Lake Elizabeth in the Otway Ranges (Victoria, Australia) was formed in mid-winter 1952 when the East Branch of the Barwon River was blocked by a landslide. 1952 was an unseasonably wet winter. When the river stopped flowing, a search party was sent upstream and the new naturally formed dam wall and lake were discovered.
It is a place of compelling stillness, coolness and beauty.
The experience of sunrise is greatly enhanced by full immersion in cold ocean water. It is not possible to feel anything other than fully alive when greeting the day in this manner.
Indeed, in late August at Apollo Bay it is not possible to feel anything much at all after a lengthy ocean swim, apart from exhilaration. Fingers and toes cease sending messages to mission control, the gift of speech is reduced to short words only understandable if accompanied by sign language, and whistling is completely impossible until after the administration of hot tea or coffee. But the water on this day was 14°C, which is cool rather than cold.
Sunrise at Marengo in autumn
Moderate swell on Little Henty Reef off Hayley Point
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 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!
Images from recent days in Apollo Bay doing stuff that requires only time – all within walking distance of home.
The New Holland Honeyeater and the House Sparrow
These birds literally flew between my camera lens and the surf break I was trying to focus on. They landed on cliff-top scrub that was just below my line of sight to the reef. As there were lengthy breaks between sets of waves, I wound the telephoto lens right back and took a few shots of these feathery little photo bombers from close quarters.
Ocean scenery & ocean swims
The first two swims were done in the conditions and at the times and locations shown in the photos with the sunrise and the steps. The third swim was done in calm water – I just love the photo (which showed the conditions about two kms south of where I swam).
Surf & Surfers
Seamus looking for speed as the lip started to throw out overhead. The other photo shows the end of the ride on this wave, with Australian fur seals relaxing on the reef in the background.
Tommy can certainly lay claim to paddling out and over an unbroken section of this interesting and unrideable wave. But the wave he was heading out to ride was on the break to his right as he paddled out (as shown top right), which while not quite as spectacular, was eminently rideable.
The third photo was taken as the wave was closing out, the ride was over, and Tommy decided to bail out over the back of the wave. The photo captured the moment when it appeared he was levitating from the deck of his board to achieve this exit.
Leroy is over 60 and surfs like a young bloke.
Angus is a young bloke who was giving it a red hot go on this day. Those are his feet in the air on the left as he decided against a duck dive on the board, and simply dived for depth relying on the leg rope to bring his surfboard with him. It was a solid wall of white water. The timing of his dive looked pretty good to me.
This is Angus completing a long ride by pulling on a bit of speed then shooting up the face of the fading wave and through the crest of white water for an exuberant airborne exit over the back.
In these difficult times we need the facts. But we don’t need them 24 hours a day. I offer these images hoping they might provide an agreeable distraction and an opportunity to be pleasantly lost in your own thoughts of other things and other places, even if only briefly, upon contemplating the scenes below.
These photos were all taken in or near Apollo Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.
Apollo Bay in Autumn
The Southern Ocean
My photographer’s eyrie, sheltered from the wind and overlooking Little Henty Reef and the Southern Ocean beyond.
That white spot on the grass is a rock I put there to rest my camera monopod on so the camera is at a comfortable height on the sloping ground.
The Australasian gannet has a remarkable set of flying and feeding skills. It is also a very beautiful bird.
It’s perfectly adapted for flying and soaring, as well as for diving at high speed into the sea to catch fish. An Australasian gannet can fly in excess of 500km in a day seeking food, at speeds of 35-40 knots. It soars whenever possible on its outstretched 2m wings. I admire the capabilities of this bird.
They sometimes herd fish (pilchards are favourites) into dense shoals by soaring 10m or so above the surface. Then they dive and eat. They fold their wings back to dive from heights of 15m or so, with the ability to repeatedly dive to depths of 15-20m. They can also dive effectively from lower heights, usually done in rougher conditions. They hit the water at speeds up to 80kph (some say higher speeds are reached in the dive) and can propel themselves and manoeuvre under water (i.e. swim!) using their wings. They have been observed to catch as many as five fish in a single dive. Their eyesight is specially adapted for the underwater phase of their hunting. They only stay underwater for around 10 seconds but will generally swallow the fish before surfacing. I have witnessed a group of Australasian gannets plunge diving en masse and feeding very successfully offshore at Apollo Bay (photos below). It’s a great spectacle.
The gannets are found mainly in southern and eastern Australia and New Zealand. There are established gannet migration routes between these countries. They are very strong flyers, and fly well out to sea for food, as well as between Australia and NZ on migration journeys. Gannets from Australia have been recorded flying as far afield as Mauritius and New Zealand. But more typically, they fly long distances around the southern half of the Australian coastline. Fledglings leave the nest around 100 days after hatching. They travel many thousands of kms until around the age of three they return to their home nest to begin breeding when they are 4-7 years old.
They nest and raise their young between July and April. The period of incubation of a gannet is around 40 days. The young birds fledge around 90-100 days after hatching, and are able to fly from this time.
They live to around 25 years old, and form monogamous long term relationships with breeding partners.
What an interesting and impressive bird! They are also one of the most elegant and beautiful seabirds to grace our coast.
The Gannet Colony at Point Danger
How Gannets Relax
Fledglings and Chicks
Landing approaches at the busy Pt Danger breeding colony
Gannets on the wing
These are Australasian gannets plunge diving on a school of fish. It’s a spectacular thing to see – the vertical dive, with the last minute folding away of everything that might come unstuck upon hitting the water at up to 80kph, the fearless beak first entry at maximum speed, then the dive to perhaps 15m or so using its wings underwater to swim and manoeuvre. Fish are caught and often eaten before the bird surfaces. These photos were taken from the shore at Apollo Bay in December last year. Please excuse the poor quality of these photos – the birds were feeding over 600m offshore, the sky was overcast and this was the best the big tele lens could do.
The Australasian gannet species is not under threat. The populations are in fact growing in both Australia and New Zealand.
It was a wonderful privilege to spend an hour or more with these gannets. The pleasure was added to by their utter lack of concern at my presence. Opportunities to observe such wild and beautiful birds up close and in their natural habitat are rare. Prior to visiting this breeding colony, the best gannet sightings (and photos) I had were of them soaring high above me over a beach near Freycinet in Tasmania. My hour at home with the gannets was memorable.
As a young pilot flying around the west coast of South Australia and across the vast deserts to the north in the late 1970s, I saw so much that was new and mesmerising that I bought a Nikon 35mm film camera and snapped away whenever I was awestruck, which was often. That habit has persisted to this day.
Taking photos for so many years has taught me to be observant and patient in capturing an image worth keeping. These habits have proved particularly rewarding when it comes to taking photos of birds. Serendipity has also played a role. With one exception, all the birds in the photos below (nearly all of which were taken in and around Apollo Bay), I encountered by chance. The exception is the eastern great egret. I first encountered this bird by chance, and was enthralled by the protracted slow motion dance of us staying close yet keeping our distance around the mudflats at the mouth of the Barham River. But I now know where that bird lives and what the rules are, and have sought him out with success on many occasions.
Upon first coming to Apollo Bay, I thought that seagulls, cormorants, sparrows, magpies and cockies, with the occasional wedge tailed eagle over Marriners Lookout pretty much summed up the bird life in the area. How wrong I was.
These photos have all appeared on my blog. But in compiling the photos for this post I am working on the assumption that nobody has followed/read this blog from its commencement, or devoted a substantial part of their annual leave to immersing themselves in the back catalogue.
I wish to share with readers through this collection of favourites of mine, the beauty, the majesty and the sheer wonder of some of the birds I have encountered and photographed in the paradise that is Apollo Bay and its immediate surrounds.
This post is all about the photos. The words are superfluous, so please treat reading the comments as entirely optional.
Sooty Oyster Catcher
Pied Oyster Catcher
Eastern Great Egret
A truly exquisite bird.
The song of the magpie is second to none. It is truly beautiful and uplifting. I got to know this particular male magpie over three breeding seasons. Its territory is in and around my house and the tree lined creek beside it, and up and down the street I’m on. I have watched it rear young with its mate (two young for each year I have observed). This bird would come down from a lamp post and land at my feet upon being called by me. It was also familiar with my house, and would peck on the front door or adjacent window. It would also look through windows and find me in the house. It knew when I was getting something from my special stash of approved maggie tucker, and would head to the nearest door before I did. It would take the food from my hand, and sometimes then stay put on the balcony rail, as if for the company. Sometimes when I was using the outdoor shower after a swim, this bird would land near me and throw its head back and treat me to a song or two, while enjoying a bit of splash from the shower. This species likes to interact with humans, and many householders in Australia have a special relationship with their local maggies. They are very territorial.
Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoo
New Holland Honeyeater
This tiny darting little bird lives on nectar, and sometimes insects. It moves too frequently and quickly for an observer to have any hope of ascertaining its true beauty. The photo yields wonderful surprises with this little bird.
Weather generated in the roaring forties hits this part of the world with glorious force. The reason is that Apollo Bay is just around the corner from Cape Otway which extends unprotected into the Southern Ocean.
The Southern Ocean in a post-frontal gale
Summer announced its arrival around here with a series of cold fronts and all that comes with them. Gale force winds and rough seas swept in from the west and south west.
A glassy wave in the lee of the headland at Wye River
The story of these few shots is simple. I was driving to Apollo Bay and passing through Wye River. I watched the rain shower passing over Wye as I approached from the east. As I climbed up the hill after crossing the river and passing the general store, the rain was receding to my east, and the sun was shining from the west, with the inevitable result. I did a quick U turn and parked illegally but sort of out of the way, and caught these couple of shots before the rainbow disappeared.
A storm sweeping across Apollo Bay
These six images were taken in late winter. The passage over Apollo Bay and surrounding coast of this substantial cumulo-nimbus cloud included very heavy rain and hail. I didn’t see any lightning or hear any thunder. Between the squall lines which brought this storm were short periods of bright sunshine. An irresistible light combination for a photographer.
The Great Cormorant on a low level mission over the shore break
I was standing on the point at Lorne looking towards Split Point lighthouse at Aireys Inlet, when two great cormorants (their formal name, not my adjective) flew fast and low straight towards me then straight past me. I captured what I could.
Australasian Gannets feeding 600m offshore at Apollo Bay
I have included these five shots because of the interesting bird behaviour they show. They are of poor photographic quality, principally because this activity was happening 600m offshore from where I was standing. I know the distance because they were diving near an orange buoy I sometimes swim around, and I have measured the distance with my GPS watch. The 150-600mm telephoto lens was set at a focal length of 600mm for these photos.
The Australasian gannet cooperates with other birds to round up fish in a loose sort of way, then they dive at high speed into the water and catch them at depths up to 40 feet or so. They can swim and manoeuvre quite well under water. The fish is generally swallowed before they surface. These birds are also great flyers. Many have been recorded flying between Australia and New Zealand. Their large wings are built for soaring and efficient flying. It is therefore all the more remarkable that they can tuck the wings in so well to permit a streamlined high speed dive and entry into the water, without doing any damage to themselves.
A photographic offering in praise of the surprisingly beautiful New Holland honeyeater.
The New Holland honeyeater is hyperactive. It would make a blowfly around food at midday on a hot summer’s day look lethargic. In the time it took to take the photos below, I didn’t see one sit still for more than a few seconds. Capturing a photo at all, much less one that was in focus, was not easy. This bird is present in large numbers around Apollo Bay, and seems to favour the coastal vegetation belts. One of my bird books claims it is one of 76 species of honeyeater found in Australia. It is found along the southern coast and immediate hinterland of southern Australia.
These photos were taken on the banks of the Barham River at Apollo Bay (on the south east coast of Australia) during the hour before the sun set yesterday evening. These birds seem to fly around and feed in groups, and most of the photos below are of different individual birds. The vegetation beside the Barham and its tidal mud flats is dense and lush. Reed stalks and small bushes seemed to be favoured perching locations for this honeyeater. It feeds on nectar and insects. Its capacity to manoeuvre and dart in any direction in the blink of an eye would give it the upper hand over many if not most insects in the area.
I have sorted the selection of photos into those showing the bird perched, flying and looking tough. When this bird flies past you get a sense of it being small and dark, perhaps with a flash of white or yellow depending on your vantage point, and quickly gone. I have included photos to show the bird from most angles in an attempt to show its full beauty. The shots of the bird in flight show off the wonderful colour scheme which is really only evident in full flight.
Some of the shots of the bird in flight are of a different quality to the other photos. I won’t claim intentional artistic effect, even though I don’t mind the unintended graininess of some of them. The explanation is that the low light as the sun set (with a few clouds around) required a high ISO and a less than optimal shutter speed. The image was further pushed during editing by cropping significantly from a larger image, to show the detail of this small bird.
On the wing
I’m not sure if this look is some sort of defence mechanism, or just an accidental product of the markings around its face when seen straight on. This look simply cannot be seen with the naked eye with the bird flying around or perching momentarily. I had my big telephoto lens set to a focal length of 600mm, and still had to crop and enlarge the image to enable this seriously cranky look to be enjoyed.
The ever elegant egret was the subject of a post on this blog in August last year. I have long wanted to see and photograph this bird displaying its breeding plumage, which until yesterday evening I had only ever seen in photos. The mud flats and tidal shallows near the mouth of the Barham River play host to many species of birds especially around dusk.
So as the breeding season for this egret is October to December, yesterday evening I walked slowly along the banks of the river when the sun was an hour or thereabouts above the horizon, hoping the egret might make an appearance. Golden evening light alternated with duller light as occasional low clouds west drifted through the area. As it turned out, I was rewarded with the arrival of this solitary eastern great egret. For an hour or so, he walked up and down his side of the river, and I walked up and down mine. We kept a close eye on each other. From previous experience I know that a river width is about as close as this bird will let me approach without taking off. It was a most enjoyable hour.
But as usual when I’m on a mission armed with a camera and with a particular subject in mind, serendipity threw irresistible distractions across my path. The first was this new holland honeyeater, which momentarily alighted on a solitary fragile looking reed waving in the wind.
The next five photos are a sequence showing the bird doing a hover-like vertical takeoff. It took some creative and very energetic wing movements before it was safely airborne, with the landing gear retracted, and the head in a streamlined position directly in front of the body.
Two photo sequence of the very effective feeding routine.
Three photo sequence below. This bird just kept striking beautiful poses. The lush banks of bullrushes and the foliage behind them provided protection from the wind. Good for egret fishing, and for photos.
Four image sequence of the egret feeding on edge of the water near the mud flats. Beyond the mud flats was the banks were crowded with lush green foliage, visible in these photos only as reflections in the water.
A most enjoyable hour.
When not being the star of the sunset feeding rituals performance as shown above, this egret lives just a few hundred metres upstream, on a quiet corner of the Barham River away from the public and paparazzi (well, most of them anyway). The extras also retreat to this spot.