Wild weather & a big swell on the coast west of Cape Otway

On Wednesday 2 July 2008 the weather and the swell combined to produce conditions along the west coast of Victoria such as I have only seen once.  I have seen bigger swells, stronger winds and wilder storms in this part of the world, but there was something about the combination of elements on this day which created the scenes below which in my experience are a one-off. The first hint we had was as we drove along the Great Ocean Road past Gibson Steps and the Twelve Apostles and began to see misty spray, then white water being propelled skywards above the cliff tops as the larger sets smashed into the rocks and cliffs below.

I have always liked this series of photos, and until this blog, never had the opportunity to share them more widely than friends and family. As for the age of the photos, this blog is not a diary and makes no pretence at chronological sequence. Even if it did, timeless events such as this storm on the coast have no relationship at all with clocks and calendars.

The photos were taken between the Twelve Apostles and Port Campbell, with an old Nikon D70s which was less than ideal but a whole lot better than not having a camera at all on the day.

July 2008 swell event edited on LR
Apart from a feeling of awe and a sense of privilege when in the presence of such conditions, as a long-time ocean swimmer, I always try to imagine what it would be like to be in the water.  This is a quite a distinct proposition from wishing I was actually in it. I was very happy on this day to have my feet on solid ground.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-2
The gale force onshore winds and the big swell saw the larger waves dash themselves against the cliffs with such force that the spray was often higher than the cliff tops.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-3
When a strong wind hits a vertical cliff with the flat surface above it at a ninety-degree angle such as shown, the air having mass and momentum keeps going up being unable to turn the ninety degrees in an instant. The relatively still air on top just behind the cliff edge, is forced to roll by the friction between it and the fast moving air just above it. It takes on a circular motion called a rotor, which is quite visible in this photo as the top of the spray which has been forced higher than the cliff curls over as it loses its vertical momentum.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-4
The weight of the water lifted up so high quickly overcomes the more subtle airflows around the stack as it collapses on the flat top surface.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-6
The aftermath of the main onslaught of the wave where the  white  water has fallen to pool or drain off the rocky platform and the spray remains for a short time revealing the confused airflow around the sandstone stack.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-22
The immoveable object…
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-21
…meets the irresistible force
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-16
I used to wonder how it was that mere water could make any significant inroads into rock, limestone or sandstone cliffs. But having seen the tonnes of water this day smashing into the edge of the continent, the only marvel is that a channel all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria wasn’t created millenniums ago.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-19
Not a good day to go flying at cliff top height in a helicopter (or a hang glider, or a paraglider, or a sailplane, or fixed wing aircraft).
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-17
Rainbows are where you find them.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-20
A serious amount of airborne water.  I can’t say I felt the ground tremble beneath my feet at such onslaughts of the sea, but I can say that I was half expecting it to.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-12
This is a particularly gnarly looking wave. It has such obvious volume and momentum, and seems to exude the attitude that not only is it about to take on the cliff, but it actually fancies its chances. It looks mean, powerful and determined.  I consider that duck diving under this wave would not be feasible. The next three shots follow the sequence of this wave’s final glorious moments.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-18
Look at the difference in water level behind the wave, and in the bay in front of it as it sucks out all before it.  Being in the bay treading water as this wave approached would be a character building experience.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-11
Some of the wave was forced upwards, and the rest of it joined forces with the building wave as it continued its charge into the narrowing bay fed by water rushing along the cliff edge.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-14
The waves long journey ends in a spectacular collision of air, water and earth
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-13
A wave of this size, volume and force does not go out with a whimper.
PTC pier on a good day
To appreciate the following photo, you need some idea of what the Port Campbell jetty looks like on a calm day.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-23
2 July 2008 was not a calm day.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-26
The serrated horizon, the advancing wave about to engulf the pier again, the water flowing freely off it from the last wave – these are some of nature’s ways of suggesting you defer your walk on the pier to another day.
July 2008 swell event edited on LR-25
This structure of steel, concrete, wood, bolts, welds and pipes didn’t seem to hold up at this end of it at least anywhere near as well as the sandstone cliffs all around it. But the essential structure did survive intact and useable.

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