Solid Swell at Local Reefs

When solid ocean swell hits the coast around Apollo Bay, the spectacle of waves of substance hitting the exposed reefs and beaches is not to be missed. This is so even with swell such as in these photos which is not in the large wave category.  Little Henty Reef and Point Bunbury are two of my favourite vantage points for such swell events (as anybody who has had even a cursory glance at the posts on this blog will know). The early December 2019 swell shown in these photos was solid and in the moderate range by local standards. I have seen much larger swells breaking on this reef. (For example, see the post on this blog titled ‘Large Southern Ocean Swell Pounds Local Reefs’, published 1 November 2017).

I am a regular ocean swimmer. On days with swell like this, the southern end of the east facing main beach in Apollo Bay is quite swimmable. In fact it’s exhilarating to swim in the smaller swell (which should not be taken to necessarily mean small swell) which results after larger swell has lost some of its size and energy in the process of turning left through nearly 180° around a point to break on that beach. Big swells are usually accompanied by winds coming from between north west and south west. Winds from those directions blow offshore (from the land out to sea) at the main beach at Apollo Bay, which makes for clean and glassy waves which stand up as they near the shore for longer than they would without the offshore wind.

Having swum in the ocean for most of my life to date, I have experienced all sorts of sea conditions in many different locations. These experiences make it impossible for me to look at the ocean, whatever the conditions might be, without wondering what exactly is causing what I am seeing, and without imagining what it would be like for me to be out there in the middle of it all. Such ruminations usually end up with me conjuring up some delusional scenario in which I survive the troubled seas against all the odds, and make it ashore unaided and triumphant.

None of this is intended to give the impression that I actually want to be out there in wild seas where drowning would probably be a certainty, it’s just that I can’t resist imagining what it would be like and what I would do if out there. So please don’t read any of the observations in the captions below as actual plans, or as expressions of any desire to actually be in the water with these waves. But I certainly find them mesmerising to watch.

The ocean does not issue invitations or free passes and it grants immunity to nobody.  For an ocean swimmer, knowing how to swim is probably less important than knowing when not to swim.

Little Henty Reef, Marengo

This reef is only a couple of hundred metres offshore at Marengo, just south of Apollo Bay. It forms part of the Marengo Reefs marine sanctuary. The reef has many elements to it, and it has quite irregular formations under the water which dictate how and when a wave passing over it will break. Waves seldom break in a uniform way here as they might at a beach with a flat sand or rock seabed near the shore.

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This little barrel is not a random event. Directly in front of it is shallow reef which on a low tides is exposed as the water sucks out in front of an approaching wave. I have photos of this barrel where the bare reef can be seen. It is the wave hitting this shallow promontory of the reef which causes it to pitch forward and create the barrel. If I was tipped out of a boat in front of this wave, I would make every effort to swim (walk?!) to the right to the deeper water beneath the green unbroken part of the wave.  My plans following that move have at this stage not progressed beyond keeping my head above water and returning to shore sooner rather than later. The size and shape of this wave is fine from a surfer’s point of view, but its immediate environment means it will never be ridden. When surf is breaking on this reef in this manner, it is also breaking at nearby locations in deeper water and away from reefs. That is where the surfers will be found.
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This barrel of sorts is a little more chaotic and unattractive. It’s on a different part of the reef to the wave shown in the preceding photo. I would definitely be heading for green water and staying clear of this somewhat startling little formation.

The two photos following were taken a second or two apart.

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For an ocean swimmer it is a pleasure to swim out through the shore break, alternating between duck diving under breaking waves and short little swims in green water between waves, until deeper water without breaking waves is reached. But that has nothing to do with the ‘situation’ shown in this photo. While there would be green water somewhere out the back of this turmoil, if faced with this sight from water level I would turn around and head for shore. I would keep looking back over my shoulder, and as white water caught up with me, I’d turn and face it, and duck dive or pin-drop as it passed over me, then resume swimming towards shore. Eventually I could probably body surf in on smaller broken waves. For me, this lineup of white water would be impassable, both by reason of its size and the shallowness of the water over the reefs on which it is breaking.
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This second photo in the series of two shows that the breaking waves in the previous photo were not abating, but just getting up a head of steam. That exploding white water rising vertically from the wave out the back suggests that a swimmer directly underneath it would have a strong desire to be somewhere else. You would’t have to actually see the beach flags to know that this area of ocean activity would be either left or right of them.
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Another tempting little barrel, with a seductive glassy green wall on which to complete the ride. But again, this is breaking over shallow reef.
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This is exactly the same location on the reef as the first photo in this post. Bigger waves out the back suggest this was a small wave in the set.
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Unlike a wave which breaks uniformly along its length at a beach because of the even sand or rock seabed near the shore, this wave has encountered a reef of irregular shape and depth. The wave is doing entirely different things at left, centre and right of the image. Respectively, it is barrelling, exploding and not breaking at all. The dark strip in front of the exploding wave is exposed reef. That white water has hit the reef as a breaking wave and bounced back into the air to at least twice the height of the wave. My (fanciful) plan of action here is easy. I would stay in the green channel in the foreground, with the reef on the far side and breaking water on the near side. I would expect this channel to have quite a current moving seaward as the water from the breaking waves returned out to sea. Once clear of the breaking waves either side of the channel, I could swim shorewards (hopefully).
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This photo was taken (on a much sunnier day) a couple of years ago  in a significantly larger swell at exactly the same position on the reef as the immediately preceding photo. The point of interest is that both waves share some common features caused by particular features of the reef at this location. The exposed reef is visible in front of the wave in both photos. The wave is smashing on the reef on the left side of both images. The size of the wave in the second photo is such that the wave did more than just crash on to the reef. Its height meant that when the lower part of the wave collided with the reef and its forward momentum decelerated, the considerable volume of water at the top of the wave pitched forward and created this beautiful barrel. Secondly, in both photos, on the top of the unbroken wave to the right of the white water is a narrow section of white water breaking before the parts of the wave immediately beside it. I have observed this feature on waves breaking at this exact spot on many occasions. I can only speculate that there must be a narrow elevated part of the reef beneath this point which causes this narrow part of the wave to break ahead of the rest of that part of the wave. The swell on this day produced waves of genuine consequence.
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“Coming through!” This wave is not offering options. It has a very commanding presence about it that would see all in its path desperately duck diving in the hope of experiencing something less than its full force. This wave is not breaking in deep water, which means that any flogging it administered would probably involve rough reef and projecting rocks. It has the same unstoppable air about it as a big clean up set coming through the take off point at a surf break (a larger than usual wave which breaks further out to sea and wider across the bay than the rest of the waves providing a bit of a working over for all in its path), closing out across the bay, and reminding all it steamrolls that the ocean rules.
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This is the same setup as in an earlier photo. Exposed reef, exploding wave, safe channel. This wave is ending its life, but it is certainly not ‘going gentle into that good night’.  It seems to epitomise Dylan Thomas’s poetic advice to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ This wave could not be said to be going quietly.
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Just by way of contrast, some waves do end their journey across the seas to a distant final shore with beauty and grace. Early morning wave backlit by the sun, on Apollo Bay beach up towards Wild Dog Creek.
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That three different things are happening over a short distance on this wave suggests that duck diving under this may end in tears.  Again, the hint of deeper water in the narrow green channel offers the best prospect here.

Point Bunbury, Apollo Bay

The beach immediately south of Point Bunbury has a reef lining the shore. This reef is more uniform in its structure than the Little Henty reef. So waves tend to break in a more uniform manner at this location, except where there are irregularities in the reef and channels or a change in contour of  the sandy seabed.

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But there is nothing uniform about the way this wave is breaking.  The water is a little deeper where the late-breaking part of the wave is. Not sure what’s happening with the mini breaking wave on the green face under the overhanging lip of the main part of the breaking wave. I haven’t seen such a thing before at this break. But I strongly suspect it would not be ideal for body surfing.

Two shot sequence of one wave – taken only a second or two apart.

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A channel is also the likely explanation for this late breaking central part of the wave. This wave is a whole lot more orderly than wave in the previous photo.
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The left and right sections of this wave have broken some time earlier, and are becoming simply  dissipating white water. But the centre section of the wave over the channel has just broken, with a lot of power. The offshore wind is blowing the spray well over the back.

Another two shot sequence of one wave, taken seconds apart.

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This was a big wave. Estimating the height of the face of the wave is always difficult without a surfer on it. But I’m calling this triple overhead. It looks as though it’s about to close out (break) along its length all at once. But the second photo shows that it turned into a possibly rideable right – but given how close it was to shore, it would have been a glorious but brief ride before the wave shut down and slammed anyone still on it into the sandy seabed, who would eventually surface connected to the half of their broken surfboard with the legroom attached.
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This is more water than I would like landing on my head. Yeah yeah, I know about Nazare, Mavericks, the Cortes Bank and all the rest, and about those who ride there and take much bigger waves than this on the head. But back to me. I repeat, I would not like this much water landing on my head. Water weighs 1 tonne per cubic metre. A wave like this is probably moving horizontally at twenty-something kph. Then there is that fat white lip of solid water which is moving forward and falling due to gravity. Upon being rag-dolled in his shallows water by such a wave, after being surprised that I surfaced at all, I would not be at all surprised to observe that   my wetsuit was now being worn inside out.
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This wave is totally closing out. There is no rideable section of it. When the water throws forward and falls as is happening here, it’s creates a lot more turbulence on and under the water than when white water simply spills down a gentler angled green face of the wave.
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This wave is also closing out. The fact that it is doing so evenly along a substantial section, indicates that there is a relatively level seabed under it. The sections left and right of the white water which are still green but about to break, indicate that the water is slightly deeper there. That is, it looks as though there is a bit of a mound in the seabed where the wave is breaking, making it slightly shallower there. This seabed shape is the converse of the situation shown in the first three photos above under the Pt Bunbury sub-heading in which a channel in the middle of the wave deferred the moment at which the middle of the wave broke.

These next two photos show two different waves breaking in about the same location just south of Pt Bunbury.  There is a reef near the shore  in the area near where they are breaking.

These are big, solid, majestic waves.

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A wave of substance.

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