Storm Surf

Whenever a solid swell is forecast for this coast, some locals in Apollo Bay quietly start to pay just a little more attention to the weather maps, to their tried and tested omens and to the feeling in their bones. They gaze out to the horizon for signs of swell, they judge the frequency and size of the small swell breaking in the bay hoping to be able to describe it as ‘building’, and they keep checking for any visible action on the bombies a few kms offshore. Surfers, fishing boat skippers, swimmers and photographers are among those who will be variously delighted, thwarted or simply awestruck if the Southern Ocean delivers big swell from storms gathering in the cold and desolate southern latitudes well to the south of the Great Australian Bight. The trajectory of the low pressure systems and the associated cold fronts and troughs will be closely followed to learn whether, or where and with what force the weather will hit the Victorian west coast.

The forecast

The following information and forecasts (screenshots from my iPhone) are the first omens I consulted when there was talk of solid swell on the way. They were auspicious enough to warrant me charging up the camera batteries, preparing the wet weather gear and getting just a bit excited about the reasonable prospect of big swell on May 1 and 2 at Apollo Bay and along the Victorian west coast generally.

Waiting

The swell was forecast for Friday and Saturday on the first two days of May. So on the last day of April I visited the local reefs and a point where any early signs of swell would be apparent. I have seen forecasts of sizeable swell which failed to deliver. I have also seen substantial swell when none was forecast.

But last Thursday, on the eve of its forecast day of arrival there was no swell.

But the permanent Australian fur seal colony on the Marengo reefs was present, and the late afternoon light was beautifully clear. They were crowded up a little as it was high tide, and above-water real estate on which to loll was at a premium. But no sign of any swell.
Late afternoon showers were passing through the area. The seal colony is directly under the end of the rainbow.
The telephoto lens was almost up to this task. Most seals have adopted the traditional resting posture with head held proudly high, like so many lifelike bronze statues. The one on the far right has chosen comfort and sloth over style.

The swell arrives

The wind backed around on Thursday night and increased to gale force. The swell arrived on schedule. Winds gusting over 40kts, heavy showers and stormy seas delivered more than I, and probably others, expected. This shot was taken looking south from Hayley Point at Marengo on the Saturday morning. The Australasian gannet above was effortlessly and (so it seemed to me) exuberantly soaring the storm.
This was also taken looking due south from Hayley Point, as one of the early waves in a big set closed out in this spectacular fashion on the reef. I was on a rocky headland, and while I didn’t feel the ground shake, I felt as though I should have. It was an awesome sight. So much power.

A-row for Southern Ocean watchers

Bottom to top: Barham River, Mounts Bay and Marengo. This swell had arrived from the south west and rounded Hayley Point to cross the bay directly into the westerly wind as a substantially smaller but still powerful wave.
Squall lines were coming through in a constant succession. Heavy rain obscured the hills to the north of Apollo Bay. The grey clear strip under the power poles in centre frame is part of the Great Ocean Road.
Wider shot of the same view as in the previous shot, but between squalls. The telephoto lens set to a focal length of 600mm significantly foreshortened the scene, making the Wild Dog Creek valley and hills beyond look closer than they would to the naked eye.

Storm waves on Marengo reefs and south of Hayley Point

Hayley Point, with my regular eyrie for taking photos of the ocean right on the tip near that notch in the scrub line. This photo shows some different stages of a sizeable wave breaking on the reef. On the far right the massive lip has thrown out and is cascading as a giant curtain with white water along the lip and solid curves of green and aqua water flowing down as the tonnes of water in the wave are thrown forward and down. The wave on the left shows the white water having crashed down into the reef ricocheting back into the air in great clouds of white water. Such water often reaches a height as great or greater than the height of the original wave before it broke. The centre section of breaking waves shows the wave finally dissipating and coming ashore, almost completely spent, as merely a two metre wall of white water with spray blowing back off it.
This was taken looking south west from Hayley Point as a massive set pounded its way to shore. There are three waves of this set visible in the photo, and all consist entirely of white water. Top left, through the curtain of spray, the crest of another wave just starting to break can be seen. The show put on by this set did not end at the three waves shown above.
I spent about 90 minutes taking these photos, standing on my usual windswept grassy vantage point beside the reefs. Very heavy rain squalls were coming through, without much respite between them. I have an ingenious waterproof covering for my camera and telephoto lens which keeps them totally dry. I have full access to all camera adjustments and controls when using the cover in driving rain. I wear a snow coat with a hood, my motorbike waterproof pants, and a pair of waterproof boots. I am pleased to report that this allows me and the camera to stay completely dry in the heaviest of rain. The waterproof gear is useful not so much for taking photos in the rain, but for allowing me to stay on a given location during the rain so I can take photos in the periods when it is not raining.

Hooded plover and a sooty oyster catcher

The reef on the shoreline was being successfully foraged on by this little hooded plover and his mate. They seemed to find plenty to feed on. When white water approached from behind, as I have observed on this day and many other days their first reaction was to run rather than to fly, choosing the latter only when absolutely necessary. This bird might have had to counteract a a bit of an uncommanded turn to the left in flight due to the orange plastic tag and the metal band on his leg. Difficult to see why two tags were needed.
Sooty oyster catcher with no oysters in sight. His diet apparently extends well beyond oysters (and in this part of the world his diet may not even include oysters), but the more accurate alternative name of ‘crustacean, worm, bivalve mollusc, starfish and sea urchin catcher, not to mention small fish catcher’, was probably considered too unwieldy. I’m sure the sight of that over-engineered beak strikes fear into the heart of bivalve molluscs.
The swim record was my daily 1000+m swim, in a location sheltered from the big swell.

The majesty and power of the Southern Ocean in a storm

I have never seen (in person) a more intimidating storm wave than this one. It was overcast when this was taken and there were heavy showers in the area. If you peer through the spray blowing over the back of this wave you can see the horizon and whitecaps on breaking waves out to sea.

Postscript

I saw a fin

Ocean swimming is a favourite activity of mine. I have been doing it for many years. One way or another, I have been playing in the ocean for over 50 years. During that period the only sharks I have ever seen in the water are (harmless) reef sharks while snorkelling in the Solomon Islands, a bronze whaler (which seemed to ignore us) while swimming in the shore break at Fishery Bay near Pt Lincoln in South Australia, and a number of large great whites off Neptune Island while on a cage dive organised for that purpose. I have thought about the topic a bit, and my carefully considered view is that seeing a shark in the water, much less being attacked by one, is a very low risk at the places I choose to swim. I remain of that view.

Today was my 48th consecutive day of swimming 1000m or more in the ocean at Apollo Bay (a continuing little project of mine during the pandemic lockdown). I swam a short distance in the bay, then topped up for my 1000m in the harbour. Those 48 swims included one night swim.

I swam out from the harbour wall this morning heading for the wooden lookout for a 1000m round trip. The crew I usually swim with were all leaving the water as I headed off. I had the bay entirely to myself. About 300m from where I entered the water, and about 180m offshore, I was swimming in a leisurely rhythm against a slight head current just enjoying the space and peace. I was not in a rush, and I didn’t care that my Garmin watch indicated I was closer to 3:00/100 pace than 2:00/100m. Each time I breathed to the left I could see the passing scenery on shore and knew the ramp and walkway up to the SLSC were about to come into my direct line of sight. There was nothing and no one to disturb my relaxing reverie. But then there was something.

About 20m to my left I saw a shiny dark dorsal fin emerge while moving south (the opposite direction to me). I saw it surface, stay level for a short time and then subside not to be seen by me again. It did not appear to change speed or direction as we passed each other. I immediately turned left 90° and headed to shore by the most direct route. It was more a case of observing that I did this, rather than recalling any conscious decision to head to shore. I am pleased that I turned before I had a chance to think about it. No point wasting time making decisions. I sensed no adrenaline rush or racing pulse or altered breathing rate. But I did increase my pace and take a few looks over each shoulder to see if the fin or its owner had reappeared. I also hoped to see a few dolphins swimming nearby as had occurred recently when swimming not far from here with four of my swimming friends. But there was no fin and there was no pod of dolphins. There was nothing but glassy ocean.

At one point on the return to shore, without losing forward speed I rolled through 360° changing from freestyle to a couple of strokes of backstroke then back to freestyle, to allow a quick look at the ocean behind me. No fin. Nothing to see to offer a chance at identifying what had swum past me. Just glassy water. My normal roll and breathe routine sees me looking out to each side at about 90 degrees to my direction of travel. The swim to shore for much of the journey saw me looking back over each shoulder as I breathed. I was conscious that I was swimming harder and faster than usual, and I do remember deciding it was probably best to keep doing that. I do remember thinking I should splash as little as possible. I kept swimming until my fingertips were brushing the sand. I was definitely pleased to stand up in shin deep water. I stood on the shore for a while looking out to sea for something, anything that would inform me as to how to file this experience. But there was nothing.

Upon reflection, I would certainly leave the water immediately if this happened again. An ocean swimmer responds to a solitary dorsal fin nearby (with an unidentified owner) the way a chicken responds to the silhouette of a hawk in the sky above it, whether it’s a cardboard cutout or a raptor with intent. But was it a shark or a dolphin? There is no way to reach a sound conclusion either way. There are solid entries for column A and column B. I don’t have enough information to resolve what it was. The fin did not have that inward curve on the trailing edge typical of a dolphin fin. Also, the movement I saw was not the familiar top of the parabola appearance and disappearance of the fin and part of the body – there was no hint of ‘porpoising’. Further, it only surfaced once while I was looking, which is not typical of dolphin behaviour I have witnessed. I understand dolphins can swim alone, but most that I have ever seen around here are in pairs or larger groups. The fin owner appeared to be swimming alone. It was definitely not a seal. I saw no disturbance of water behind the trail of the fin which could have suggested a vertical shark fin. Yet it showed no interest in me. The most recent swim I had with dolphins (with four friends) saw them acknowledge our presence and swim towards us from a distance of greater than 20m. The fin was of a size which gave the impression of something bigger than me, but not something huge.

I intend to continue to leave the water when solitary dark dorsal fins on unidentified creatures swim in my vicinity. Today’s prematurely concluded swim must be filed as merely an interesting experience. I will of course continue to swim in the bay.

The unimpressive track of my brief swim. Note the initial relaxed pace of 2:32/100m at 60 strokes per minute (the watch records only the left arm, hence 30spm = 60spm).

This initial relaxed pace contrasts with my pace after the 90° turn. My initial pace improved from 2:32/100m to 1:56/100m, and my stroke rate went up from 60 to 68. The second window shows that I then settled down to a steady 2:00/100m pace, but at 70 strokes per minute which I sustained!

Not worried, just interval training.

4 thoughts on “Storm Surf

  1. Hi John.

    Well that post is like eating a 10 course degustation menu. Very appetising, but the dessert at the end was clearly the show stopper. As a segue, I’ve heard you say many times, “we’re not on their menu”. A gripping read and what can we conclude? A fellow traveller, a mere passing between creatures on separate journeys. I guffawed at your description of the 360 degree roll from freestyle to backstroke. With all that drag and still recording those numbers, you were swimming with an outboard motor. Waterman turns Stuntman. John, with all the swimming you’re doing, it would be a surprise if you didn’t once see a fin.

    I loved the shots of the plover and the hopeful oyster catcher with its vibrant orange weapon at the ready. As for your intimidating wave, what awe. A moustachioed mouth, gorging all in its path. Thank you for rugging up to entertain us.

    Cheers

    Hunto

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, seeing a solitary fin on a solo ocean swim 180m offshore on the west coast has always been on the cards Hunto. That prospect has not worried me, and seeing a fin close by didn’t worry me either, once I had made it to ankle deep water!
      Pleased you enjoyed the photos.
      I can see that photo of the wave immediately preceding the postscript above making it to a wall at Cawood St some time.

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  2. most of all re ‘the fin’ I love your comment ‘not worried, just interval training’
    but planned rather than unplanned interval training next time John
    and I’m glad you haven’t be put off getting to number 50 come Wednesday
    cheers, Richard

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was literally a 1 in 50 year unidentified dorsal fin sighting for me Richard. So all good. Swimming at Marengo tomorrow morning. It’s a location which regularly provides unplanned opportunities for interval training, due to currents rather than creatures. But as I know that, and as I’m planning to go there, I guess that makes it planned interval training.

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