My first underwater look at Little Henty Reef, Apollo Bay

I mentioned to a swimming friend who is married to a shark fisherman that I was planning to go snorkelling at Little Henty Reef. “Shark Alley!” was her response, albeit with a smile. Well, there is a seal colony (non-breeding) on one of the higher exposed sections of the reef. But surfers surf this reef, kayakers regularly paddle around it and there are often swimmers in the shallows. I have also heard that local snorkellers are happy to swim at this location. I asked around. I concluded it was a reasonable thing to snorkel on the inner reef, in appropriately calm conditions between tides. I see no reason why this water should be any more ‘sharky’ than the other places where I swim in this area.

The Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary is a short distance south of Apollo Bay. This protected area encompasses the Little Henty reefs and a total of about 12 hectares of ocean. It is rich in marine life. The reef furthest from shore is permanent home to a colony of about 100 Australian fur seals.

Little Henty Reef is at the southern end of Mounts Bay. Strong tidal currents and rips often surge between the reefs. These reefs are also the first landfall of big swells generated to the south west in the roaring forties. I have seen triple overhead surf on and around these reefs. Snorkelling can only be contemplated in low or no swell conditions, and ideally on or near a low tide. But calm water in this area is never still water. There are always currents of varying direction and force to consider carefully.

The inner reef of Little Henty which looks to be on the horizon is in fact only 150m or so offshore. From front to back: Mike, Hamish and Nadine who kindly offered to accompany us in her kayak to keep a lookout for any additional company in the water. A strong front with solid rain showers and big winds came through earlier in the afternoon. But by late in the day, despite it being overcast, the wind had dropped and sea conditions were as shown. We seized the moment on short notice as conditions abated. We entered the water half an hour before low tide. I expected there to be a fading current from north to south as the last of the tide ebbed out. But it became immediately apparent as we swam out that the current, unexpectedly, was going the other way and was reasonably strong. We had to aim for the reef with a significant drift angle to our right. I am still contemplating whether the forecast time for low tide was in error, or whether there is some other explanation for the current going north in the opposite direction to the outgoing tide. The current eased a little once we were in the shallows near the reef. But we still had to swim strongly going south, and could drift at a comfortable speed going north.
Mike at the northern end of the reef closest to shore. The seabed between here and the shore was only about 10-12 feet deep. There wasn’t much plant life until we got near the reef, where it was flourishing. There were many and varied fish species in the seaweed and kelp beds near the reef.
Mike & Hamish by the reef after swimming only 150m or so. Low threshold for a high five, but why not.
Nadine keeping a watchful eye out for us.
Kelp beds swaying in the currents.
A dozen or more smallish fish swimming past me just below the surface. Whiting?
The high point on the hills on the horizon is Marriners Lookout, which overlooks the township of Apollo Bay. To the left of frame are the sand dunes along the beach in Mounts Bay. The line of rocks on the right is the northern end of Little Henty Reef.
Bomp Bomp Bomp Bomp…..
Mike and I were heading north in reasonably shallow water over dense areas of kelp and seaweed. This is where the fish were. This stingray was heading south, no doubt looking for dinner. We had the current behind us, and when I touched Mike’s arm to point out that he and the stingray were heading for each other, the current kept him going for longer than he might’ve preferred. But the stingray was across the situation, and at quite close quarters did a right hand turn away from us out into the deeper water.
So much about a stingray swimming looks to me like flying. The fact that they have wings adds to this impression. They are very graceful.
Hamish enjoying the scenery and showing off his Apple watch as it resists splashes while not claiming to be waterproof.
At the southern end of the small reef the water between the reef and the shore was much deeper. You can see it falling away in the lower right of this photo.
Swimming this close to the marine plant life meant that we came across most fish quite suddenly. We saw quite a few sizeable fish. When swimming with the current, there was no need to kick or swim – we just drifted with it.
I have no idea whether this is a zebra fish, but it should be. The underwater gardens were fresh and almost tropically luxuriant. The colours were vibrant – not bad for early evening on an overcast day.
This plant species no doubt has a name, but seaweed is as specific as I can get without further research. The clean white sand was a feature of this area. Because there was movement of the water, visibility was less than in the rock pools I visit, but it was still very good.
Background: Marengo township. Foreground: Mike using his long arm to check the depth.
I think this was the same stingray we saw earlier. Seems we were both doing laps up and down the seaweed and kelp beds.
Once again, it headed away from me to deeper water. Stingrays in my experience are not aggressive creatures. They are quite gentle, and sometimes even a bit inquisitive of humans swimming near them. I have had them follow me, and swim slowly around me. But that stinger on the tail remains worth avoiding.
Silent low flying.
On the right, the deeper water near the southern end of the reef can be seen.
Swimming against the current required a few more horse power. At least the fish knew we were coming.
Nadine and Mike.
Mike looking a bit sceptical about Hamish’s fish size story.
L to R: Hamish, me and Mike. Marengo point in the background. This was taken just before we headed back across the short pass to the beach. Once again, the south to north current was as strong as when we first entered the water, requiring a drift angle of 30-40° to end up where we wanted near our car.

I often swim for an hour or more in the ocean at Apollo Bay for the pure enjoyment of it. I don’t feel cold after these swims because I wear a wetsuit. But I found it interesting that even though I wore my winter Patagonia suit on this summer snorkelling excursion, and despite not hurrying my time under the hot outdoor shower when I got home, it took me a while to warm up. I suppose I got colder quicker because snorkelling is a lot less active than swimming non-stop freestyle. I was not back to my normal operating temperature until after my battered flake, two scallops, min chips and a potato cake. Of course no other meal could even be considered after such a swim.

When swimming in southern latitudes near the 40th parallel (38.75°S to be precise), with or without a wetsuit, the hypothermia clock is always ticking.

Just for comparison, these photos were taken about three weeks ago at a location on the Little Henty reefs about 300m from our snorkelling location. This was not a snorkelling day. (For more photos of big swell breaking on and near these reefs, see the post on this blog titled ‘Summer Solstice Swell’, posted 24 December 2019).

6 thoughts on “My first underwater look at Little Henty Reef, Apollo Bay

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