The Southern Ocean around Gibson Steps in Winter

When you round the corner at Cape Otway heading west, the wild ocean factor multiplies. The waves are bigger, the cliffs are higher and the ocean seems vaster. It feels wild and remote. The hardy few who surf these raw swells mostly seem to know each other. They are a select bunch. The paddle-outs are long, the waves can be huge, the rips require local knowledge and paddling fitness. The tracks into some of these surf breaks are secret surfers’ business. So are many of the names of favourite breaks. Tribalism exists in and out of the surf. Some of the breaks are so good they inevitably became famous. Two Mile and Gibson Steps (Gibbos) are in this category. Proximity to roads and towns and the internet didn’t help keep these secret. Unlike the north shore of Hawaii, rescue resources for surfers here are simple – they are attached to your shoulders. If you can’t save yourself the local view is that you shouldn’t be out there. But don’t read that as an invitation. If you’re not connected, the local view is that you shouldn’t be out there anyway.

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Reefs east of Gibson Steps. Beautiful winter offshore conditions. This is very small swell by the standards of this stretch of coast. The ocean shown in this image extends uninterrupted to Antarctica. When I stand on the cliffs at Gibson Steps, I always feel as though I am viewing one of our planet’s vast oceans, not whatever the GPS or the local roadsigns say.  Nature on an awesome scale.
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The curtain falls.
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Rainbow warrior. On the lower left of this image is a surfer about to duck dive. Rainbow colours swirl fleetingly in the mane of spray blowing over the back. A seabird is flying in front of the face of the wave around centre image.
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Charging. There are five photos in this sequence of a single ride. I cropped this first image (full size framing in the next photo immediately below) to show the determination and focus of the surfer in his fast trajectory across this clean face with one hand on a rail and the other trailing lightly across the green face.

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In this final photo of the sequence, his hands are still in contact with the rail and the face. He kept up speed and made it out before it closed out on him.
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Two photo sequence – hint of a barrel, but not quite.

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Two photo sequence – more than enough speed for this turn. Old mate out the back watching a different show.

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A wave closer to shore than those in the preceding photos. Sand stirred up from the shallows on the left.
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Getting the most out of a smallish wave.
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The leg rope hadn’t broken. The surfer was in the white water still attached. Seems he has the board trained to meet him over the back.
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Tourism has reached this part of the west coast of Victoria. Numerous helicopters are flying short joyrides most of the time weather permitting.

On this day, there were plenty off whales well offshore. I identified only humpback whales, but the southern right whale is commonly sighted during the whale season here. Some swim closer to shore during their migration east in the winter months, but most travel well out to sea.

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This photo from Port Campbell beach shows a whale landing after breaching. The immediately following photo is a closer crop to show more detail. It’s a humpback whale.  This whale was so far out to sea that our attention was first caught by the landing splash.

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This photo and the one immediately following (a crop from the same image) show a similar performance.

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Another photo from Port Campbell beach shows multiple whales spouting. They don’t actually blow water into the air, but rather exhale air forcefully.  The exhaled air has some water mixed with it which produces the familiar spray when they blow. Different species can be identified by the differing shapes of the blow. Cropped for closer view in next photo (possibly three whales present here).

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We were on cliffs west of Pt Campbell when this humpback whale was spotted in the distance. The next photo shows it closer up. But I quite like the sense of scale and oceanic vastness in this photo. The tail shape, centre notch and white colour on its underside are features of the humpback whale.

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The tiny dorsal fin is also a feature of the humpback whale. The southern right whale has no dorsal fin.
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A couple of humpbacks swimming side by side.


We found a vantage point on cliffs in the area which offered this view of the Twelve Apostles. It was way in the distance, but the 150-600mm telephoto lens at full stretch was able to capture this image. For me, it’s a fresh image of these iconic features which are nearly always photographed from the other side. Many locals who have seen this image were similarly surprised to see them from this angle.

Getting to this vantage point involved being off-road and off-track, and some bush bashing on foot. I was standing over 11kms from the Twelve Apostles when I took this photo.

11.5kms away

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Another photo of the same scene, cropped a little more tightly.
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This photo and the one immediately following are of a rough set of steps carved at a steep angle from the crumbling cliff top shown, down to the reef and rocks and frequently big surf below. I don’t know whether fishermen or surfers did the hard work. I had heard about these steps years ago and sought them out only recently with a view to using them to get down close to the surf. I was disappointed to see the steps permanently closed. The gate was not impassable, but the  heavily eroded and obviously unstable appearance of the steps and the cliff top in this location made the warning signs superfluous.

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Another clifftop vista in the area. The tops of some of the stacks comprising the Twelve Apostles can be seen above the small promontory in the foreground. The ocean seems to take on deep colours such as these in winter.
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Another coastal vista captured across kilometres of windswept ocean. There are no whitecaps close to shore because the wind was offshore, and there was not enough fetch in the first few kms of ocean for whitecaps to develop.
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Further out to sea, the wind was raising whitecaps. This humpback whale tail was spotted in the distance, but it was too far away to identify the species by eye. The features of this tail are unique to the humpback whale.

Below is the uncropped photo of this humpback whale shown immediately above. I prefer this image to the one above. The whale’s domain is the vast oceans of earth, not just the water in its immediate vicinity at any given time. I find the above image interesting in its detail, but the one below draws me in somehow, and makes me want to keep gazing at it, pondering.

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