible. Grandson Gus was at the beach with his mum, his brother and Liz when I finished the swim. Two members of a local magpie family of three were waiting for me at the outside shower and sat as I talked to them. When I got under the shower they threw their heads back and treated me to a duet of their beautiful warbling. Wonderful birds.

Apollo Bay Beach at low tide this morning after my 100th swim . (Photo taken by Jess).

The photos and paragraphs below sample some of the interesting swims I had during the 100 days.

Day 3 swim with dolphins

This swim with a group of dolphins which I enjoyed with four of my local swimming friends was a highly memorable encounter. The details appear in a post on this blog: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/03/21/a-few-things-that-havent-changed-recently/

This is a photo of dolphins of the same species as the ones we swam with (common dolphins). I took this photo from the bow of a fishing boat off Apollo Bay a month or so after our swim with the group of dolphins.

Day 34 solo ocean night swim

Commitments in Melbourne and a late return to Apollo Bay just after dark, gave me the choice of a swim (of at least 1000m) in the dark or giving up the 100 day challenge at swim #34. So the night swim it was.

As we drove through sunset and dusk on the Great Ocean Road on our return to Apollo Bay conditions didn’t vary from calm water and small swell. So I put on my warmest wetsuit, walked down our street in the dark, waded out to chest deep water at Tuxion and started swimming. There wasn’t much town lighting that reached the water. Once past the SLSC some lighting reached the water, but more importantly the lights of the jetty were more or less directly ahead from this point, and reduced the blackness of conditions for the last part of the swim. Visibility in the water was of course zero.

I stopped at 1000m near the wall and walked home in the dark. It was an odd feeling. I was also quite cold. In hindsight, it wasn’t really fun. I have experienced no inclination to repeat the experience. But I would of course swim on any cloudless full moon night, but preferably with company for a number of reasons.

Suffice to say this swim was something of a ‘meerkat’ swim.

Day 47 fin sighting

On a solo swim in murky water in the bay about 300m north of the wall and 180m from shore I saw a dark dorsal fin going the opposite direction about 20m away from me. I saw it rise, cruise level then subside not to be seen again. It didn’t change course or show any interest in me (at least not while the dorsal find was above the water). This interesting event is described in a postscript to a post in this blog: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/05/03/storm-surf/

I cannot identify with any certainty whether this was a shark or a dolphin. If I had to guess I would say that it was probably a mako shark or something similar, looking for salmon which were running in schools in the area at the time. I have seen a lot of dolphins over the years and I have never seen one display a dorsal fin in this manner. In any event, seeing an unidentified dark dorsal fin at close proximity while ocean swimming is more than enough for me to head straight to shore, which I did. I completed my planned swim distance for the day in the harbour.

Day 62 Port Campbell swim

On a day when the pollution in the bay from a harbour dredging project made it too dirty for swimming, the swell and currents made Marengo an undesirable alternative and the water in the harbour had zero visibility, I decided to swim in the bay at Pt Campbell. Conditions there were very pleasant.

I have a long history of swimming in this bay, and this blog has many posts about it. This day it was clear, clean and I had it all to myself. Experience here has taught me that a current going out to sea along the cliffs on the west of the bay would be likely. The current was there. I swam laps back and forth across the bay between the jetty and the western cliffs. Each time I got near the cliffs, I would be carried gently seawards, requiring a somewhat circular turn to regain my selected track as I headed back east across the bay. There is a lot of marine life in this bay. The underwater plants are like a garden in places.

Day 65 after dark harbour swim

Having decided after my day 34 swim that night swimming was best done by others, on this day I again found myself returning to Apollo Bay late after another trip to Melbourne. We arrived in AB after sunset but before last light. I decided on a 1000m swim in the harbour. Quite a few of my 100 swims were in the harbour when conditions elsewhere left no other option.

The harbour after last light. By the time I finished my swim it was pitch black. I couldn’t see anything underwater, and was conscious mainly of the stingrays which I often see in the harbour when swimming. They are not aggressive, but (most of them) do have stingers and bumping into one at night would be undesirable. I didn’t touch any this night. I have swum in the harbour in daylight with zero visibility and in quite shallow water encountered a large stingray. We both started as we collided and his wing flapped against me as he swam away from me. He felt substantial. But beyond an exchange of frights there was no harm done.

Day 78 Peterborough – Curdies River swim

I thought my 100 day challenge was going to come to an end this day. Apollo Bay and Marengo were simply not swimmable with swell and currents (and pollution in the bay and the harbour from the harbour dredging). So Liz and I planned a drive west along the GOR to see what the big swell was doing on the exposed west coast.

My guess that the bay at Pt Campbell would not be swimmable turned out to be right. The two smaller photos below show the jetty at Pt Campbell. The bay was a bit of a washing machine.

The larger shot of the waves breaking on the cliffs of a headland was taken from the river mouth at Peterborough. This was not a day for ocean swimming on the west coast unless in very sheltered water.

After taking the photos above, Liz noticed the pleasant looking water in the mouth of Curdies River at Peterborough. It turned out to be an ideal 200m seawater lap pool. There was a slight tidal drift in the river as the tide was coming in. So day 78 of the challenge saw the required swim done and dusted at Peterborough.

The lower right small photo was a failed attempt at staging an exit from an invigorating swim in the wild ocean conditions at Peterborough. It was motivated by two swimming friends who sent me an equally unconvincing staged photo of them allegedly exiting from a swim in a snow meltwater lake in the south island of New Zealand in winter.

Day 88 currents in Mothers’ Corner

Currents in the corner of the bay near the harbour wall have changed since all the sand was deposited there by the harbour dredging. On this day with a 25 knot northerly blowing, Mike and I decided on an invigorating downwinder in choppy water with a bit of swell in it from Tuxion to the corner. Our pace was 1:42/100m on the downwind/down-current swim.

When we turned to swim into the current for a short distance to finish off the swim I noticed that after 75m or so I was making no progress north and was being carried east out to sea by a fair current. I believed I was swimming against a regular rip in that location and the current created by the waves and water blowing south into the dead end where the beach and the harbour wall meet. So I kept swimming north thinking I just had to cross the narrow rip and I would then be able to swim north against just the general north/south current. It didn’t happen. My watch at one point showed 9:16/100m (that’s a speed of around 1 hour 34 minutes for a km!). So I turned left and swam west for the nearest beach from where I could walk up the beach a bit, and resume our short swim north. But I couldn’t make progress in that direction either. So plan C was implemented, which was straight back to the wall and the corner. Not a fright, but unusual to have to go to plan C to get back to shore. Also a good reminder that such currents can be found in places that are normally quiet and calm.

Day 92 Eastern Beach swim

Another day with Melbourne commitments, which required finding some seawater where I could. Turns out it was in Corio Bay at Geelong. I decided that the stretch of beach between the yacht club and Eastern Beach would be OK for a 1000+m swim. The water was surprisingly clear. I waded out through the large areas of sea grass and found some deeper water and headed off to the east. There was a slight east to west tidal drift when I swam.

I grew up in Geelong, and Eastern Beach featured prominently in my youth. The Eastern Beach promenade and buildings are wonderful art deco structures, maintained to this day in good condition. Many family picnics and swims were had there when I was a boy. So were school swimming competitions. I gained some beginner swimming proficiency certificates in this pool (for those brought up in Victoria, the ‘Herald’ and the ‘Junior’). But all swims here were inside the shark bars of the semicircular promenade enclosing the designated swimming area.

So on day 92 of the challenge, I broke with long tradition and swam close to the shark bars but outside the semicircle. I somehow felt this put to rest the fears I had as a boy that those shark bars (or nets as they were in my day) meant there actually were sharks nearby. My 2020 assessment is that finding a shark in that area is highly unlikely. I saw neither shark, nor any other living creature on this swim – save for sea urchins in the shallows east of the enclosure which were good incentive to swim rather than walk while in the shallows.

After avoiding the sea urchins, I climbed over the bars on the eastern side of the semicircular walkway, swam across the swimming area, then resumed my course back towards the yacht club to complete 1250m. I’ve had worse swims. In my adult life I have avoided swimming in Corio Bay. But I enjoyed this swim more than I thought I might.

Day 93 Williamstown swim

Two nights in a row in Melbourne necessitated a swim in Port Phillip Bay. One of my swimming friends from AB swims at Williamstown (usually at dawn) when in Melbourne. So I decided to have my first swim in the bay at Williamstown. A friend who normally swims in the ocean at Kennett River joined me. There was a light northerly which made the water glassy.

I was very pleasantly surprised. I have had unpleasant experiences swimming in Port Phillip Bay on the eastern beaches when forced. But the water was clear, uncrowded and had only light currents. It was an enjoyable 1335m. There was even a cafe serving coffee and cakes for the post-swim chat. I’d go back to this place as a city sea-swim option.

Torquay swims

Quite a few of my 100 swims were at Cosy Corner in Torquay. It’s an east facing beach (same aspect as Apollo Bay) which is semi-protected from the bigger W/SW swells which break on the back beach. But there are days when this beach and neighbouring Zeally Bay are surfable.

In the early 1970s I qualified for my surf life saving bronze medallion at Torquay back beach. I also used to surf in the area. I feel at home on the beaches anywhere around Torquay.

There is a large contingent of keen local ocean swimmers who swim year round at Cosy Corner. There are two permanent yellow buoys about 100m offshore and 300m or so apart which many use as turn points. I often seem to find a solid N to S current here. But yesterday (Day 99 of the challenge) the current was strong and in the opposite direction. I did three laps. The laps with the current were at around 1:42/100m pace, and against the current an average pace of 4:13/100m was all I could muster.

I was swimming at Torquay on my way back from Melbourne to Apollo Bay. I was a bit cold after this swim, and the standard life saving first aid measure was applied – hot salty chips.

Marengo swims

Marengo was the alternative swimming spot favoured by the local swimmers when the bay became too polluted to swim in due to the harbour dredging effluent pouring into it. But there were more than a few occasions when currents and waves made this little bay uncomfortable or downright unswimmable. There have been a few frights and swims not going to plan in this area over the last few months, including for experienced swimmers. But there were also many enjoyable and safe distance swims had at Marengo over the last few months. In my view it remains a swimming spot to be treated with great caution and respect.

Some local fishermen have expressed the view that with the winter run of salmon in the bays and along the shores in the area, there is an increased risk of shark presence. Common sense suggests that the seal colony might also contribute to shark presence. But it seemed to me sharks were given little thought by the swimmers in recent months as we were preoccupied with currents and the water conditions.

On the bright side the water in the little bay is often crystal clear and fish and marine plants, especially near the shore and offshore reefs, abound. When the swell and currents don’t preclude swimming there have been some memorable swims here. I had a very enjoyable swim last summer snorkelling along the boundary of the closest reef of Little Henty Reef (see photos in an earlier post: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/01/13/my-first-underwater-look-at-little-henty-reef/). Quite a few of my 100 swims were also here. It’s a wonderful spot to swim or snorkel, but only on the right day.

Thee above photos show the area surrounding the little bay in which we swam at times. (The drone shot of Little Henty Reef was taken by Andrew Langmead). The Garmin swim track (superimposed on a satellite photo) gives some idea of the complex movement of water between the shore and Little Henty Reef.

From top to bottom below: Hayleys Point and the shore reef platform; the seal colony on the outer reef of Little Henty Reef; the shore break directly south of Hayleys Point in storm surf. We generally didn’t swim in the little bay when conditions were like this.

Apollo Bay swims

Apollo Bay was of course my first preference for swimming during the 100 days. I have been swimming in this bay for many years. It can produce beautiful winter conditions as shown here in photos taken at the end of my street before my early morning swim on day 95.

For many weeks the bay was polluted by dredge effluent which was pumped into the bay for all daylight hours and on many nights. It’s now a few weeks since the dredging stopped, and the bay remains polluted with a large amount of accumulated dirty sand in the corner near the harbour wall, which seems to be feeding back into the bay with every tidal cycle resulting in generally dirty water in the south of the bay and patches of dirty water floating north especially along the shore. Another unfortunate legacy of the dredging is broken glass along the beach, dredged up from the sludge in the harbour seabed. Efforts to collect and remove all the glass by those involved in the dredging as well as by many locals walking the beach (especially between the wall and the SLSC) have not been completely successful. The photo below shows a typical collection from a single beach walk during the dredging period. There is less glass present now the dredging has stopped, but the occasional sharp glass fragment can still be found in the sand on the low tide.

During the 100 days there were the COVID-19 movement restrictions to contend with. The ‘Apollo Bay Beach fully accessible….’ notice shown below was from a Colac Otway Shire COVID-19 update email about council-imposed restrictions in addition to those legislated by the Victorian Government. At this time, many if not most suburban beaches in Melbourne were closed by councils for all purposes including swimming for exercise during the lockdown period. In Australia, England and other overseas locations, at the height of the pandemic lockdowns, open water and ocean swimmers had no access to beaches or even pools and had to suspend their ocean swimming for some months. Fortunately, Apollo Bay beach was never closed for swimming, so subject to it not being too dirty due to dredging, and to swimmers not exceeding the outside gathering limits, we could swim there. Nearby beaches were similarly available to us for swimming throughout the lockdown.

The elements have added interest to many of my 100 swimming days. Here’s a sample.

Top photo: the bay in front of the SLSC in solid swell with a strong westerly offshore wind (taken with a GoPro from the water behind the breaking waves). Lower L photo: the bay at Tuxion in an easterly. Lower R photo: somewhere between the wall and the SLSC in choppy conditions in a strong northerly. Masts of yachts in the harbour are just visible above the waves.

But the memories of the ocean at Apollo Bay which I draw on most when not here, generally include days like these.

I pulled up well

On day 95 I was heading for a total distance over the 100 days of 125kms (revised up from earlier goals of 100kms then 120kms). I realised that if I put in four 2km days, then a couple of 1700m days I could make 130kms. And so it was. I mention this because it reflects that I am feeling fit and well at the end of the 100 days.

I had no injuries during the 100 days, and didn’t miss rest days. In fact, I think that swimming only 1300m a day is something that could be done for a very long time without a day off.

I feel very distance-fit now.

I found that the morning swims went best with a bit of food in me. My standard became half a slice of toast and honey, half a banana and a couple of glasses of water. This of course was not breakfast, just a starter. A substantial breakfast always follows my morning swims.

But I may have undershot on my banana intake. Ross Edgely who in 2018 swam right around mainland Great Britain in 157 days, covered 1792 miles (2884 kms). By day 100 of his epic feat, he had swum 1230 miles (1979 kms), and consumed 442 bananas, among other achievements. On day 100 he also had RAF aerobatic aircraft perform overhead as he swam to honour his achievement to that point. I may also have undershot in my 100 day challenge by not giving Red Bull a chance to sponsor me.

This is the Garmin record of my downwind leg this morning on day 100. The photo is a favourite taken some time ago from the sand dunes at Tuxion. The silver gull is flying over Apollo Bay, and Cape Patton is the point in the distance.

I don’t plan to swim tomorrow, unless of course conditions are really inviting.

Big Clean Swell at Gibson Steps

A storm deep in the Southern Ocean created swell which quietly arrived on the west coast of Victoria on Monday. It was not a keenly anticipated swell event. Swell was forecast, but not in the exceptional category. Monday was a cloudless autumn day and a gentle offshore wind was working its magic on the ocean. The current closure of the Twelve Apostles lookout and visitor centre and the pandemic travel restrictions took care of the traffic one might otherwise expect on the Great Ocean Road on such a day, and it was all but deserted. We didn’t expect to see any swell out of the ordinary, and indeed Apollo Bay was without swell when we left.

But Castle Cove was indicating the presence of a some swell and excited our optimism about conditions further west. But it was not until we stopped at Gibson Steps that it became clear that this day the planets had truly aligned.

The swell at Gibson Steps on Monday morning

Not satisfied with the faint lines of swell to the horizon and the waves of consequence breaking well offshore at Gibson Steps, we drove on to check out Two Mile from the clifftops hoping for bigger things. But it was not to be. A couple of surfers had paddled out at Third Reef and were floating and paddling around in swell but the break was not firing. A jet ski and surfer had come out from Pt Campbell to Two Mile to find similar regular swell lines. But they gave it away after a lot of circles, parking and a couple of swims in clear water and swell that failed to reach the size required to light up Two Mile.

So after an enjoyable half hour swim in the bay at Port Campbell and lunch on the foreshore in cool air under blue skies, we headed back towards Apollo Bay planning to check the swell at Gibson Steps on the way home. This is what we saw. Ruler-straight swell lines to the horizon, and it had built since the morning.

The afternoon swell

A bit of rainbow action on the right hand end of the spray.
Close-out.

The Gibson Steps neighbourhood

The Twelve Apostles photographed through the anticyclonic haze from 11kms away. Gibson Steps is to the right of frame in this image.

The second image shows the point at the eastern end of Gibson Steps beach. All the wave photos in the post were taken looking about ninety degrees to the right of the direction in which this photo was taken.

Locals on the beach at Gibson Steps

Sooty oyster catcher possibly feeling on the outer of this group of silver gulls on Gibson Steps beach.

Foam ball

When a wave breaks and forms a barrel, the airborne spray and white water deep inside the barrel can be expelled forcefully with the air as the wave collapses. Surfers call it a foam ball.

Sizing up the swell

The swell showed no signs of fading while we were there.
We were lamenting that there wasn’t a surfer or two out there to give a scale reference for these mighty waves.
Then there was. A solitary local surfer drove into the car park and without delay got into his wettie and headed down the stairs and straight into the water. He too had given away Two Mile. He told me he had spotted a left at Gibson Steps directly out from the stair case on the cliff which he thought would be worth the paddle out. It turned out he was right. Surfers have a distinct preference with waves of this size for paddling over them before they break. Getting caught inside by a breaking wave of this size can result in lengthy hold downs, being carried some distance underwater, being pushed back towards shore and getting a general flogging under water. Surfers can duck dive under a breaking wave while on a surfboard and reduce the extent to which they are pushed back. But there are limits to the size of wave where a good result from duck diving is guaranteed.
This surfer repeatedly appeared to just make it over large waves that were about to break. So much so in fact that I was forced to conclude that it wasn’t luck, but the benefit of water knowledge and experience that I was witnessing. I didn’t see him caught inside once or needing to duck dive under a single wave. He seemed to always be in just the right spot.
A combination of his paddling speed and the crest of the wave starting to break just as he reached it saw him pop through the top of this wave to clear water beyond (or at least to the next wave) as shown.
Up at the eastern end of Gibson Steps this left was working with mechanical precision. I have seen it surfed, but not on this day. The next photo was taken a few seconds after this one.
This is the same wave breaking with its peeling long left going unridden and with white water exploding back up above the height of the unbroken wave.
Taking the drop on one of the earlier rides. This surfer caught a number of well chosen waves, and rode them all with style and finesse. In my humble view he was a talented surfer, completely at home surfing solo in these waves of consequence at this wild and remote location. Gibson Steps is fully exposed to the swell which powers in from the roaring forties in the Southern Ocean.
Building up speed as the crest of the wave starts to break ahead of him.
A sizeable wave threatening to break on the surfer. He made it over this one too.
Timing it perfectly, the surfer reaches the top of the wave just as it starts to break, and pushes through the lip easily to keep paddling. Had the wave looked like breaking on him, he would have duck dived under it with his board, as deep as he could, to minimise the impact of the wave.
Looking quite relaxed between waves in the middle of a solid set.
Looking a bit interested in the wave starting to lift him. But he rejected this one and took one a few waves later. It was a good choice.
This seems as good a photo as any as a basis for offering a view on just how high these waves were. Surfers use a measuring system which consistently understates the height of waves. Two big wave surfers I spoke to separately at Gibson Steps told me with straight faces that this surf was ‘solid 8 foot’. The surfer in this photo is about 6 feet tall….
I measure wave height from the lip to the flat water just in front of the wave. This is the distance a surfer about to take the drop when catching a wave would fall if he came unstuck. I have looked closely at the photos on this post and using the surfer as my measure, my view is that the faces of many of these waves were over 20 feet.

The wave of the session (sequence of 8 photos)

The drop.
Building up speed.
A good look at this powerful turn off the lip of the wave

The three photos on the left show the turn as seen through the telephoto lens from the shore. The photos on the right are cropped details to show the turn up close.

The speed with which he entered this turn can be gauged by the angle of his board, which has the rail buried as he tightens the turn. Centrifugal force is sticking him to the deck of his board.

Stylish completion of this radical turn throwing spray high into the air
What a spectacular turn. I’d score this ride a 10 on the basis of this turn alone.
All these wave photos were taken from the lookout at Gibson Steps, using a Nikon D810 and a 150-600mm Sigma Sports telephoto lens. The surfer was a long way offshore. The water’s edge was not an option because it wasn’t much closer horizontally than the cliff tops, and the waves were of a size that meant from sea level I couldn’t see anything past the closest breaking wave.

Returning to shore

After the waves break well offshore, white water, waves, chop and currents are generated as the waves’ energy dissipates further over the reefs, channels and sandbars in the final 300+m of the journey to shore. Transport for a surfer from the end of his last ride to shore is basically a matter of taking anything and everything on offer, as shown.

The footprints show where he stopped, unhurried, and turned to have a look out to sea. I had a chat to him and didn’t get the impression this was a standout session by his standards. I suppose with his experience on breaks like Gibson Steps and Two Mile, this is understandable.
Respect.

The Glenaire Valley

The natural wonders of Gibson Steps and the surrounding coast and ocean do not overshadow the contrasting quiet beauty of the rich hinterland. This is the Aire River flowing through the Glenaire Valley after a period of good rain. It’s just starting to spill over its banks. This location is only a short distance from the coast about 25kms west of Apollo Bay and only a couple of kms from Castle Cove.

[With the exception of the photo of the Twelve Apostles, which was taken in the morning all photos are posted in the order in which they were taken.]

Autumn at the Bay

The experience of sunrise is greatly enhanced by full immersion in cold ocean water. It is not possible to feel anything other than fully alive when greeting the day in this manner.

Indeed, in late August at Apollo Bay it is not possible to feel anything much at all after a lengthy ocean swim, apart from exhilaration. Fingers and toes cease sending messages to mission control, the gift of speech is reduced to short words only understandable if accompanied by sign language, and whistling is completely impossible until after the administration of hot tea or coffee. But the water on this day was 14°C, which is cool rather than cold.

Sunrise at Marengo in autumn

Five or six dawn swimmers can be seen on the far right above the dark line of a small wave. The sun is rising just to the right of Cape Patton. The photo was taken from Marengo beach at the southern end of Mounts Bay.

Moderate swell on Little Henty Reef off Hayley Point

The waves over this reef are only surfed by seals and dolphins. Apart from the fact that the waves here mostly break over exposed reef, there are breaks nearby in deeper water which are ideal for surfing.
The water exploding upwards has already hit the reef and ricocheted back into the air to almost double the height of the wave.
The breaking wave in the background is over the reef. The surfers in the foreground are paddling around to their takeoff spot which is to their right.
This was one of the larger sets of the morning. This wave reared high and threw out a big lip of water as it reached the shallower water near the reef. A light north west wind smoothed out the face of the wave, held it up a little longer than would have happened with the wind from behind the wave, and also blew the white mane of spray up and over the back of the wave.
Finishing off the ride between Hayley Point and the reef which is home to an Australian fur seal colony.
Mesmerised.

Body boarder

The Harbour

Safe haven.
Crested terns love to huddle
That edgy hairdo on crested terns requires that beaks be kept pointed into the wind.
One of four resident geese at the Apollo Bay harbour. His limited facial movement permits only two moods to be conveyed – disdain and indignation. I think he was in transition to indignation at this point upon learning I was there to take a photo, and not to pay my respects with a bread offering which he was fully expecting.

One of my many studios

My attempts to capture an image of the full moon rising over the sea were thwarted by cloud on this night. A cold, quiet and beautiful place nonetheless.

Wild Dolphins in the Southern Ocean

At short notice I received an invitation to go on a short trip with a local Apollo Bay professional fisherman on his boat the Karlene-Marie. I said yes.

Heading east in calm and clear autumn conditions.
Looking north west.
En route to set the net.
This is about as peaceful as the Southern Ocean gets.
Dolphins in formation off the bow of the Karlene-Marie. The species of dolphin in these photos is the common dolphin.

My initial editorial inclination was that half a dozen dolphin photos would be more than enough on this post. But I didn’t lose interest when I was on the boat after seeing only half a dozen dolphins. I hung over the bow for the full time they were swimming. There were so close to me that I got splashed from time to time. I was taking photos, but mostly I was just watching. I didn’t notice the passing of time at all. They were mesmerising, and I felt it a privilege to see them at such close quarters for so long. So, enjoy the product of my revised editorial inclination which is to share something more than half a dozen photos of the spectacle that held me spellbound for as long as it lasted.
The bright light and clear water worked magic on their sleek forms.
Fascinating pattern of air bubbles trailing behind the blowhole along the back of the dolphin in the middle.
The dolphins off the bow took turns at a burst of speed and porpoising out of the water as shown.
The skipper.
The deckhand.
Smaller dolphins appeared to defer to this larger dolphin, leaving her to porpoise on her own.
Heading home, in smaller swell inside the protection of Cape Otway to the south west.
The Karlene-Marie. Fifty years old and going strong.

The lines of this yacht appealed to me as a contrast to the functional beauty of the working fishing boats which surrounded it.

Thanks for the great afternoon Frosty.

Storm Surf

Whenever a solid swell is forecast for this coast, some locals in Apollo Bay quietly start to pay just a little more attention to the weather maps, to their tried and tested omens and to the feeling in their bones. They gaze out to the horizon for signs of swell, they judge the frequency and size of the small swell breaking in the bay hoping to be able to describe it as ‘building’, and they keep checking for any visible action on the bombies a few kms offshore. Surfers, fishing boat skippers, swimmers and photographers are among those who will be variously delighted, thwarted or simply awestruck if the Southern Ocean delivers big swell from storms gathering in the cold and desolate southern latitudes well to the south of the Great Australian Bight. The trajectory of the low pressure systems and the associated cold fronts and troughs will be closely followed to learn whether, or where and with what force the weather will hit the Victorian west coast.

The forecast

The following information and forecasts (screenshots from my iPhone) are the first omens I consulted when there was talk of solid swell on the way. They were auspicious enough to warrant me charging up the camera batteries, preparing the wet weather gear and getting just a bit excited about the reasonable prospect of big swell on May 1 and 2 at Apollo Bay and along the Victorian west coast generally.

Waiting

The swell was forecast for Friday and Saturday on the first two days of May. So on the last day of April I visited the local reefs and a point where any early signs of swell would be apparent. I have seen forecasts of sizeable swell which failed to deliver. I have also seen substantial swell when none was forecast.

But last Thursday, on the eve of its forecast day of arrival there was no swell.

But the permanent Australian fur seal colony on the Marengo reefs was present, and the late afternoon light was beautifully clear. They were crowded up a little as it was high tide, and above-water real estate on which to loll was at a premium. But no sign of any swell.
Late afternoon showers were passing through the area. The seal colony is directly under the end of the rainbow.
The telephoto lens was almost up to this task. Most seals have adopted the traditional resting posture with head held proudly high, like so many lifelike bronze statues. The one on the far right has chosen comfort and sloth over style.

The swell arrives

The wind backed around on Thursday night and increased to gale force. The swell arrived on schedule. Winds gusting over 40kts, heavy showers and stormy seas delivered more than I, and probably others, expected. This shot was taken looking south from Hayley Point at Marengo on the Saturday morning. The Australasian gannet above was effortlessly and (so it seemed to me) exuberantly soaring the storm.
This was also taken looking due south from Hayley Point, as one of the early waves in a big set closed out in this spectacular fashion on the reef. I was on a rocky headland, and while I didn’t feel the ground shake, I felt as though I should have. It was an awesome sight. So much power.

A-row for Southern Ocean watchers

Bottom to top: Barham River, Mounts Bay and Marengo. This swell had arrived from the south west and rounded Hayley Point to cross the bay directly into the westerly wind as a substantially smaller but still powerful wave.
Squall lines were coming through in a constant succession. Heavy rain obscured the hills to the north of Apollo Bay. The grey clear strip under the power poles in centre frame is part of the Great Ocean Road.
Wider shot of the same view as in the previous shot, but between squalls. The telephoto lens set to a focal length of 600mm significantly foreshortened the scene, making the Wild Dog Creek valley and hills beyond look closer than they would to the naked eye.

Storm waves on Marengo reefs and south of Hayley Point

Hayley Point, with my regular eyrie for taking photos of the ocean right on the tip near that notch in the scrub line. This photo shows some different stages of a sizeable wave breaking on the reef. On the far right the massive lip has thrown out and is cascading as a giant curtain with white water along the lip and solid curves of green and aqua water flowing down as the tonnes of water in the wave are thrown forward and down. The wave on the left shows the white water having crashed down into the reef ricocheting back into the air in great clouds of white water. Such water often reaches a height as great or greater than the height of the original wave before it broke. The centre section of breaking waves shows the wave finally dissipating and coming ashore, almost completely spent, as merely a two metre wall of white water with spray blowing back off it.
This was taken looking south west from Hayley Point as a massive set pounded its way to shore. There are three waves of this set visible in the photo, and all consist entirely of white water. Top left, through the curtain of spray, the crest of another wave just starting to break can be seen. The show put on by this set did not end at the three waves shown above.
I spent about 90 minutes taking these photos, standing on my usual windswept grassy vantage point beside the reefs. Very heavy rain squalls were coming through, without much respite between them. I have an ingenious waterproof covering for my camera and telephoto lens which keeps them totally dry. I have full access to all camera adjustments and controls when using the cover in driving rain. I wear a snow coat with a hood, my motorbike waterproof pants, and a pair of waterproof boots. I am pleased to report that this allows me and the camera to stay completely dry in the heaviest of rain. The waterproof gear is useful not so much for taking photos in the rain, but for allowing me to stay on a given location during the rain so I can take photos in the periods when it is not raining.

Hooded plover and a sooty oyster catcher

The reef on the shoreline was being successfully foraged on by this little hooded plover and his mate. They seemed to find plenty to feed on. When white water approached from behind, as I have observed on this day and many other days their first reaction was to run rather than to fly, choosing the latter only when absolutely necessary. This bird might have had to counteract a a bit of an uncommanded turn to the left in flight due to the orange plastic tag and the metal band on his leg. Difficult to see why two tags were needed.
Sooty oyster catcher with no oysters in sight. His diet apparently extends well beyond oysters (and in this part of the world his diet may not even include oysters), but the more accurate alternative name of ‘crustacean, worm, bivalve mollusc, starfish and sea urchin catcher, not to mention small fish catcher’, was probably considered too unwieldy. I’m sure the sight of that over-engineered beak strikes fear into the heart of bivalve molluscs.
The swim record was my daily 1000+m swim, in a location sheltered from the big swell.

The majesty and power of the Southern Ocean in a storm

I have never seen (in person) a more intimidating storm wave than this one. It was overcast when this was taken and there were heavy showers in the area. If you peer through the spray blowing over the back of this wave you can see the horizon and whitecaps on breaking waves out to sea.

Postscript

I saw a fin

Ocean swimming is a favourite activity of mine. I have been doing it for many years. One way or another, I have been playing in the ocean for over 50 years. During that period the only sharks I have ever seen in the water are (harmless) reef sharks while snorkelling in the Solomon Islands, a bronze whaler (which seemed to ignore us) while swimming in the shore break at Fishery Bay near Pt Lincoln in South Australia, and a number of large great whites off Neptune Island while on a cage dive organised for that purpose. I have thought about the topic a bit, and my carefully considered view is that seeing a shark in the water, much less being attacked by one, is a very low risk at the places I choose to swim. I remain of that view.

Today was my 48th consecutive day of swimming 1000m or more in the ocean at Apollo Bay (a continuing little project of mine during the pandemic lockdown). I swam a short distance in the bay, then topped up for my 1000m in the harbour. Those 48 swims included one night swim.

I swam out from the harbour wall this morning heading for the wooden lookout for a 1000m round trip. The crew I usually swim with were all leaving the water as I headed off. I had the bay entirely to myself. About 300m from where I entered the water, and about 180m offshore, I was swimming in a leisurely rhythm against a slight head current just enjoying the space and peace. I was not in a rush, and I didn’t care that my Garmin watch indicated I was closer to 3:00/100 pace than 2:00/100m. Each time I breathed to the left I could see the passing scenery on shore and knew the ramp and walkway up to the SLSC were about to come into my direct line of sight. There was nothing and no one to disturb my relaxing reverie. But then there was something.

About 20m to my left I saw a shiny dark dorsal fin emerge while moving south (the opposite direction to me). I saw it surface, stay level for a short time and then subside not to be seen by me again. It did not appear to change speed or direction as we passed each other. I immediately turned left 90° and headed to shore by the most direct route. It was more a case of observing that I did this, rather than recalling any conscious decision to head to shore. I am pleased that I turned before I had a chance to think about it. No point wasting time making decisions. I sensed no adrenaline rush or racing pulse or altered breathing rate. But I did increase my pace and take a few looks over each shoulder to see if the fin or its owner had reappeared. I also hoped to see a few dolphins swimming nearby as had occurred recently when swimming not far from here with four of my swimming friends. But there was no fin and there was no pod of dolphins. There was nothing but glassy ocean.

At one point on the return to shore, without losing forward speed I rolled through 360° changing from freestyle to a couple of strokes of backstroke then back to freestyle, to allow a quick look at the ocean behind me. No fin. Nothing to see to offer a chance at identifying what had swum past me. Just glassy water. My normal roll and breathe routine sees me looking out to each side at about 90 degrees to my direction of travel. The swim to shore for much of the journey saw me looking back over each shoulder as I breathed. I was conscious that I was swimming harder and faster than usual, and I do remember deciding it was probably best to keep doing that. I do remember thinking I should splash as little as possible. I kept swimming until my fingertips were brushing the sand. I was definitely pleased to stand up in shin deep water. I stood on the shore for a while looking out to sea for something, anything that would inform me as to how to file this experience. But there was nothing.

Upon reflection, I would certainly leave the water immediately if this happened again. An ocean swimmer responds to a solitary dorsal fin nearby (with an unidentified owner) the way a chicken responds to the silhouette of a hawk in the sky above it, whether it’s a cardboard cutout or a raptor with intent. But was it a shark or a dolphin? There is no way to reach a sound conclusion either way. There are solid entries for column A and column B. I don’t have enough information to resolve what it was. The fin did not have that inward curve on the trailing edge typical of a dolphin fin. Also, the movement I saw was not the familiar top of the parabola appearance and disappearance of the fin and part of the body – there was no hint of ‘porpoising’. Further, it only surfaced once while I was looking, which is not typical of dolphin behaviour I have witnessed. I understand dolphins can swim alone, but most that I have ever seen around here are in pairs or larger groups. The fin owner appeared to be swimming alone. It was definitely not a seal. I saw no disturbance of water behind the trail of the fin which could have suggested a vertical shark fin. Yet it showed no interest in me. The most recent swim I had with dolphins (with four friends) saw them acknowledge our presence and swim towards us from a distance of greater than 20m. The fin was of a size which gave the impression of something bigger than me, but not something huge.

I intend to continue to leave the water when solitary dark dorsal fins on unidentified creatures swim in my vicinity. Today’s prematurely concluded swim must be filed as merely an interesting experience. I will of course continue to swim in the bay.

The unimpressive track of my brief swim. Note the initial relaxed pace of 2:32/100m at 60 strokes per minute (the watch records only the left arm, hence 30spm = 60spm).

This initial relaxed pace contrasts with my pace after the 90° turn. My initial pace improved from 2:32/100m to 1:56/100m, and my stroke rate went up from 60 to 68. The second window shows that I then settled down to a steady 2:00/100m pace, but at 70 strokes per minute which I sustained!

Not worried, just interval training.

Coasting

Images from recent days in Apollo Bay doing stuff that requires only time – all within walking distance of home.

The New Holland Honeyeater and the House Sparrow

These birds literally flew between my camera lens and the surf break I was trying to focus on. They landed on cliff-top scrub that was just below my line of sight to the reef. As there were lengthy breaks between sets of waves, I wound the telephoto lens right back and took a few shots of these feathery little photo bombers from close quarters.

The New Holland honeyeater seems constantly on the move. It flits and darts at high speed, and only alights on a plant for a very brief time. They are a very difficult photographic subject. The sky was overcast when this photo was taken.
The clouds parted temporarily providing blue skies as the background for a few shots.
The beak on this female house sparrow was discoloured from feasting on the crimson berries on the branches all around it. This bird is not native to Australia. It was introduced from India and England in the 1860s. The species has thrived right across Australia, except in W.A. where they have not become established because of prevention measures taken by the W.A. state government.

Ocean scenery & ocean swims

The view to the north from Apollo Bay beach. There was a moderate swell this day. Friends of mine live in the low house on the cleared land in centre frame. The view from there is even better than you might think.
The stone wall on the right is at the entrance to Apollo Bay harbour. The ship was much further away than it appears here (due the foreshortening effect of the telephoto lens) as it headed west from Bass Strait. This photo was taken from Apollo Bay beach – the breakwater shown was about 600m from where I was standing.

The first two swims were done in the conditions and at the times and locations shown in the photos with the sunrise and the steps. The third swim was done in calm water – I just love the photo (which showed the conditions about two kms south of where I swam).

Surf & Surfers

Unrideable Waves

Around Anzac Day (25 April) there was a reasonable swell for a couple of days. There was a light offshore wind, and the sea was generally glassy. There was a long interval between sets, but when they arrived they were solid. This was a sneaker wave (surprisingly bigger than average on the day). The photo shows it breaking over the southern side of the Marengo outer reef. This shot was taken near dusk under overcast skies. I had the aperture wide open, I was constantly reducing the speed and increasing the ISO as the light rapidly faded. I was about to give it away and pack up when I saw this wave building out to sea. It was a short wait, and well worth it. This was one of the last photos I took for the day. The poor light washed out virtually all colour, except the vivid aqua sections as shown. The soft white manes of spray were the product of the light nor’ westerly wind.
Smaller wave breaking over the same reef (as shown in the preceding photo) but earlier in the day with much better light and a bit of sunshine.
The unrideable barrel. The dark areas directly in front of it are exposed reef.
Under overcast skies and with only a light wind, the swell was moody, glassy and grey.

Seamus

Seamus looking for speed as the lip started to throw out overhead. The other photo shows the end of the ride on this wave, with Australian fur seals relaxing on the reef in the background.

Tommy

Tommy can certainly lay claim to paddling out and over an unbroken section of this interesting and unrideable wave. But the wave he was heading out to ride was on the break to his right as he paddled out (as shown top right), which while not quite as spectacular, was eminently rideable.

The third photo was taken as the wave was closing out, the ride was over, and Tommy decided to bail out over the back of the wave. The photo captured the moment when it appeared he was levitating from the deck of his board to achieve this exit.

Leroy

Leroy is over 60 and surfs like a young bloke.

Angus

Angus is a young bloke who was giving it a red hot go on this day. Those are his feet in the air on the left as he decided against a duck dive on the board, and simply dived for depth relying on the leg rope to bring his surfboard with him. It was a solid wall of white water. The timing of his dive looked pretty good to me.

This is Angus completing a long ride by pulling on a bit of speed then shooting up the face of the fading wave and through the crest of white water for an exuberant airborne exit over the back.

Waiting for waves

This shot reflects the tacit cooperation of these surfers, who all knew each other, in taking their turn on the waves in accordance with the clear but unwritten rules of the surf. The next wave in the distance had grabbed their attention at the moment this was taken.
This cray boat was checking pots which to my eye looked reasonably close to where some of the larger waves were starting to peak. The wave in the foreground is the wave the surfers ride here.

Happy 15th Birthday Minnie

Minnie our little pugalier, turned 15 a couple of days ago. She is showing her age in her movement and sleep habits, but remains alert and still runs up the stairs. She’s a bit deaf, and the eyesight is fading. This photo shows her either in deep reflection on 15 years well lived, or just about to have her eyelids slowly close for yet another nap. I suspect it was the latter. She has lived the dream for every day of her 15 years.

Personal best loaf of bread

I baked a loaf of bread in Queensland in 1975. It was not successful, and was used as an effective doorstop for some months. I had a bit of a break, and then baked this loaf last week. It was every bit as tasty as it looked. I have never baked a better loaf of bread. It was great to eat fresh with butter and honey, and it also toasted very well for the few days it lasted. I plan to produce a third loaf after a shorter break than last time.
I understand I am not the only non-baker who is experimenting during lockdown with the bread making art.

P.S. This is my 100th post on South.

The most liked post so far is:

https://southernoceanblog.com/2019/07/08/she-loves-the-sea/

…how the light gets in

Moments that lifted my spirits in recent days.

Easter moon over Apollo Bay

Gibson Steps

Another visit to the slender headland

Gentle rideable swell off the harbour entrance at Apollo Bay

Daily solo swims in the Southern Ocean

Australian fur seals at home on Little Henty Reef

Storm swell near Skenes Creek in offshore gale force winds

Swanning around in the shore break at the end of my street on a cool but sunny autumn afternoon

Idyll Moments

In these difficult times we need the facts. But we don’t need them 24 hours a day. I offer these images hoping they might provide an agreeable distraction and an opportunity to be pleasantly lost in your own thoughts of other things and other places, even if only briefly, upon contemplating the scenes below.

These photos were all taken in or near Apollo Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.

The Otways

The banks of the Aire River, in the Otway Ranges. This location is upstream from the Hopetoun Falls shown below. The silence here was complete. I have never breathed sweeter air. This environment imposes stillness and quietness on those who enter it, just as a large cathedral does, only better.
Looking down on the Aire River flowing over Hopetoun Falls in the Great Otway National Park. The nearby track down to the falls is quite a descent, and a solid climb back up.
Just downstream from Hopetoun Falls.
These falls are at the bottom of a steep valley, which sees much more shade and darkness than sunshine. The air was cool and moist.
Liz
A brief spell and some water and food on the banks of the Aire River. We were in the shade of the towering sequoia grove, and in A-row to enjoy the dense cool temperate rainforest opposite us.
The mighty sequoia (aka Californian redwood). These trees are on track to become the tallest trees in Australia in the not too distant future.
A variety of ecualypts providing the upper storey to the ancient cool temperate rainforest sub-storeys. There is a good chance (bearing in mind that I am not a formally qualified arborist nor am I currently a park ranger) that some of these trees are mountain ash.

Apollo Bay in Autumn

Autumn in Apollo Bay and along the surrounding coastline is a special season. Calm days and increasingly cooler nights predominate. Storms and cold fronts to the south west typically generate big swells during autumn which arrive pristine and glassy and often very large and powerful on our beaches. The Rip Curl Bells Pro surfing contest, the longest running surfing event on the WSL (World Surf League) world championship tour, is held at Bells Beach every Easter. But not in 2020.
Still air, glassy waves and long boards – part of autumn in and around Apollo Bay. These three regular surfers are all members of a local Apollo Bay family. Their fourth member was also surfing, out of frame to the right.

The Southern Ocean

Autumn swell rearing with a majestic white mane over Little Henty Reef in a light nor’ westerly wind.
Curtain fall.
Solid shorebreak on the reef just offshore south of Hayley Point at Marengo (a couple of kms south of Apollo Bay).
The eye of the beast. Swell arriving at the southern tip of Little Henty Reef often creates a neat little barrel. Depending on the size and direction of the swell, as shown, sometimes power is more to the fore than symmetry and elegance of form.
When the bottom of a larger wave hits the reef and decelerates, the many tonnes of water in the top of the wave can be thrown forward by the momentum built up over the long distance of its journey from deep southern latitudes.
Another emerald eye of a wave breaking over the reef.
This wave has hit the reef, the top has thrown over and hit the water and reef below it hard. White water has then ricocheted back into the air. You can see the explosive upward trajectory of some of this white water above the general height of the breaking wave. Waves get a lot bigger than this at Little Henty Reef. But this swell was certainly of sufficient size to create a scaled-down version of the show provided by very big surf.
The lull between sets of waves this day was often lengthy. The rocky beach and reef below me with its prolific bird life was a pleasant time-filler while waiting for the next set. This is the beautiful welcome swallow. Surprisingly it’s a rather unprepossessing looking little bird when not in flight. This bird in this image was captured (using a shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second) a split second before becoming airborne.
The relentless attack of wind and water have produced surprisingly gentle shapes in the sedimentary shore platform between the ocean and the sandy beach beneath the cliffs. Welcome swallows and other small birds were constantly flitting and darting over the platform at low tide.
Much bigger waves than this break here. I have included this image of a wave breaking over Little Henty Reef for only one reason, to highlight the similarities this smaller wave has with a wave in the same spot but in much larger swell some two and half years earlier (see image immediately below). The reason for the similarities is of course that this wave is not breaking over shifting sand, but over a solid reef with interesting contours and features which do not change over time (speaking personally, rather than geologically). Bells Beach is a reliable location for excellent waves, when the swell arrives, for the same reason. The bowl at Bells has a rocky rather than a sandy seabed, and for a given size and direction of swell, the unchanging shape of the seabed will always produce the same sort of wave.
This wave occurred at the same location as the wave show in the immediately preceding photo but two and a half years earlier. The swell was a lot bigger that day.
This shot was taken in late October 2017. The big swell event of which this wave was part was featured in my post on this blog published 1 November 2017, and titled ‘Large Southern Ocean Swell pounds Local Reefs.’
The link to that post is: https://southernoceanblog.com/2017/11/01/large-southern-ocean-swell-pounds-local-reefs/
I find it interesting to compare the similarities with the smaller wave at the same spot in the immediately preceding image.
A large print of this image is hanging in my house at Apollo Bay.
The bright emerald eye of yet another short-lived barrel, with a solid line of swell in the background breaking at a different angle on a different part of the reef.
This was taken before mid-morning, and before a layer of strato-cumulus cloud arrived which softened the light and took the shine off the waves.
The white mane of a wave in an offshore wind is one of my favourite sights.
Small tight barrels are common when waves break on this part of the reef. But this larger fanning wave form was a one-off in my experience. The colour is attributable to the thing layer of water in this fanned out cylindrical form being backlit by the morning sun.
While it wasn’t a huge swell, it was substantial enough.
A moody sea with swell lines jostling for position as the water gets shallower and the time for individual performances upon hitting the reef gets closer.

My photographer’s eyrie, sheltered from the wind and overlooking Little Henty Reef and the Southern Ocean beyond.

That white spot on the grass is a rock I put there to rest my camera monopod on so the camera is at a comfortable height on the sloping ground.

Morning sun giving some sparkle to this breaking wave.
That mound of water has already hit the reef and bounced back in the air to the height shown.
Local surfer on a wave between Hayley Point and Little Henty Reef. The kelp is as it looks, in shallow water on the shore platform. But the distance between the surfer and the reef is greater than it appears, as the telephoto lens on a long focal length foreshortens apparent distance in this manner. By surfer’s standards, it’s not a perfect wave. But every surfer has been wet for less.
Brief chat between strangers in the morning sun after a session in solid well-overhead surf off the point at Marengo, with at most, three surfers out there. The waters beyond them are in a sheltered part of the reef system.

A few hours of Southern Ocean solitude

A remote Southern Ocean beach without a name on a rugged little bay on the west coast of Victoria. Sounded ideal. Was. Lizzie and I packed a good map, a picnic lunch, my wetsuit and snorkelling gear and the waterproof camera. We also carried a mud map drawn by a helpful local to assist us in finding this beach. Bit of a trek from where the road ended, but worth it. It was a wonderful few hours respite from the world notwithstanding that the sky was overcast, the visibility underwater wasn’t very good and the March flies were out in force living up to their calendar connection. While many landed on us in their usual annoying way, neither of us got bitten for some reason – a bonus we gratefully accepted.

This is the remote stretch of coast exposed to the full force of the Southern Ocean where we found a small bay without a name. The full force of the ocean was not happening on this day, which meant I could go snorkelling. On days of big surf, swimming would not be possible anywhere along this part of the coast.
Exciting and remote places, but no arrow to Unnamed Beach. The Great Ocean Walk is a famous coastal walk of 100kms or so from Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles area. It takes about 8 days to do the whole walk. This sign is on the walking track which we crossed on our walk to the beach.
Out of sight below the cliff is a beach. My snorkelling location was in the sheltered small bay inside the reef with the small breaking waves on the left of the image. The sky was making no secret of the approaching change in the weather.
I have never seen seaweed like this before. It was like dark green rope, and it was everywhere on these reefs.
This was taken through the dome port on my waterproof camera housing. After immersion underwater, initially there is an even layer of water over the 6 inch diameter dome port, which contracts in stages as it runs off the convex glass dome. On this occasion, the disappearing water symmetrically framed Lizzie. Rookie error not clearing the dome port before clicking, but an acceptable result all things considered.
I entered the water by sliding down the rocks which were thickly covered in all sorts of seaweed and kelp which was entirely comfortable for such a mode of entry. Lizzie was on lookout for anything on our single-item list of good reasons to get out of the water immediately.
Most stingrays I have come across while swimming or snorkelling in the ocean in this part of the world are pretty laid back. They glide with purpose and composure and never seem rushed. I think I must have surprised this one, because his exit was at high speed with a few wild high bank turns thrown in. We exchanged the giving of frights.
Closeup from the previous photo.
The marine plant life here was highly varied, large and exotic. There were varieties of seaweed and kelp I had never seen before.
The broad strips of thick yellow kelp (on the left) were all over the place. The long flowing tendrils of thinner kelp (on the right) were also common. While there was no surf to speak of, there were some waves and the water was in constant motion with currents coming and going. The long kelp undulated back and forth in slow motion in these currents.
Substantial flattish rocks were spread around on the seabed. I found them useful to provide a clear backdrop against which to photograph fish. I have taken quite a few underwater photos of fish which were visible to me at the time mainly because of their movement, and the still picture was nothing more than a testament to their excellent and sometimes perfect camouflage marking. I regularly see more fish at the time of taking a photo than I can find in the photo later.
Marine plant garden. At least this fish can be seen against the colourful backdrop.
There is a rocky outcrop hiding under all this plant life. There were areas of deeper water quite close to the reefs. The colours under the water surprised me given that it was on overcast day.
The marine plants temporarily flattened out in a surge of current from the deeper water. I was going backwards too as I took this photo. The colours present would’ve graced any garden.
There is unfortunately nothing in this photo to give any clear sense of scale of the size of this species of kelp. It was a great sight, especially when extended and waving in the currents.
Rocky rampart between sea and shore.
As the bubbles, reduced visibility and seaweed tangles show, there was quite a current at this spot.
Between the surges of current.
My memory of this scene was that it included more than three fish. Whatever.
There must be a lot of nutrients in this water, or this spot must be just the right temperature and depth to allow such a tangle of prolific growth on this narrow strip of sand between large rocks.
My intended subject, the distant horizon, remained unphotographed thanks to a small wave passing by just as I pulled the shutter trigger.
Aesthetic curve.
Looking for some seaweed covered gently sloping rock on which to slide up and out of the water.
The rock shelf extended some distance from the beach.
Hot cup of black tea after my swim and a picnic lunch on the rocks. Social distancing par excellence. The nearest land mass south of where we we sat is Antarctica.