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.

A few things that haven't changed recently

The awesomeness of an ocean swim with wild dolphins.

I have only had wild dolphins intentionally swim to me and with me on two occasions.

The first occasion was in the late 1970s off Thistle Island in the Southern Ocean at the mouth of Spencer Gulf. There is a sheltered beach on the north side of this island, from which I swam out 200m or so to be a little closer to a couple of dolphins cruising around quietly. I didn’t know how they would react to my appearance, but I was confident the worst possible reaction would be that they would simply ignore me. My confidence was not misplaced. As I drew closer, they swam straight towards me. Then followed an unforgettable engagement as they slowly swam around me, under me, surfacing and diving near me. They made a variety of sounds which I could hear very clearly when my head was underwater. That swim is etched indelibly in my mind.

Fast forward 40 years and a bit.

This GPS track of yesterday’s ocean swim shows the corner of our bay at Apollo Bay where the beach meets the harbour wall. For years friends and I have swum varying distances from this corner to varying turn points, in all seasons and sea conditions and in all types of weather. The usual out-and-back course is a straightish leg going out to the north, and a similar leg coming back, sometimes with a curve in it following the arc of the beach. Dolphins are the explanation for the departure of this swimming track from the norm.

Over my years of ocean swimming at Apollo Bay I have seen stingrays large and small, many varieties of fish including tuna and barracuda, banjo sharks, a penguin, a sea snake, an octopus, Australian fur seals, dolphins, southern right whales and humpback whales. From time to time to my knowledge we have also been visited by mako sharks, blue sharks and on one occasion a 15 foot basking shark. There are numerous occasions on which I have been swimming when dolphins were visible in the distance, but there was no interaction of any sort. A forty foot southern right whale once showed mild and fleeting interest in me while I was paddling my surf ski, by swimming towards me, surfacing near me, looking at me and then silently sinking below the surface and moving on out to sea. I have also had seals do a lap around me and dive directly below my surf ski, but they never lingered. Those few exceptions aside, such sightings have not involved any form of interaction with the creature being observed.

But yesterday morning was different. There was very little wind, the sea was calm and there was no swell to speak of. It was overcast and about ninety minutes after low tide. As five of us walked into the sea near the wall to commence our daily swim, we spotted the unmistakeable lazy rising and falling fins of a small group of dolphins about 75m past the corner of the wall. Without any discussion the five of us started swimming out towards them.

As we got to within 25-30m of the dolphins, some of them swam directly towards us. Each of us repeatedly had the wonderful experience of one or a pair of dolphins gliding directly beneath us, at a depth of no more than a couple of metres. We were all floating face down, loathe to look up for a breath in case we missed the next pass. We were not disappointed. Suzie, who was first out to the dolphins, had a large adult dolphin swim under her and roll on its back and look at her. She was rapt. As the other 3 or 4 adults had a calf with them, we speculated later that this may have been the senior male of the group checking out the first visitor.

After swimming close to us for a period, the group of 3 or 4 adults and the calf would wander a little further out to sea then pause to continue playing amongst themselves, circling and diving and generally gliding about. We would then swim towards them again, and the whole scene of them swimming back directly towards us, then around us and very close to us would be repeated. We gave it away when we were 400m or so offshore and put our heads down and swam to shallower water near the beach. The dolphins headed out to sea.

It was a rare privilege to have these beautiful creatures choosing to be around us and seeming to accept us wanting to be close to them, even if only for a short time. What a swim this turned out to be. As I was leaving the water, the world seemed a brighter place than it did before this swim.

The quietude of the cool temperate rainforest

The Barham River flows out to the sea at Apollo Bay from its headwaters in the Otway Ranges to the north. Paradise is located about 6kms upstream from the river mouth, not far west of the Apollo Bay township. By the way, this place is officially called Paradise; that name is not my description. But had I been asked to name the place, I would have chosen Paradise. It is moist and mossy and quiet and dark and thick with ancient tree ferns and towering mountain ash and eucalypts. Darting colourful birds can be seen all around, and many more can be heard. All footfalls on this thick and damp rainforest floor are soft. To stand still on the banks of the Barham River in this paradise, to hear only birds and your own breathing and to smell only the green moistness of the cool temperate rainforest, is to find some peace and quietness.
Overhanging the banks of the Barham River.

The ocean at Apollo Bay in an easterly

This main beach at Apollo Bay faces east. There are vast areas of ocean to the east over which easterly winds can travel without interruption, whipping up wind increasingly larger waves and whitecaps with every nautical mile travelled. An easterly is a direct onshore wind at this beach. The seas thus created produce conditions as shown. The stronger the easterly, the wilder the seas in this bay.
The Apollo Bay surf club in easterly conditions. The beach was officially closed this day, as the easterly seas produce currents which are a hazard for many swimmers.
The gap in the line of trees on the sand dunes, has a set of steps leading down to the beach. This beach is at the foot of Cawood St, which when it leaves the town limits becomes Tuxion Road which leads into the hills beyond. The power pole at the intersection of the Great Ocean Road and Cawood St, used to bear two street signs, ‘Cawood St’ and ‘Tuxion Road’, which being interpreted means, ‘this is Cawood St, and it leads to Tuxion Road in the direction this sign is pointing.’ Accordingly, locals who surf and swim call the beach at these steps, Tuxion. Many of my ocean swims start at the Tuxion steps, or use it as a turning point.

Every wind direction at Apollo Bay creates a predictable and unique set of sea conditions. Those familiar with it could look at a dozen photos taken in different winds, and reliably identify from the sea conditions the approximate direction and strength of the wind shown. There are many comforting constants about the ocean. The sea state in an easterly wind is one of them.

The extraordinariness of clouds

Driving west approaching the Forrest Rd roundabout en route to Anglesea. Signs of mammatus on part of the base of this cloud. The cloud is showing a lot of evidence of strong uplifting air in and around it.
By the time we got to Anglesea, the mammatus had developed significantly. It was a rapidly developing and mesmerising show as we drove towards then directly below this most interesting cloud.
We stopped at the lookout overlooking Point Roadknight, and I took this photo looking straight up into the belly of the beast. There is no doubt that flying in anything close to this cloud would’ve involved significant turbulence.

Mammatus is often associated with a cumulonimbus cloud. But not on this occasion. There was neither rain nor any gusting wind at ground level beneath this cloud. There were no other clouds like it in the sky. Some local lifting mechanism must have triggered the lifting of just this mass of moist air to the point that that the moisture condensed, forming cloud, which process released heat which further accelerated the uplift of the rising air through the colder surrounding air.

Another point of view on mammatus cloud is, what an amazing and awe-inspiring sight.

The thunderstorm

The unstable conditions (air temperature dropping more rapidly with altitude than is usually the case) which produced the mammatus cloud shown above, were more intensely repeated when the cold front from the west arrived. The wedge of cold air advancing east (the cold front) pushed up the moist warmer air ahead of it, and that air being sufficiently unstable, produced cumulonimbus clouds and thunderstorms as shown in this photo. This photo was taken from my front verandah in Apollo Bay, looking south.
I find it fascinating to contemplate the tortuous course of this massive electric charge between cloud and ground.

The combination of a cold front, warm air and cold air and moisture causing thunderstorms like this, is one of the wonderful constants of the atmosphere around our tiny planet. I always find the approach, arrival and aftermath of a thunderstorm mesmerising and satisfying. It’s always a great show which consumes all my attention for its duration.

The Twelve Apostles Marine National Park – some points of interest off the beaten track

Gellibrand River, Princetown

The Gellibrand River flows out to sea south of Princetown when the river mouth is not blocked by sand on the beach (as it was this day). Meeting Great Ocean Walk hikers is a possibility on the walk from the car park to the beach and the river mouth.
The Gellibrand River petering out just behind the beach. Upstream from here is a substantial body of brackish looking water surrounded by cliffs, reed beds and all manner of coastal vegetation. The beach was uncrowded, with only a few surf fishermen trying their luck. The cliffs shown continue to rise as you go south, ending on a point (Point Ronald) three or more times the height of the cliffs in the photo. Point Ronald juts out into the ocean, and is in a constant state of erosion as the waves and other elements pound it.

Port Campbell Cliffs

The eastern suburbs of Port Campbell, as seen from a nearby clifftop. The cliff in the middle distance with the band of lighter green vegetation, has an abandoned staircase cut into it. The line of the stairs appears in this photo as the thin dark line between the top of the headland and the sloping shelf above the vertical smaller cliff. See a closeup view in the next photo.
This is a cropped closeup of the headland with the abandoned stairs. I have been told that rock fishermen and surfers used to use these stairs and this headland. If this is true, I’d be interested to know how the surfers got into the water.

I did have a look over the barrier and the steps were not at all inviting. I think the warning is accurate.

Even though there was no swell this day, the sea was restless and in constant motion over and around the rocks and kelp at the foot of the cliffs.

Sea stacks from a different angle

The telephoto lens reveals the varied layers of this sea stack between Loch Ard Gorge and Pt Campbell. Each layer represents a different geological era.
This was taken on another day from the same favourite cliff top. I was packing the camera away ready to bash my way back through the scrub to the car because a low thin layer of strato-cumulus cloud had formed quickly in the onshore breeze as the sun sank and the air temperature lowered. The areas of shade rapidly expanded and ended the golden hour ahead of schedule. But suddenly and fleetingly, a low angled ray of light from the sun found its way through a small short-lived hole in the clouds, and lit up this sea stack as shown. It has been said of photography that ‘it’s all about the light’.
Different day, different sea stacks, different light. The Twelve Apostles from my clifftop vantage point 11 kms across the sea. These iconic formations are not photographed from this angle very much at all. This is a much lower angle than would be seen from the helicopter joy rides on offer in the area, and it’s a slightly higher angle than would be seen from a boat. The lighting at this moment made these sea stacks stand out against the cliffs behind them.
Another day and another lighting design.
This was taken from the mainland near Mutton Bird Island. I was only a couple of kms from the westernmost of the Twelve Apostles group of sea stacks. I believe the sea stack tip visible through the gap in the cliffs to be the tip of an apostle.

Down a rough dirt track

The slender headland with sheer cliffs on both sides.

I have been visiting the coast around Port Campbell for many years, and I am still discovering new places. This is one of them. I had never even heard about this spot. As is usually the case, taking the road less travelled proved very rewarding.

I understand from Philomela Manifold’s excellent publication on ‘reading the rocks of the Great Ocean Road’, (‘Written in Stone’, self published, first edition in 2017) that the evolution of sea stacks involves a variety of forces including the waves and groundwater exploiting the natural cracks and joints in the land forms. In cliffs on the mainland these tunnels can turn into huge caves. In the case of headlands the tunnels can further erode and turn into arches which upon collapse can leave sea stacks. The evolution continues as the sea stacks steadily erode, eventually leaving permanent rock platforms on the seabed. The combination of limestone and harder rock layers in the area accounts for the differential erosion of the landscape which results in many of the spectacular coastal landforms. One of the ‘Twelve’ Apostles collapsed in 2005. There were already considerably less than 12 stacks in the vicinity. In 1990 a famous arch between Peterborough and Port Campbell on this coast (London Bridge) collapsed, stranding two tourists who suddenly found themselves on an isolated brand new sea stack. If ever a couple was made indelibly aware that ‘geological time includes now’, it was that couple. They were rescued by helicopter. Surely the thinner of the two headlands in the above aerial photo is nearing the time of its transformation into a new sea stack.
This is the view looking west from a vantage point at the end of a rough looking dirt track leading off the GOR, with no signs indicating it led anywhere worth going. An invitation I could not refuse.

This was the view looking south from the end of the track. The slender headland shown in the aerial photo above is on the right in both images. There was a sandy beach at the head of this cove, and clear aquamarine water in the tiny bay with a seabed of reefs and kelp beds.

NOTE: I would not take children out on the narrow headland. With care and common sense, it can be walked. But in my view it remains a dangerous place with an element of risk not present at other attractions along this coast. It can be safely and satisfyingly viewed without walking out on this headland. Warning signs in the area warn of the dangers and risks here.

These images show the precarious state (at least to my uneducated eye) of the two headlands jutting out into the ocean at this location.

The first two photos show the headland (and a closeup of it) immediately to the east of the narrow headland. Apart from the various layers eroding at different rates due to their different composition, there are two major cracks visible near the top of this headland. Perhaps it would not be an entirely foolish guess that at some point the top third or more of this cliff will fall into the sea, leaving a clean new face exposed to the elements for slower processes to continue working on. The fourth photo below under the heading ‘Muttonbird Island’ shows a cliff on a headland where just such a separation has occurred (albeit in the lower rather than the upper section of the cliff face on the headland). It appears to have created something of a small reef directly where it fell.

The other two photos show the western edge of the cliff edge on the western side of the slender headland. At this height, the rock and limestone is only being eroded by wind and rain. Once again, the harder layers survive and the limestone is first to go. The small fragment extending out in the bottom image was as it looks – almost paper thin. It looked as though it would snap as easily as a thin dry biscuit. There are no footholds or handholds on these worn fragments, and some appear to be barely holding their own weight.

Lizzie (who knows no fear of heights), triumphantly atop the very end of the slender headland. What was she thinking!? I had been walking ahead of her and I stopped as I reached the decision that about where I was standing to take this photo was far enough. No need to be silly, I thought. Then Liz strolled past at a good clip. Obviously exhilarated by the view left, right and straight ahead, she even broke into a bit of a jog up the narrow sloping section and over the slippery shiny rounded little rocks which I saw as a sure ticket to a short flight to the ocean below.

The Caves

The route back to the mainland down the centre of the slender headland, where it begins to widen. On the right is the beach at the head of the turquoise bay shown in images above, with a smallish cave that at first glance seemed worth a further look. That is, until the cave on the left was spotted. This cave was huge. We could hear the sound of running water deep inside it somewhere. A later look at a map showed an intermittent stream in the vicinity that might have been the source. Serious erosion forces were at work on both sides of this slender headland. I just hoped it had enough structural integrity for me to get a few photos and then get back to more solid land. We were conscious that ‘geological time includes now’, and briefly discussed that notion while keeping walking at a good pace.

Looking north from the middle of the narrow headland at the beaches and caves in the gorges either side.

What a cave! I could see no easy way to get down to explore this, other than arriving by sea.

Sherbrook River

Sherbrook River beach is 1200m west of the beach in Loch Ard Gorge. It can only be reached on foot. Even on the day this photo was taken, there being no surf to speak of, there was quite a bit of water moving in and near this bay. There was a rescue tragedy here in April last year when two life savers (father and son) from Port Campbell lost their lives when they responded to the call to help a tourist who was swept out of his depth in huge seas at this location. They travelled in a rescue craft from Pt Campbell to the Sherbrook Beach area and it capsized in the huge breaking waves near the adjacent cliffs. The tourist was winched to safety by a helicopter and survived. That story is briefly told in the post on this blog titled, ‘Two Swims West of Cape Otway’ published 8 February 2020. The paragraph on the sign headed ‘Unpatrolled Area’ appears to have been added after the sign was originally made and installed. I don’t know whether or not it was one of the responses to the tragic incident at this beach. One might have thought the first two warnings on the sign should have been enough to deter anyone from even putting a toe in the water on a day of huge swell.

Muttonbird Island

Loch Ard Gorge and Muttonbird Island

The sandy beach in the top right of the image is the Loch Ard Gorge beach. In 1878 the clipper Loch Ard was wrecked on a reef on Muttonbird Island in fog and treacherous seas. Of 17 crew and 37 passengers, only two survived. Both were washed into the gorge now know as Loch Ard Gorge. Sizeable intact parts of the Loch Ard are still on the seabed on the south western tip of Muttonbird island. It is a site which attracts scuba divers when conditions permit diving in the location. The Loch Ard was a clipper, which is a square rigged three masted sailing ship. It was 263 feet long, with a beam of 38 feet and it drew 22 feet of water. It weighted 1693 tons and its masts were around 150 feet high.

Loch Ard Gorge with the ocean in repose. If you were to swim out between these two headlands and head to the right, you would be on direct track for the north eastern corner of Muttonbird Island.
Loch Ard Gorge under the stars at dusk.
This photo was taken from the Muttonbird Island viewing area. The headland with the reef in from of it and the obviously truncated point (due to erosion) is the western headland of the Loch Ard Gorge bay.

This small cove which is immediately adjacent to Loch Ard Gorge (on the western side), has a large cave at its northernmost point, and an interesting door shaped cavity nearer the seaward point. I’d love to investigate this area on the right day in a small boat. The second of these photos shows the fracture surface left after the southern tip of the headland completely broke away in a moment or two, rather than eroding away gradually.

If you swam out from Loch Ard Gorge and turned right at the western headland, you would see the eastern tip of Muttonbird Island (partially visible on the right of the image) directly ahead.

Left: a fracture line on the eastern tip of Muttonbird Island, indicating a possible eventual point of separation of this point into the sea below. The debris would probably form a reef if the water was not too deep at that location.

Right: On the northern end of Muttonbird Island there is a tunnel I never knew about until the day I took this photo. There is every indication that it gives clear passage (for a swimmer at least) through to the small circular bay on the other side of the arch. Plainly the route of choice if swimming around this island.

The green water passage under the arch to a small bay. This is a very inviting sight for any ocean swimmer.
I hope some time to get a water level photo of this arch and channel. That would be a swim to remember.

The short-tailed shearwater (aka the muttonbird)

An ocean swim around Muttonbird Island?

After the wonderful and memorable Boat Bay ocean swim (described in a post in this blog published 8 February 2020, and titled, ‘Two Ocean Swims West of Cape Otway’), there was talk of the possibility of the next such swim being around Muttonbird Island, starting and finishing on the beach in Loch Ard Gorge. Most disappointingly, it never eventuated. But I have not been able to let go of the idea of such a swim. The route I would suggest would involve swimming through the channel under the arch on the northern tip of the island, into the little bay as shown on the route line above. The distance of the line shown is 1850m. Obviously there are a lot of days in the year when ocean and weather conditions would not permit such a swim to be done safely. But I reckon autumn would have more of its fair share of good days than the other seasons. IRB and paddle board support would of course be essential. Are there any readers of this post who would be interested in doing such a swim? If the swim did take place, I would definitely want that pipe band on the beach in the gorge piping us into the water – just like they did at the Boat Bay swim. As an alternative to an organised and advertised swim open to the public, a smaller group may be easier to mobilise at short notice when the weather and sea conditions were suitable…. Public or private swim, either way I am confident it would be a wonderful adventure and a truly memorable swim.

A storm swept reef, the seals who live there & some kayakers who visited

Just off Hayley Point, south of Apollo Bay (on the south east coast of Australia), lies Little Henty Reef. It consists of two rocky low-elevation islands. The closest is about 150m from shore, and the furthest is around 600m offshore. There is a channel between them. This reef system is exposed to big swells from the Southern Ocean. Large waves and gale-force winds from the Roaring Forties are common in this part of the world. Despite such weather and sea conditions Little Henty Reef is the permanent home of about 200 Australian fur seals.

The two reefs and their immediately adjacent waters are protected by the 12 hectare Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary. The area is rich in marine life and is ideal for snorkelling (especially on the reef closest to the shore) when conditions permit. (See my blog post published 13 January 2020, titled ‘My first underwater look at Little Henty Reef, Apollo Bay’). There are many days when conditions do not permit.

The Seals, the Kayakers and the Swell

Real estate can be at a premium on the high tide. The photos in this post were taken with my 150-600mm telephoto lens at full stretch, in mostly overcast conditions. Some of the subject matter was over 600m distant. No excuses, just explaining why you can’t see the glint in the seals’ eyes.
Despite the appearance of crowding, the seals appear to be enjoying life.
Seven kayaks, each with two paddlers, had paddled about 500m to reach this spot. They had sufficient protection here from the breaking waves which were crashing on the southern side of the reef. The water they were ‘parked’ in was relatively protected, but certainly not calm.
This is a cropped closeup of part of the photograph directly above it. The large number of well camouflaged seals lying on on this rocky promontory are slightly easier to see in this image. The sea conditions even in this relatively sheltered spot are indicated by the fact that paddle blades were moving most of the time for stability, and probably to help hold position.
The kayakers were rewarded for their efforts with a great close up view of the seal colony. The foreshortening effect of the telephoto lens probably makes the kayaks appear closer to the reef and seals than they were.
Without changing my location at all, this photo was taken by simply turning about 45° to the right after taking the previous image. The kayakers would have had a good view of these waves breaking over the exposed southern side of the reef. They were also obviously experiencing some movement of the water created by these waves.
The seven kayaks heading around the northern end of the outer reef on their way back to shore. I understand paddles held horizontally aloft is a signal to stop. Whatever the reason, the paddlers were obviously in very good hands with the crew who took them out there. From afar, it appeared that five of the kayaks carried an adult and a teenager, and two had only teenage paddlers. There was an extensive briefing of all paddlers on the beach before heading out. Then there was a rehearsal in the calm waters close to Hayley Point. Then finally the group paddled around the northern end of the two reefs to their vantage point where they could safely view the seals. They stuck close together the whole time. My guess is that the teenagers were beginner kayak paddlers. The whole event went very smoothly. A credit to the organisers in conditions requiring local knowledge, expertise and judgment.. I’m sure the young paddlers were most satisfied with their adventure in paddling out with experts on a day that was safe, but with the ocean visibly stirring.
Moving through slightly less sheltered waters on the return to shore. A couple of cormorants toying with the idea of photo-bombing this shot.
Once again, a bit of a turn to the right, and this was the view. The uneven horizon also says something about the sea state at the time. The ocean was moving.
When the kayaks neared the shore upon their return and were in shallow water with small waves breaking, it was clear that all on board were keen to catch a wave if they could. But nobody would have been keen on catching a wave like this chaotic and ugly looking wave on the southern end of the reef. The waves where the kayaks came ashore were orderly and small and in sheltered waters.
Valiant attempt by the rear paddler to shift his weight back as the nose goes underwater.
The front passenger is obviously going underwater first, and appears pretty calm about it all.
Not sure if I heard the cry, “Getting out now!”, but if I didn’t, it would’ve been appropriate. It would also have allowed the defence to be run later that this was an intentional manoeuvre. But despite appearances, this was simply all part of the fun. They were in waist-deep water with no significant currents and they were on a mushy little wave. They gave it a crack, got wet and surfaced all smiles.
I don’t believe this to be the ideal orientation to a breaking wave, but they got away with it.
This was one of the all-teenage kayak crews, showing the others how its done in the shore break.
I think this was the other all-teenage crew, thoughtfully giving the boat a good rinse before taking it ashore.
A stylish and committed exit from a capsize.
Too late for an eskimo roll, but staying in contact with the craft.
The owner of this hand was not lost at sea, and surfaced all laughs shortly after this photo was taken. The kayak missed him by a good margin and the water was waist deep.

The Seals and the Swell

The previous shots were taken from the shore near the car park at a spot about 500m from where the kayaks were semi-rafted up on the eastern side of the outer reef. For the remainder of these photos I moved from my spot near the car park to a grass-covered clifftop on Hayley Point, nicely sheltered on three sides by bushes. My new location was about 450m from the seals on the northern part of the outer reef and about 700m from the more exposed southern end of the outer reef where the larger waves were breaking. I have seen waves breaking right over the reef shown here, but not on this day, and not all that often.
The view due south from my grassy knoll. The swell was not abating.
Seals feeling smug that the waves are breaking either side of them but not on them.
Wide angle shot of the outer reef and its occupants.
Cropped closeup of part of the previous image. I didn’t see a single underfed-looking seal. I think if I were a seal, I would choose to live in a marine sanctuary.
White water all around them not interfering with sun-baking, sleeping and quiet conversation.
You can see the exposed reef here as the water sucks out in front of the wave. I have seen waves breaking on this part of this reef for many years. Despite its disordered appearance, waves at this location seem to break as shown here most of the time. When the waves are scaled up, so are the various features visible in this wave. But essentially, the breaking wave always follows the dictates of the shape of the rocky reef on the ocean floor over which it is breaking. Wind strength and direction can of course have a big effect on such a wave, but the essential elements shown here can usually be recognised.
Up close, it seems there is a nook or a cranny for everyone, birds included. These reefs are a real haven for the Australian fur seal. I intend to paddle out there on my surf ski some time for a closer look and hopefully to get some proper photos of seals.

Postscript

Little Henty Reef is at the southern end of Mounts Bay. The adjacent bay to the north is Apollo Bay. Seals from the Little Henty colony often make their way around into Apollo Bay, either singly or in pairs. I have had them approach me on my surf ski, and playfully dive around and under the ski. I have seen them in the water while I was swimming, but they have never approached me as a swimmer. They often hang around the harbour mouth feeding if the opportunity arises but mostly they just loll around seeming to enjoy the change of scenery.

Earlier this evening, three days after the photos of the kayakers were taken, I wandered out along the town jetty and came across this solitary seal enjoying the view from his vantage point on the harbour wall. After all the distance shots of seals in this post, I thought a few closeups of a seal might be of interest. These images were taken with a zoom lens.

Australasian Gannets breeding on Southern Ocean clifftop

The Australasian gannet has a remarkable set of flying and feeding skills. It is also a very beautiful bird.

It’s perfectly adapted for flying and soaring, as well as for diving at high speed into the sea to catch fish. An Australasian gannet can fly in excess of 500km in a day seeking food, at speeds of 35-40 knots. It soars whenever possible on its outstretched 2m wings. I admire the capabilities of this bird.

They sometimes herd fish (pilchards are favourites) into dense shoals by soaring 10m or so above the surface. Then they dive and eat. They fold their wings back to dive from heights of 15m or so, with the ability to repeatedly dive to depths of 15-20m. They can also dive effectively from lower heights, usually done in rougher conditions. They hit the water at speeds up to 80kph (some say higher speeds are reached in the dive) and can propel themselves and manoeuvre under water (i.e. swim!) using their wings. They have been observed to catch as many as five fish in a single dive. Their eyesight is specially adapted for the underwater phase of their hunting. They only stay underwater for around 10 seconds but will generally swallow the fish before surfacing. I have witnessed a group of Australasian gannets plunge diving en masse and feeding very successfully offshore at Apollo Bay (photos below). It’s a great spectacle.

The gannets are found mainly in southern and eastern Australia and New Zealand. There are established gannet migration routes between these countries. They are very strong flyers, and fly well out to sea for food, as well as between Australia and NZ on migration journeys. Gannets from Australia have been recorded flying as far afield as Mauritius and New Zealand. But more typically, they fly long distances around the southern half of the Australian coastline. Fledglings leave the nest around 100 days after hatching. They travel many thousands of kms until around the age of three they return to their home nest to begin breeding when they are 4-7 years old.

They nest and raise their young between July and April. The period of incubation of a gannet is around 40 days. The young birds fledge around 90-100 days after hatching, and are able to fly from this time.

They live to around 25 years old, and form monogamous long term relationships with breeding partners.

What an interesting and impressive bird! They are also one of the most elegant and beautiful seabirds to grace our coast.

The Gannet Colony at Point Danger

The white mound on the promontory is the Point Danger Australasian gannet breeding colony. Its 5-6kms south of Portland, on the southern coast of Australia. The rocky outcrop visible offshore is Lawrence Rocks. There are around 6,000 breeding pairs on Lawrence Rocks. The Point Danger colony has about 300 breeding pairs. Some say this rookery is an overflow from the crowded Lawrence Rocks population. The fence in the foreground is high and secure, and is monitored by video. The gate is securely locked. There are also a number of electric fences around the breeding colony (including low down on the promontory cliffs) to keep foxes away. A committee of management and a number of volunteers will, by prior arrangement, accompany those interested inside the reserve for a closer look at the birds.
This is the only mainland Australasian gannet breeding colony in Australia. New Zealand only has two mainland breeding colonies. Islands are preferred.
There was continual movement of birds most of the time. It seems that at some point or another most of them chose to get airborne for a short flight. Some went out to sea and back, perhaps to try their luck for a snack. Others would lift off and lazily put in a couple of flaps to join the glassy ridge lift on the windward side of the promontory (to the right in the picture above) then stretch out their wings with only minor movements thereafter for turns, climbs and descents. They would soar back and forth before returning for more socialising and relaxing. Others would simply do a short circuit after taking off into wind, wheel around to the downwind side of home and then land into wind. Between such sorties, they were conspicuously relating to each other. It is said they are quite gregarious, and this was borne out by what I observed.
The information board at Point Danger Gannet Colony. This board and the fence around the tip of the promontory together with the nearby observation platform were the only signs that humans had any interest in the place. But interestingly, directly behind the observation platform (from which the first photo in this post was taken) was a solid mound of earth, plainly put there for some purpose. A short look around revealed that it was sitting directly in front of the targets of a rifle firing range, the line of fire of which would go directly over the gannet colony (and the observation platform!). A peek around the corner of the mound revealed the back of the targets, stern warnings and a clear view of the shooters end of the range which was far too close for my liking. They say the hooded plover in choosing to breed on the sand on open beaches is not showing great judgment. Well, setting up home directly in the line of fire of a shooting range also seems a questionable choice leading at the very least to a noisy neighbourhood. But my guide informed me that neither gannets nor those who come to see them have ever been shot by a stray bullet coming over the top of the targets.
This is Ewen. He’s chairman of the Point Danger Committee of Management. He is a volunteer guide, a gentleman and happy to share his extensive knowledge of the Australasian gannet. He also has great patience. As I took these photos revelling in the opportunity and privilege of being so close to this colony of such beautiful birds, he gave me no hurry up. Thanks Ewen. The volunteers make themselves available for tours of the breeding colony up close, by arrangement with Portland Information Centre.

How Gannets Relax

These two birds gracefully intertwined necks and beaks in a gentle interaction that continued for quite some time.
While appearing as though they might be ‘crossing swords’, they weren’t. This was very friendly behaviour. They truly are gregarious.
The same pair having a spell from the neck intertwining thing.
You write a caption.
An active fledgling overlooking a snoozing adult. That robust blue covering of the eyes when shut is part of the adaptation necessary for comfortable high speed diving into the sea. When the eyes are open, this blue shield is simply a blue circle around the eye.
The colony was densely populated. There was room to spread out, but they seemed to prefer being in close proximity to each other. While some of the chicks and fledglings were sticking together on the edge of the main group, there was a lot of apparently easygoing intermingling between generations on the main mound of the rookery.
None of the birds showed any fear as I stood quietly taking photos from close up. Those are serious feet for a seabird.

Individual Portraits

Fledglings and Chicks

Landing approaches at the busy Pt Danger breeding colony

Because of the dense covering of birds on the nesting area, birds returning from flight had to take great care in landing. The gannet is all elegance and efficiency in full flight. They seemed to me to also be quite agile and adept a low speed flight and manoeuvring. But on foot, they are merely ordinary – they are plainly built to fly. Just as an aeroplane becomes ordinary once its wheels touch the ground and it is reduced to tentatively plodding along taxiways at walking pace, so it is with the gannet. Both were made to fly, not taxy. Landing on this busy site involves approaching from downwind, then slowing down while looking all over for a spot to put down. They must remain ever ready to abort the landing and go around if required. Initially during the recce the wings are stretched right out to maximise lift for slow flight.
This bird is slowing down and descending. Tail feathers seemed to play an increasing role in manoeuvring as the wings are increasingly busy maintaining height or the required descent rate.
Seems as though a vertical hover straight down would be required for the spot currently being looked at. Helicopter pilots train in confined space operations. I believe the entire gannet species could be signed off right now as fully competent in this regard.
As slower and slower flight is required for some landings, the birds wings need to be flapped a little, with wingtip feathers extended right out to reduce drag and maintain lift.
This is a closeup of the bird in the previous photo. The focus is intense. This must be the same head and neck position of the gannet when it enters the water in a high speed dive for feeding. The form and streamlining is readily apparent in this photo. These qualities are of course also very useful in flight.
Those wings are amazingly flexible and variable in all parameters. Nothing out of the ordinary though it would seem. If beaks are any indication, this radical approach seems to have captured the attention of only one bird on the ground.
Closing in on the chosen touchdown spot. If there were regular landing collisions, these birds would of course quickly learn to get out of the way when there was inbound traffic. The audience on this all over landing field is utterly ignoring the bird approaching to land.
Even in such close proximity to birds on the ground, they don’t seem to be giving the risk of a wing in the face any thought at all. It seems clear that the approach and landing is and is perceived to be a low risk event.
Throttle back – touchdown is only a fraction of a second away. The bird doing the landing made no contact whatsoever with any other bird during this landing.
This bird was slowing down, but it was just too crowded. The feet were deployed as shown to create drag in to assist in the descent to land. So a decision was made to ‘go around’. The undercarriage was retracted, the wings started flapping and flying speed increased. Then he did another circuit before touching down smoothly and without incident on the second attempt. The webbed feet deployed as shown, would act a bit like the drag function of flaps on an aeroplane. A bird that is so streamlined and built for speed and soaring needs some control surfaces to slow it down in the circuit area.

Gannets on the wing

To be fair, this probably should’ve been in the approach and landing section. Same can be said for the next photo. But these two were in clear air above the colony, and I saw quite a few birds slow down for a quick look just as these two are doing, before giving it away as too crowded and heading off for another short flight in the area before setting up the next approach. That their legs are tucked away in the streamlined position indicates to me that the decision to land has not been finally made yet.
Full flight mode. Apart from landing manoeuvres, I have very few photos of an Australasian gannet flapping its wings. The reason is, they only do it when necessary. This bird was in ample ridge lift on the windward side of the promontory and effortlessly maintained height and speed with the wings fixed as shown.
The streamlining of the gannet is obvious in this picture. This serves it very well not only in long distance flight, but also in its underwater activities.

These are Australasian gannets plunge diving on a school of fish. It’s a spectacular thing to see – the vertical dive, with the last minute folding away of everything that might come unstuck upon hitting the water at up to 80kph, the fearless beak first entry at maximum speed, then the dive to perhaps 15m or so using its wings underwater to swim and manoeuvre. Fish are caught and often eaten before the bird surfaces. These photos were taken from the shore at Apollo Bay in December last year. Please excuse the poor quality of these photos – the birds were feeding over 600m offshore, the sky was overcast and this was the best the big tele lens could do.

This bird gave the landing approach away early, and was ‘going around’ at low altitude at reasonably high speed. I wonder if gannets enjoy doing low high speed passes.

The Australasian gannet species is not under threat. The populations are in fact growing in both Australia and New Zealand.

It was a wonderful privilege to spend an hour or more with these gannets. The pleasure was added to by their utter lack of concern at my presence. Opportunities to observe such wild and beautiful birds up close and in their natural habitat are rare. Prior to visiting this breeding colony, the best gannet sightings (and photos) I had were of them soaring high above me over a beach near Freycinet in Tasmania. My hour at home with the gannets was memorable.

Six Apollo Bay ocean swimmers swam across the Rip today

The Rip is a notorious stretch of water at the entrance to Port Philip Bay on the south eastern coast of Australia. It is narrow, with a distance of only 3.2kms between Point Nepean on the eastern side and Point Lonsdale on the western side. It is also deep (especially in the middle) and has very strong tidal streams which conflict with swell rolling in from Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean. It is a challenge for ships, a positive hazard for boats and a total no-go zone for swimmers, until 1971 when Doug Mew became the first to swim the Rip. The number of people who have swum the Rip remains small.

Today six women from Apollo Bay, every one of them an experienced and fit ocean swimmer, had an appointment with the Rip between the low and high tides (or more accurately, on the slack water after the tide finished going out, which is around 2-3 hours after the forecast low tide time) to jump off a boat just inside the heads off Point Nepean with a plan to swim straight across the Rip to the beach near the Point Lonsdale lighthouse. They were to be accompanied by an experienced kayak paddler, with other boats in the vicinity as a safety backup. They were one of a number of groups doing this swim today.

Dawn from the Devil’s Elbow on the Great Ocean Road today as I drove from Apollo Bay to Point Lonsdale. There was a bit of texture on the water but there were no white caps, which meant the wind was under 10 knots. This is an exposed part of the cost, and the swell was small. The weather pattern meant that these conditions should also be present at the Rip. The swim had been planned for some time, and had been cancelled twice due to adverse sea conditions creating an unacceptably high risk. A third cancellation was looking very unlikely. I was only going to watch the Rip being swum, but it was still exciting to conclude that it would be happening today.

The weather omens were positive this week. From about mid-week it looked increasingly likely that there would be small swell, a gentle south easterly wind (which is a following wind for the swim) and otherwise good weather – highly favourable conditions for a one-way downwind current assisted swim in pleasant weather.

These were the reasons for the optimism earlier in the week – a slow moving high was forecast to be positioned and shaped as shown, and the wind forecast (I use the Windy app) for the heads was a 9 knot south easterly. The forecast gust maximum was 15 knots, but early in the morning with a high pressure system dominating the weather, such gusts were unlikely. When I arrived at Point Lonsdale, conditions were as forecast. By the time I arrived the swimmers were all wetsuited up and doing the short boat trip from Queenscliff to their deep water drop off point.

The jetty at Point Lonsdale, looking across the Rip to Point Nepean. To the right of the nearest light pole is Point Nepean (not the distant flat promontory, but the darker headland which angles up to the right) – the swimmers jumped off the boat and started their swim just offshore in that area.
Point Nepean as seen from the Point Lonsdale lighthouse beach.
This jetty moves in big seas.
The Point Lonsdale lighthouse. This would have been an aiming point for the swimmers for most of their journey.
The lighthouse was built in 1902 and continues in active service.

There is an elevated lookout at Point Lonsdale from which I was able, with a telephoto lens, to see the boats at the drop off point over 3kms away. The kayakers were in the water waiting for their respective swimming groups to enter the water upon a signal for the swim to begin. This swim is not a race.

The drop off point. The largest boat did the swimmer and safety crew transport. Smaller safety boats were also present and the kayakers were on standby ready to head off with the various groups of swimmers they would be escorting across the Rip.

The admin table on the beach. Rip Swim staffer and English Channel swimming legend Don Riddington who did that swim at the age of 68, and at that time was the oldest Australian (and the third oldest person ever) to swim the Channel. Don and others looking intently out to sea as the first swimmers came into view.

Just outside the heads on the southern side of Point Nepean, the sea was in a different mood altogether. It was not a huge swell, but I imagine the occupants of the boats shown were pleased the engines kept going. The crew on the small boat just visible in a trough on the left might take issue with me calling it a small swell. But the swimmers reported that it was a swell which they felt as nothing more than a gentle rising and falling with no white water. The larger boat in the image is a tourist boat of some sort, and it seemed very fully loaded. The coast shown here is very close to where the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared while snorkelling in December 1967.
Four kayak paddlers and their swimmers mid-swim. The haziness in the air was salt spray from the surf.
There were a lot of high fives, hugs and photos as each team came in. This was one of the first teams to complete the swim.
Kayaker Andrew during the crossing, with none of the
AB team visible due to the swell and small wind waves.
Andrew with some of his team of swimmers visible in this shot.
Three teams completing the swim around the same time.
The Apollo Bay swimmers coming into good camera range, with Andrew taking it easy by the look of things.
Approaching the shallows.
Feet finally on the sand. From my observation, Sonja was first to stand up. But they all arrived together, and it didn’t turn into an undeclared race for the final 200m (as has been known to happen on more than a few social ocean swims at Apollo Bay). Time for some high fives and hugs and general jubilation and satisfaction.
Mandatory group hug. Sharing the joy.
These six are all good friends, and they trained together solidly for many months until they could swim 5kms comfortably individually and as a team. They have swum together all year round in Apollo Bay for many years.
The tight formation march out of the ocean didn’t last long. The yellow flotation device belonged to the organisers, who required one member of each team to carry the device.

The Apollo Bay 2020 Rip swimming team: Heather, Jenny, Mary, Michelle, Susie & Sonja, and Andrew, their kayak paddler for the swim.

Very happy ocean swimmers. The instructions given to all who registered for the Rip swim made clear that the Rip can present very challenging conditions for swimmers attempting the crossing. The swimmers’ expectations and training had certainly taken this into account. But today, the ocean was almost at rest and the currents were entirely favourable. It was a one way down-winder. So the training these six had done more than equipped them for a 3.2km swim in such conditions. But it was of course necessary that they have the reserves to go a lot further in much more difficult conditions in case that was what the Rip dished up today. They all finished with plenty of fuel in the tank, not exhausted and not even cold. All that training paid off in spades.

Sonja’s Garmin watch tells the simple story: 3.2kms swum in 1 hour and 2 minutes, at a pace of 1:55/100m. The last of the outgoing tide would have provided a following current for part of the swim.

Great work you six! You did yourselves and the Apollo Bay ocean swimmers proud.

What’s next?

Things seen in the first half hour of the 7 day Great Ocean Walk

A few photos taken on a short coastal stroll near Apollo Bay.

The Great Ocean Walk is 100kms or so of spectacular walking track along the coast beside the Southern Ocean, between Apollo Bay and the 12 Apostles on the south east coast of Australia. It’s very popular. Many do the full 7 night hiking trip, but sections of the walk are easily accessible for shorter walks. Our short walk involved heading west along the walking track from Marengo until we had strolled half as far as we felt like walking in total. Then we shared a banana and some Anzac biscuits, had a drink of water and returned. For the record, we walked 4kms in total. Simple pleasures.

Upon returning to our starting point at Marengo, the swell had picked up and the wind had backed a little around to the north east. This meant the wind was partially offshore where these waves were breaking (a good thing from a photographic point of view). So after collecting my telephoto lens from the house, I climbed on to my favourite elevated grassy knoll overlooking the reef at the point (covered in comfortable thick springy grass and sheltered on three sides by thick bushes), with an uninterrupted and elevated view of the channels and the Little Henty reefs and islands. The sky remained very overcast, and the light was generally dull. The air was full of salt spray.

Two ocean swims west of Cape Otway

The uninterrupted flow of the weather across the vast oceans between Argentina and Cape Otway sees wild storms, strong winds and huge swells hit this part of the south-east coast of Australia with full force. The coast is littered with shipwrecks, and demands respect and caution from all mariners venturing near it.

The so-called ‘shipwreck coast’ stretches over 100kms west from Cape Otway. Over 50 sailing ships have been wrecked along this part of the Victorian coast. It is aligned NW/SE, and faces the prevailing westerly seas and winds that have pounded this coast for millions of years. While not the most southerly point in Victoria, it extends to just shy of the 39th parallel. Cape Otway is technically not in the latitudes of the roaring forties, but it frequently feels otherwise. The parallel of latitude on which Cape Otway sits passes some 240 nautical miles south of Cape Agulhas on the southern tip of the African continent, and the next land to the west is the east coast of Argentina.

The wildest weather and most powerful groundswells to strike the coast east and west of Port Campbell come from the west and south west. The bay at Port Campbell faces directly south west. It is spared nothing in bad weather and big south-westerly swells.

The following two photos of the Port Campbell jetty indicate the range of conditions which can be experienced in the bay at Port Campbell, and this part of the west coast of Victoria.

The weather and sea conditions on the west coast are the subject of previous posts on this blog, including: ‘Wild weather and a big swell on the coast west of Cape Otway’ (published 28 June 2017), and ‘Some winter cameos from the west coast of Victoria’ (published 12 August 2017).

Ocean swimming in this area requires great caution, but also offers great rewards. This post is one average ocean swimmer’s account of two ocean swims in spectacular locations on this coast. I hope to share something of the sense of joy and adventure of ocean swimming in this part of the world.

The 2020 Port Campbell Ocean Swim

The Port Campbell surf life saving club has a long, active and proud tradition in ocean rescue and water safety. In addition to conducting regular beach patrols from November to Easter, the volunteer members provide an important coastal rescue service along 60kms of the coast. They are equipped for inshore rescue operations in areas inaccessible to other vessels and often inaccessible from the land. Port Campbell is the only place between Apollo Bay and Warrnambool that a rescue craft can be launched. Volunteers remain operationally ready every day of the year. They have attended many call outs in life-threatening conditions at isolated and dangerous beaches and locations. They are currently equipped with a 6m rigid-hull inflatable boat to assist in this role, in addition to the standard surf life saving IRBs (inflatable rescue boat), the ‘rubber ducks’. Training over and above life saver training is required to serve on this boat on coastal rescues. In earlier days, there was a team equipped with a rocket with a rope connected to it, for firing from the land where possible to those in need of rescue from the sea.

At Sherbrooke Creek beach (between the 12 Apostles and Port Campbell beach) on 21 April 2019 two volunteer members of the SLSC died when their 6m rigid-hulled rescue boat overturned while they were attempting to rescue a tourist who was in the sea in wild conditions and in trouble. The tourist was subsequently winched to safety by a rescue helicopter. There was a very high swell at the time, and conditions were described by locals as treacherous. They were local dairy farmers. They were highly experienced and respected members of the club. They were a father and son, aged 71 and 32. The club and the whole Port Campbell community were shocked and shattered by the tragedy. The heroism of the two men has rightly been widely recognised throughout Australia and abroad. I salute their bravery. Ross Powell and Andrew Powell and the sacrifice they made will not be forgotten.

Since 2004 the Port Campbell SLSC has participated in conducting a three-swim ocean race series with the surf life saving clubs at Warrnambool and Port Fairy. There is a prize for the overall winner of the series, as well as prizes for individual performance in each of the annual races. Swimmers are welcome to do one, two or all three of the races. The event is called the Shipwreck Coast Swim Series.

The Port Campbell swim is my favourite of all the regular ocean swims conducted by surf life saving clubs along the west coast of Victoria. It’s a true ocean swim. The race has been cancelled on occasions due to rough seas, and this close-knit crew of water men and women does not rush to cancel for rough seas. Indeed, I have arrived to race on days when I was confident it would be cancelled, only to find that the race was going ahead.

The swim takes swimmers out beyond the eastern headland of the bay to where there is a spectacular view down the coastal cliffs to the east. The sea is never still at the far turn buoys, even if from shore it appears to be so. Sometimes the swell is sufficiently large that even with a field of a couple of hundred swimmers, not one of them can be seen by an individual swimmer when in the troughs. I have experienced breaking waves out the back, and strong currents taking me seaward past the eastern headland. I would not contemplate such a swim without the Port Campbell SLSC members on paddle boards, skis and in rubber ducks patrolling the swimming field to ensure safety. It is a wonderful privilege to be 600m or so offshore, swimming in such a place. I was so enthralled and rapt with the wild beauty of this place, that last year, my 11th Port Campbell ocean race, I abandoned the notion of racing, and just cruised around the course with my GoPro camera taking photos and chatting to lifesavers along the way, all of whom laughingly endorsed my decision to tour rather than race. The photos and story of that swim are on this blog in the post, ‘Port Campbell Ocean Swim February 2019’, published February 3 2019.

There is a wonderful small community vibe to this swim. The swim is very well organised and safety is clearly paramount, but the administration and organisation aspects are refreshingly relaxed. The field is generally around 200 strong, so there is no rush, or press or pressure associated with the race. The start and finish lines are friendly places.

So of course, I lined up on Sunday 2 February 2020 for my 12th ocean swim at Port Campbell. I’ve always liked supporting this club and its community, given its history and tradition of selfless support to those in trouble in the sea. I knew it would be business as usual and that on race day, while nothing would be said, the absence of two volunteer members and stalwarts of the club would be deeply felt. In a strange way, it felt like a privilege to swim in their bay on their watch.

The scene upon arrival in Port Campbell. I had 6 mates doing the swim with me. It looks glassy. It’s an illusion. Certainly great conditions for the swim, but not glassy and calm like it appears to be. The wind backed around not long after this photo was taken and the conditions progressively got a little rougher out the back as the morning progressed. When I rounded the outer buoys around 11:15 there were currents, swell, a bit of chop and deep clear green water offering glimpses of the luxuriant underwater plant life that flourishes on the underwater reef and rock formations.
The white buoys are course lines. Keep all buoys on your left. The two outer buoys are taller and orange. Most buoys were not visible most of the time. I had to choose a navigation point a bit higher to aim for, such as a cliff, a building on the shore, trees, a cloud etc.
A rubber duck on the left being checked before the race. The briefing was conducted using the white board on the right. There was excitement in the air as swimmers progressively appeared in wetsuits and stood around talking tactics and conditions. But as you can see, there was an absence of crowds. By way of contrast, the annual Pier to Pub 1200m ocean swim at Lorne attracts 5000 swimmers and over 20,000 spectators.
L to R: Mike, Liz, Andrew and Hamish. These three boys arrived from Melbourne on motorbikes.
The start of the 1200m race. I’m on the far right in the front row, in a black wetsuit.
That’s me in the shallows having just stood up when it was no longer deep enough to do any sort of stroke. I always swim right into the shallows, because swimming through knee-deep or waist deep water is much faster than wading or trying to run through it. Not that it really matters. On this day I placed 178 in a field of 207 overall, and 33 in a field of 42 in the 60+ ‘super veteran’ category. There were 29 swimmers behind me. I chose to focus on them in assessing my performance, rather than the speedy youngsters who didn’t pause en route to enjoy the scenery. My average pace for the swim was 2:03/100m ( 20:30 per kilometre, or 2.993 kph).
Feigning running ability up to the finish line, where with a clock and a pen and paper, my time was recorded by a race official – old school, but it works.
My nephew Andrew. In 2014 he couldn’t swim at all, and he entered the Pier to Pub 1200m swim at Lorne. He came to me for clues on developing some sort of swimming stroke in the 8 weeks before the race. He did it, and has been steadily improving his stroke ever since. He is tall and fit, two good qualities for an ocean swimmer.
Son in law Hamish and nephew Andrew. Hamish grew up in the country, and his early efforts at ocean swimming after he met my daughter were ‘interesting’. He too has improved since and is well on the way to developing a good stroke. Hamish keeps himself running-fit, which is useful for his ocean swimming.
The 2020 Port Campbell crew. L to R: Mike, Al, me, Andrew, Hamish, Hunto and Kerr. The range of swimming times was between 22 and 32 minutes. Everyone did well and enjoyed the swim.
Liz’s Anzac biscuits are the stuff of legends. I rationed them carefully, as ravenous ocean swimmers can quickly account for all Anzacs within reach. Andrew is shown savouring his Anzac after the swim. The T shirt design this year was approved by all.

But I have the collectors’ item when it comes to Port Campbell ocean swim T shirts!

Post-swim awards. Before the earned prizes are handed out, there is always a raffle of spot prizes for competitors whose names are pulled out of a hat. Two years ago I won a pair of goggles. I was ambling across to the raffle area before it commenced, mainly because our lunch booking time was still 10 minutes off. Then the first name I heard over the PA was ‘John Longmead, number 517’. Knowing that you have to be present to collect, I shouted a triumphant response, and started jogging to collect my prize. I was not being heard. My name and number were repeated, and my louder perhaps slightly more desperate response was also repeated. Then I heard the words that the first raffle prize winner, not being present, would forfeit and another name would be drawn. I changed down a gear and flicked the sport mode switch (spent as my legs were from running the 20m up the beach to the finish line in the swim) and sprinted through the crowd, right arm extended, just in time to avoid the completion of the re-draw.
My unearned spot prize in the post-swim raffle. Given the $35 entry fee (online only), I probably broke about even.
A delightful lunch at ‘Forage on the Foreshore’ for our party of eight. This cafe is directly opposite the beach we just swam from. Sam and Laura have been here for a few years now. The standard was high from the start. I have visited here more than a few times over the years on my motorbike, and have always been very grateful for the strong coffee and half-brick size piece of fresh hedgehog. I also always enjoy the friendly service. Sam and Laura do a great job. I heartily recommend their French toast.
L to R: the motorbikes ridden from Melbourne to the swim by Mike, Hamish and Andrew. Hamish’s bike was a hired BMW 750 GS. Its engine blew up on the return trip, near Mait’s Rest about 17kms west of Apollo Bay. It was a standard engine blow up, not involving the rear wheel locking up (which potentially could’ve been disastrous). Hamish returned to Melbourne a little later than planned that evening, riding pillion on Mike’s Triumph Tiger. Retrieval and transport logistics were handled well. All in a day’s outing.
By the time we had finished lunch, the bay at Port Campbell had returned to its natural state. There was barely a person in sight. The headlands, the colours, the sky, the SLSC flag, the clean sand – an iconic Australian beach scene.
The club house of the Port Campbell surf life saving club overlooking the beach and bay.
Port Campbell bay. A beautiful place. The race left no trace it had occurred.

The memorable and never repeated Boat Bay swim at the Bay of Islands on 14 March 2015

The organisers of the Shipwreck Coast Swim Series (the SLSCs of Port Campbell, Warrnambool and Port Fairy) in early 2015 announced the ‘inaugural Bay of Islands swim’, to be held in Boat Bay. This bay is part of the beautiful but lesser know Bay of Islands, west of Port Campbell and the Twelve Apostles. I signed up in a flash, recognising this as a wonderful opportunity to do a decent swim offshore in the waters of this wild coast. The swim was never advertised as a race, and indeed was explained as an organised swim in a beautiful place with some safety backup. What a great idea.

The use of the word ‘inaugural’ in the advertising, caused me to believe the event would be repeated. Unfortunately, it never was. It remains a wonderful memory, all the more so for it having been a one-off. I persuaded good friends Susan, Mike and Richard to join me for this swim. It was always known it would be weather dependent.

This pretty much sums up the swimming issues at Boat Bay. It fails to mention sharks, but their presence is well known and taken for granted. I am aware that others have dived and snorkelled here. But I don’t know of any who have done a swim such as we did.

The link to this video clip (7:50) of the Boat Bay swim is included with the kind permission of Wendy Couch. It captures something of the beauty of the location and the magic of the swim.

https://vimeo.com/user27560798wendycouch

What about a swim out from Loch Ard Gorge, around Mutton Bird Island and back?

I have only heard this unofficially, but it is said that the Boat Bay swim was not repeated because regular fishermen at Boat Bay complained about being denied use of the boat ramp for those couple of hours in 2015 when the swimmers were there.

Prior to learning that the swim was not to be repeated, there was talk was of the 2016 swim being at Loch Ard Gorge, out the entrance, around Mutton Bird Island, and back to the beach. That would be about a 2km swim. The Boat Bay swim was around 1500m. I was most excited about the prospect of the Loch Ard swim – again very condition dependent – but on the right day, what a thrill it would be to do that swim. There is said to be a lot of marine life around Mutton Bird Island, and of course, the remains of the wreck of the Loch Ard.

Loch Ard Gorge

View to the south through the narrow entrance to Loch Ard Gorge

Wind, Sand and Water

Only a handful of people will ever see these coastal landforms, even though they are right beside the famous and busy Great Ocean Road. They were created out of sand dunes by a very high tide and a wind from the west. The next high tide, strong onshore wind or solid rainfall will see them disappear.

These sand cliffs and other forms were produced by the usual agents of wind, sand and water, but on a remarkably compressed timescale, geologically speaking. At sunset yesterday, the Mounts Bay (or Marengo Beach) sand dunes had a uniformly flat surface, indistinguishable from the dry sand on the beach save for the angle. A high tide overnight combined with a solid swell and the wind blowing over the dunes from the west saw these coastal geomorphic forms appearing not in millennia, but in hours. The same processes will remove them in days. The net result will be sand removed from the dunes and washed out to sea. These intricately sculpted sand forms are sadly evidence of the serious problem of coastal erosion which is affecting many parts of the Great Ocean Road.

These dunes are under significant threat from ocean waves and tides. In an attempt to halt the advance of the erosion, they are replenished regularly with sand from further up the beach by local authorities which surprisingly are yet to come up with an effective and permanent solution to the continuing erosion at this location.

Your mind and eyes might hunt for scale when looking at these pictures, like a zoom lens on autofocus trying to lock on to something. There are sufficient clues in each photo to assist in this regard. Suffice to say, most of these features are on a much smaller scale than you might think at first glance.

The above photos were all taken with my back to this beach (known as Marengo Beach or Mounts Bay Beach), and they are all detailed closeups of the formations on the dune shown below in both directions. Some of these images were taken with a macro lens. This beach is a km or so south of Apollo Bay, on the south-east coast of Australia.

Shorebreak at Dawn

Occasionally the ocean simply offers peace.

These photos were taken before breakfast this morning at Tuxion beach at the end of my street in Apollo Bay, Australia. A consistent surfable swell rolled into the bay from dawn to dusk.