April 2019 at Apollo Bay – big swell, a 5m shark sighting and a cold front

The Friday 26 April 2019 swell

The swell in autumn along the west of Victoria is sufficiently reliable for the Rip Curl Pro surfing contest to be held at Bells Beach around Easter each year.  This year was the 58th year of the contest. The Rip Curl Pro was the second event on the 2019 World Surf League World Tour (the professional circuit for surf riders who qualify to be on the tour).

The swell didn’t arrive on time, and some of the heats were held at Johanna west of Cape Otway. But just in time for the finals, a big swell was forecast for Friday 26 April. As it turned out, the swell at Bells Beach was big, raw and rendered quite unfriendly by very strong cross shore/onshore winds.

Apollo bay got its share of the Friday 26 April swell but it was not an epic swell. Like the surf at Bells Beach, it was less than it could have been from a surfing point of view by reason of strong winds from the wrong direction. But it was still a swell worth seeing.

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These powerful and somewhat unruly waves were breaking over a reef near Skenes Creek.
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The wind was strong enough to blow the tops right off some of the waves.
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This photo was taken from Marengo Point. The waves in the foreground are breaking on Little Henty Reef, which is just a few hundred metres off shore. The wave rearing on the horizon is the bombie on Outer Henty Reef which is in fact 3kms out to sea. It looks closer because of the distance compression effect of the telephoto lens. The face of the bombie on this day would have been in the order of 20 feet.
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Another view of the breaking bombie on Outer Henty from behind as it powered across the horizon.
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Due south of Marengo Point, the open sea was brought with a solid swell. Squall lines passing through provided the moisture in the atmosphere for the rainbow whenever the clouds to the west cleared long enough to give the sun a brief look-in.
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Little Henty Reef. I have taken a lot of photos of waves breaking at this exact point on the reef, and regardless of differences in size and weather conditions, a few features always seem to be present. This tight and short-lived little barrel is one of them.
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Larger waves were breaking seaward of Little Henty Reef. This was a powerful wave breaking unevenly over the uneven seabed.
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Point Bunbury isn’t far from Marengo Point. This photo was taken from the sand dunes (near the third hole on the local golf course) looking due south from Pt Bunbury. If a swimmer was caught inside as this wave approached and was about to break, it would certainly have been a character building experience trying unsuccessfully to duck-dive get deep enough to avoid the serious ‘rag-dolling’ and hold-down which such a wave would administer.  For the record, I hope never to be treading water looking seaward at such a sight from close quarters.

 

On Monday 8 April 2019, around Apollo Bay there was a bigger and cleaner swell than the Friday 26 April swell. There was also an offshore wind on that day. I posted photos of this swell in my blog post of 24 April 2019 (“Apollo Bay in Autumn”).

Some of the photos I took on that day were published in the Colac Herald, a local newspaper published every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Three of the photos published are in the thumbnail images below, together with the front page teaser enticing any browser in a newsagent to fork out $1.50 to see for himself or herself if being stunned ensued. There were no subsequent reports of any stunned readers, nor of any increase in circulation of the newspaper.

The Colac Herald article is below. In addition to the above three photos it included a shot taken at Little Henty Reef on Friday 26 April (that photo appears earlier in this post).

I did not write the captions for the photos as published, nor did I write the few paras about me.

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As this blog is personal, and has no commercial element whatsoever, the publication of these photos achieved no more than sharing my photos (and my blog address) to a wider audience. This process was interesting if only for the conversations it started with locals, many of whom were surprised that this area could produce swell of this size and quality.  The boys in the photos were local boys, who were pretty pleased to have a few shots of their gutsy surf session published.

 

The 5m shark sighting

On Tuesday 23 April, I went for a 1700 ocean swim. Within half an hour of leaving the water I heard reports that a shark had been sighted from the harbour wall, not far from where we swim. I have an app which reports shark sightings:

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The dorsal fin of the shark photographed from the harbour wall.
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Screen capture from smart phone video taken by tourists, of the shark’s dorsal and tail fins as it swam parallel to the wall near the harbour mouth. The video is not very clear, but it showed the shark’s swimming motion for some tens of metres. The headline is typical of how shark sightings are generally reported.

 

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Two images, obviously.  The metrics are of my swim before I knew about the shark sighting.  They may have been better numbers had I known there was a shark in the bay.
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There was a lot of talk in town about the shark, that it was ‘massive’, ‘huge’ and as more than a few would have it, a great white. This sounded reasonable at first given its length (4m or more on initial reports). All this talk notwithstanding, six of the regular swimmers (including me) elected to swim as usual the morning after the day of the shark sighting. Those of us who swam shared the view that if the shark was sighted yesterday, it would be gone the next day.  I did a 1540m swim on this morning. We didn’t hug the shore, and while there was talk about the sighting before the swim, it wasn’t mentioned during the swim. It was an enjoyable swim. My view is that you won’t see a shark that has decided to take a bite of you – so no point looking for it, no point worrying about it. But good decisions need to be made on dry land as to whether or not to swim on any given day at a particular location. I viewed it as a reasonable decision to swim the following day. If not that day, then when?
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Aerial view of the shark on its way out to sea, just past the harbour mouth. I have confirmed that the tender tided up to the blue and white dredge is 6m long. A useful reference point in estimating the length of the shark (which I and others estimate at about 5m). Note that the shark is slender and does not appear to have a large girth (a large girth being a feature of the great whites, especially the bigger ones). I first saw this image the day following the sighting.

There was a faint niggling doubt in my mind that there was something not ‘great white’-like about the swimming motion of the shark as shown in the video. I had a good close look at some great whites a few years ago on a cage dive off Port Lincoln in South Australia. It was highly instructive to watch them feeding and stalking and swimming about. I did a bit of research on the internet, and the evidence supported the possibility of it being a basking shark.

While basking sharks grow larger than great whites (up to 10m), they eat only plankton and are harmless to humans.  Further, they do not have the sizeable girth of the great white, and their dorsal fin is a different shape.

I shared my thoughts on this topic with some of my ocean swimming friends.

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The basking shark ID found favour with some of us, even though wishful thinking was perhaps ahead of science in reaching this comforting conclusion. In any event, ocean swimming in our bay has gone on uninterrupted and without concern.

For completeness, the locals say there has never been a great white sighted in the bay. At a more general level, the last shark fatality in Victoria was in 1956. Also, there are no reefs in the bay, just sand. Accordingly there is much less marine life in the bay than on the coast east and west of us, where there are reefs and kelp forests and marine life in abundance. In short, none of us expect to get eaten swimming in our bay. If you are interested in reading more about my thoughts on sharks, they are recorded in a post on this blog, dated 6 September 2017 and titled “Sharks and Ocean Swimming.”

 

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This is the uncropped photo of the great white, which I took from the shark cage on the dive off Port Lincoln. What a magnificent creature.

 

Before and after the cold front

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East of the front. I rode my motorbike from Melbourne to Apollo Bay on the day of the passage of this solid cold front. I rode through it and its associated rain and wind half an hour before arriving in Apollo Bay.
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These cloud formations were just ahead of the front. I have no idea why two lines of cloud formed and diverged as shown. But it is fitting that the point in the distance around which the clouds were divided is called Split Point (at Aireys Inlet). There is a lighthouse on that point.
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My BMW R1200GS motorbike has been approved it would seem.
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West of the front. The beach at the end of my street. It has been a bit dry in this part of the world, and this front brought a very welcome 40mm of rain to Apollo Bay over a 24 hour period.
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I went for a late afternoon swim from here to the harbour wall in the distance. It was very pleasant swimming with the rain pinging off my wetsuit and neoprene cap.
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The weather behind the front as seen from Apollo Bay.  What a contrast to the deep blue skies and turquoise seas ahead of the front.

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