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 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.
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.
The swell arrives
A-row for Southern Ocean watchers
Storm waves on Marengo reefs and south of Hayley Point
Hooded plover and a sooty oyster catcher
The majesty and power of the Southern Ocean in a storm
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 answer this with complete certainty. But such evidence as there is tends to clearly favour the conclusion that it was a shark rather than a dolphin. 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 know from experience that dolphins do sometimes 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. 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.
My opinion based on the above is that it was not a dolphin, and that it was a shark of some sort – perhaps a Mako shark.
I intend to continue to leave the water when solitary dark dorsal fins appear 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.