Big clean swell at a remote break on the Great Australian Bight May 2023

Saturday dawned bright and still over on the edge of the Great Australian Bight. A powerful and glassy swell was rolling in, to be perfected an hour or so later by a light offshore wind. I knew that all along this coast local surfers would be paddling out at remote breaks not marked by signposts and not visited by strangers.

There are stories of some of the local crew at such breaks treating any would-be visitors (whether surfing, or on the shore with a camera or just watching) with stony silence, and on some occasions more directly and forcefully, to deliver the message that they are unwelcome. As I was on a 4,000km+ solo motorbike ride around South Australia, with no contacts in the west coast surfing community at all, I decided to pass on seeking out an opportunity to be the uninvited solo visitor at some secret location with a professional looking telephoto lens taking photos of surfers in this exceptional swell. I settled for plan B which was photographing a silver gull over the sea in hostile pursuit of a juvenile Pacific gull with a morsel in its beak.

Then the driver of a jet ski, idling along at low speed beside the jetty from which I was photographing the birds, called out to me. My day was about to change.

He asked me over the burble of his idling jet ski if I’d take some photos of his son surfing at a break down the coast. He was excited about the conditions, and confident that some epic barrel rides would be on offer this morning. My camera had the 150-600mm telephoto lens fitted. It looks similar to what real surf photographers use. I have no idea what he assumed about me other than that I had the camera for the job. I said yes, and he shouted out directions by ‘road’ to a vantage point on the cliffs above the break. The instructions were verging on detailed and lengthy and I was not completely confident I’d find the location. He told me a few vehicles would have travelled down the track this morning leaving fresh tracks. He mentioned the name of the break but I had never heard of it. We introduced ourselves (he’s Jeff and his son is Josiah), and I got his Insta account name so I could forward some photos to him if I took any worth passing on. This seemed to me to be a fair and mutually beneficial arrangement. How it would be received by other surfers at the site was an unknown. In our brief conversation we established that a friend of Jeff’s in Apollo Bay was known to me. Jeff then disappeared at speed out to sea on his journey to link up with his son. As things turned out, I met up with him by chance later in the day. He told me that after our brief meeting in the morning he did not think he would see or hear from me again.

The route to the beach was circuitous and included poor quality dirt roads, narrow winding tracks with protruding and loose rocks, and sandy goat tracks. For much of the ride I had to stand on the pegs to stay stable and upright. It was quite a distance and a slow ride. The mighty GS did not let me down. I was not certain I was on exactly the right track, but I was eventually rewarded with the distant sight of a handful of vehicles lined up on a cliff top pointing out to sea. I parked the bike and unloaded the camera after I had looked over the cliff edge and confirmed there was a jet ski towing a surfer. I was at the right spot. There was also a crew of paddle-in surfers at a take off spot nowhere near as deep as where the surfer being towed was dropping the rope and reliably finding long barrel rides.

The sixth photo above shows how the fresh tracks of the vehicles who had gone before me that morning resolved the issue of which way to go at this fork.

I was not sure what the outcome would be of me walking to the group at the edge of the cliff and commencing to take photos, but taking people as I find them has worked well for me to date. So I walked over. I ventured that the swell looked good and I had barely pressed the shutter when I was asked, “What are you going to do with the photos?” The tone suggested this was possibly a rhetorical question by way of introduction to an unhappy conversation. The silent and seemingly rapt attention of those waiting for my answer seemed something other than courteous and welcoming group-interest in a stranger who might become a new friend. I briefly explained the circumstances of my presence and that the photos of Josiah were being taken at the request of Jeff. This was apparently sufficient for my questioner to resume gazing out to sea without any further conversation. I resumed taking photos. Thereafter the majority opted for the style of social interaction an invisible person might receive at a gathering. I was content with that.

Over the next ninety minutes or so I had enjoyable and interesting conversations with a couple of friendlier local surfers. They confirmed that it was Jeff and Josiah using the jet ski out there. It turned out that we knew some of the same people from my days on the west coast over forty years earlier. I didn’t know this break existed until that Saturday, and even if I knew its name I would never have found it without directions. Had I known the location, I still wouldn’t have attended and taken photos without the invitation from a local surfer to do so. All things considered, I felt it a privilege to be there. As photographic missions go, it was a significant upgrade from photographing squabbling sea gulls. As surfing sessions go, it was a great morning.

One of the surfers apparently owned this lovely dog, which surely has more than a bit of dingo in him. He faithfully watched his surfing person, and eventually sent a few mournful howls over the waves to make his feelings known. Some paddle in surfers are in this photo behind the white water on the right-hand side of the image. There was no shortage of swell.

The first three photos are of Josiah. The ‘air’ was an exuberant exit from a wave.

Four photos of Jeff and Josiah making the most of these quality barrels. There were some very long barrel rides on this morning. On one occasion, I stopped shooting as the surfer had been out of sight so long I was sure he was had come off his board. But he eventually emerged from the longest barrel ride I have ever witnessed. Unfortunately, taking a surf photo from directly in front of the wave as I was doing, is not the best angle for barrels. But it was the best and only vantage point available to me. The only way to get a shot looking straight down the line of the wave is from a point beside a point break, or best of all from a jet ski or a camera in the water. Jeff was taking some video of the barrel rides from the perfect angle while driving his jet ski. I saw some of the footage later. It was excellent viewing.

The surfer in the main photo immediately above is Josiah. Jeff told me later that the ski sustained some damage during the session. I also learned later that during the session Josiah snapped fins out on one board, broke one on the following wave, received a mild concussion and some damage to his back, and dislocated his shoulder. He was able to put his shoulder back in, but called it a session after that. He was the stand out surfer on the day as I saw things from the cliff top. He was surfing a board about 6 feet long. Jeff and Josiah contacted me for some photos of the session. I sent them my pick of the best 13 shots. It was good to be able to give as well as take.

The three small images above are of Josiah. The second two of them show him executing a stylish cutback. The larger photo is of another surfer exiting a big barrel at speed.

This photo of the cutback probably deserves to be repeated here in larger format.

Jeff on the ski – always exactly where he was needed.

Jeff and Josiah towards the end of the session.

On my ride back out of the scrub, for the first time I used the back-track function on my new Garmin Zumo XT GPS to remove any navigation doubts I might otherwise have had. This function automatically saves the route of the last sector ridden ie from when I last started the bike to when I turned it off. It then clearly displays that route in reverse for me to follow to get back to where I started. It worked perfectly.

This pool is directly below the cliffs from which I was taking photos of the surfers. It looked very inviting. Next visit I’ll bring my mask and snorkel. No plans at present to bring the longboard.

During the period of surfing captured in the photos above, tragically, a local surfer from Elliston on the west coast was taken by a shark at Walkers Rock Beach. As Jeff said, the west coast gives and takes away. This was not the first shark fatality on this coast.

7 thoughts on “Big clean swell at a remote break on the Great Australian Bight May 2023

  1. You need to get back around the otway for this coming weekend/week…20ft plus in some spots along that coast….your the man to get it done.Ps – to be people watching in on the conversation you would’ve had with the local surfers- so much going on id say sizing you up & what you were about ha ha Pps- You know your blog has underground cult following!!Keep on  keeping on Langmead Sent from my Galaxy

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your email and new blog John!! Sounds like you’ve had an adventure, those waves were amazing and I bet father and son were rapt to have them! Hope to catch you soon! Cheers Boo 😊

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Boo. Yes, this ride did feel like a bit of an adventure. I have never witnessed surf of this quality before. Father and son were pleased with the photos. Hope we can have a swim or a snorkel soon Boo. Cheers, John


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