Rips and Ocean Swimmers

If you are neither a good swimmer nor an experienced ocean swimmer, or if you don’t swim with someone who is, swim between the flags on a patrolled beach, and don’t swim alone.

No swimmer ever conquers the ocean. The sea requires the utmost respect from all those who submit themselves to it. The ocean is never trying to kill you. But if you fail to respect it, you can die there.

Standing on an ocean shore estimating how far it would be to swim to some identified point offshore, frequently results in under-estimation.

Standing on an ocean shore assessing wave size and power and how rough the water is offshore, frequently results in under-estimation.

Warning: I wrote this post with ocean swimmers in mind and because I wanted to record in one place my thoughts about rips. Others are unlikely to find this post interesting.

Ocean water moves around a lot, on scales ranging from global to local. The photos and observations below are about ocean currents close to shore as they affect ocean swimmers.

Swell direction, breaking waves, tides, wind and gravity can cause small but powerful localised currents within and extending beyond the surf zone. Ocean swimmers have an interest in understanding these currents which flow from the shallows out to sea beyond the shorebreak, either directly or at an angle. Such currents, known as rips, can be a metre or so wide, and they can flow quite slowly and extend only a short distance from shore. Sometimes they can be many tens of metres wide and flow away from shore at a speed which it is not possible to swim against. Sometimes they may extend many hundreds of metres beyond shore and connect to strong tidal currents with potential to take a swimmer to the next postcode. A swimmer in a rip who takes no active steps to leave the current will typically be carried out to deeper water beyond the shorebreak where the rip will fade and end.

Whether or not a particular rip poses a threat to the safety of a particular swimmer in a particular set of conditions depends on a lot of factors: the skill and experience level of the swimmer, the level of detail of the swimmer’s knowledge of the beach where the rip is located, the size, location, direction and strength of the rip, the size and power of the swell, the direction from which the swell has come relative to the direction the beach faces, the contours of the seabed in the vicinity, the general gradient of the seabed in the area, the nature of any reefs or other relief features beneath the water, the direction and strength of the wind and the surface conditions they are creating, the presence or absence of gutters and sandbars and their distance from shore, whether the beach is long and straight or a bay bookended with points or promontories, the tidal range on the day and whether the tide is ebbing, flowing or in the slack water period (if any).

Permanent warning at the eastern end of Skenes Creek beach.

Some rips are highly transient and can appear and disappear in seconds or minutes. These typically occur at beaches with sandy seabeds. Others flow like rivers following permanent rocky channels on the seabed whenever the surf is up and water washed ashore above its natural level heads back out to sea via the nearest line of least resistance. Some rips operate only when a big set (of waves) has come through, and others operate in very small surf.

Importantly, rips are often easier to see from a vantage point on the shore than they are while swimming. But some rips can be invisible from the shore, especially in rough surface conditions such as occur in strong winds with a lot of breaking waves and chop. The photos below illustrate a variety of visible rips at ocean beaches on the west coast of Victoria. The comments under the photos point out some of the tell-tale signs of visible rips.

It is highly instructive as an exercise or when you are planning a swim, to sit on the dunes and closely observe the behaviour of the water in and near the surf zone. This is especially so if you are unfamiliar with that beach. If you watch for say 15 minutes you will see transient currents and recurring patterns. You will begin to understand that the water is telling you a lot more than you learned from your first glance. Look left and right up and down the surf zone – identify gutters, sandbars (evidenced by waves breaking a distance offshore then reforming as green unbroken waves as they pass over the deeper water of the gutter closer to shore), and places where rips have cut through sandbars to feed water back out to sea. Is there a single gutter and sandbar, or a series of gutters and sandbars extending well beyond the shore? See if you can work out which way water is flowing in the gutter/s between the shore and a sandbar (at some points on the beach, this direction can be opposite to the direction of tidal flow beyond the sandbar/s). Observe the long line of a breaking wave and note that there may be sections or gaps where the wave does not break at all (because the water is a little deeper under such a gap). The gap could well be where a rip flows out to sea. If you identify where you think there is a rip, note its position relative to landmarks on the shore to assist in your decision making once in the water.

One fact that can always be relied upon is that if there are waves breaking and water washing back and forth at the water’s edge, gravity will cause the water temporarily transported above its natural level to return to that level as soon as the force washing it ashore ceases. Even though it might not be visible, its presence can be deduced, and an educated guess may be possible as to its location. But knowing there are rips but not knowing exactly where they are, in conditions that are rough, might well be enough reason to exercise the skill every ocean swimmer should possess – making an informed decision as to when not to swim.

Any rip of substance can be detected by a swimmer in the water once they are in the rip. The water is usually murkier than the water around it (due to sand etc being picked up by the rip in the shallows and carried seaward), the texture of the surface where there is a rip differs (often in subtle ways) from the surface texture of surrounding water (because there are conflicting flow directions), and of course the swimmer will be carried away from the shore – sometimes at 90° and sometimes at a lesser angle. Because the swimmer is being carried by a moving body of water, there is no sense of a current pushing against the swimmer whose feet are not touching the seabed. The fact of heading seaward is not always immediately apparent. It is important to develop the skill of being able to quickly assess by observation whether or not a current is taking you somewhere unplanned. Lining up two objects some distance apart while treading water and observing their apparent movement (if any) is one way to do this. If this can be done in two different directions separated by 90° or at least a significant angle, a very accurate assessment of drift (either due to a rip or a tidal current) can be made.

Swimming against a strong current (assume no wind or waves for present purposes) is no harder than swimming with such a current. You will just cover a shorter distance in a given number of minutes when swimming against the current than you would if there was no current (and a longer distance when swimming with the current). Or put another way, at a constant stroke rate and stroke distance it will take you longer to swim 1000m against the current than with the current. What the current changes is the speed at which you pass over the seabed – your speed through the water stays the same whichever direction you swim. This is illustrated by the fact that if you stand in shallow water in a flowing river, you will feel the current on the upstream side of your body. But if you tread water in the same flowing river, you will not feel any current on any side of your body because you are moving with the flowing body of water.

That said, when there is a strong wind blowing across the surface of the sea, swimming against the wind will be quite a different experience to swimming with the wind behind you. It takes more effort to swim into the wind when it is creating waves and chop than it does to swim with the wind behind you, in the same direction as the wind, waves and chop.

A myth that seems to enjoy currency in some circles is that a rip in the ocean will pull you under the surface. It won’t.

While I’m debunking myths, here is another: an out and back swim of a given distance with a constant current (head current one way, following current the other way) will take no longer than the same out and back swim in nil current because the time you lose on the way out you gain on the way back. This is incorrect. The total time for the round trip swim into and then with the current will always take longer.

An essential ocean swimming skill is to maintain situational awareness at all times – don’t just swim around without regular reference to the shore and landmarks. If you do, you could find when you eventually assess your location that you have been carried hundreds of metres sideways or out to sea by a rip (and/or tidal currents). The response to becoming aware you are swimming in a current might be as simple as adding a drift angle to your swim (aim a bit left or right of where you want to go so that you track directly there) or altering course significantly to get away from the current if it is not assisting you, or making and executing a plan to return to shore.

Many of the photos below utilise a ‘photo-compare’ function. The round button in the middle with a left and right arrow allows you to use your cursor (hold it over the button and press) to slide the divider fully right (which displays the full first image) and fully left (displaying the full second image). Where the slider is used, the first photo is of ocean water with a rip, and the second is the same image with an arrow or arrows pointing out the location of the rip.

Apollo Bay

Especially in strong easterly conditions, this rip extends out from very close to the beach between the SLSC and the harbour wall to the harbour mouth and sometimes beyond. It flows out to sea parallel to the stone harbour wall. The rip is easily identified by the discolouration from the sand and by the turbulent surface appearance resulting from the current going east out to sea while the wind and waves are heading west towards the shore. In most wind and swell conditions this corner of the bay is sufficiently benign to be known by locals as Mothers’ Beach. Failure to respond to changes such as those shown in the photo has resulted in many people having an unexpected little trip out beside the harbour wall on their boogie board, surf board or while swimming. Surfers and others have often provided assistance to those who found themselves in the rip in this area.
Rips start their flow out to sea using the path of least resistance. The water heading back out to sea flows around obstructions and follows depressions or gutters or gaps in reefs or valleys in the sea floor. Large variations in seabed gradient are not required to attract such currents. This photo shows the main beach at Apollo Bay between the SLSC and the harbour wall on a very low tide. The water flow shown in the photo is coming in from the left and right via shallow gutters and flowing seawards as a single stream through a gap in the sandbar. This is great illustration of the (usually underwater) mechanisms at play in creating a rip. On a high tide there with good swell there is a gentle rip that goes out 100-150m or so at this location.
Very low tide at beach at the end of my street. The swimmer is on the sandbar and the water in the foreground is the start of a gutter. When there is surf this gutter often flows to the left and waves which break over the sandbar can reform as unbroken waves while they travel over the deeper water in the gutter.
I have included this photo because it is on a half tide with very little swell, yet the tell tale signs of water flowing back out to sea are evident along the line indicated by the arrow in the second image. The contrasting surface state of the ripples over the rip with the adjacent water is a feature which is often very visible on days of bigger swell and choppier seas. This surface ripple feature of a rip is one of the signs that is noticeable to the observant swimmer in the water. Visibility in such a rip is usually also noticeably less than in the water either side of it. When swimming parallel to the beach offshore beyond the surf zone, I often swim through such ripples and sandy water for half a dozen or more strokes where the water clears up again as I complete my crossing of the rip. This is easily recognised as the head of a rip. Encountering such a feature is mildly interesting and requires no diversion.
Easterly conditions at Apollo Bay. Wind waves and the general pushing of water into the bay by a solid easterly create a lot of water that flows back out to sea under water in and near the surf zone. It is certain that there are rips and gutters in the water shown. But in such winds (probably in the 15-20 knot range) the organised rip contrasting very visibly with adjacent water is simply not readily discernible. The green water just above the horizontal handrail on the right suggests at least a bit of a hole there, possibly part of a gutter. There would be a current roughly parallel to the beach in that water which would be felt if you waded through it. Beyond that green water the breaking waves clearly show the position of the sandbar. The water would be shallower there than in the gutter. Out beyond the sandbar where there are whitecaps but no breaking waves such as in the shallower water there would be deeper water and a tidal drift possibly a little stronger than you would find in non-easterly conditions. My guess from experience at this beach is that the tidal current beyond the sandbar would be going south (left to right in the image). The green water above the RH rail seems to be angling towards shore with the white water over the shallow sandbar also being closer to shore. Coming ashore from this sandbar would be easier where the shallow water comes closest to shore and the gutter is narrowest or non-existent. But such speculation aside, if this was a beach unknown to a swimmer, while it may be swimmable for some there are sufficient unknowns about the strength, extent and location of currents to justify deferring the swim until the next day or whenever the wind changed around to a more favourable direction.

Castle Cove

Castle Cove is a wild beach west of Cape Otway. It is located at the western end of the Glen Aire valley and is exposed totally to the weather and ocean swells from the Southern Ocean. It is not a spot for casual ocean swimming. Experienced surfers with local knowledge surf here. On this wintery day conditions were a bit wild and ragged with strong onshore winds and a solid swell. The main rip in this bay is the one shown on the left as highlighted by the straight section of the orange arrow. As shown in the photo immediately below it feeds out in a continuous line from very close to the beach on the eastern end of the beach, through and over the reefs to the outer reef and beyond. This rip is always evident in the same spot when there is surf, indicating that it flows through a permanent channel in the reef to deeper water offshore. On the right of this image, the body of green water between the inner reef (white water) and the next wider reef offshore (more whitewater and breaking waves) is interesting. I have no doubt that water from the left hand side of this deeper area feeds into the main rip identified by the ‘tributary’ arrow. The large area of green water on the right of the image just above the portion of clifftop can feed into the permanent rip on the left, but I have seen it on occasions flowing seaward to the right of the image out to the reef with the extensive white water. Swell size and wind strength and direction seem to play a role in where this water flows. Examine the different conditions in the next photo and note the different behaviour of the deeper green water on the right of the image.
Notice the deep gutter with no breaking waves directly adjacent to the beach on the right of the image.
This is a closeup of the water over a section of the permanent rip channel on the eastern side of the bay to show the qualitative difference in the surface water conditions when there is a rip flowing, as compared to the water surface either side of the rip. Note the water colour, the absence of breaking waves, the presence of small peaks and the tiny whitecaps. These are unequivocal indicators that the current there is flowing contrary to the flow of water either side of it. If you were minded to surf here on this day, such a rip would provide a convenient and easy paddle out through the surf zone.

Gibson Steps

Gibson Steps is another wild west coast beach facing the full onslaught of the Southern Ocean. It is next to the Twelve Apostles. Uneven rock reef extends hundreds of metres out to sea here, and there are solid permanent and transient rips aplenty. The orange arrow shows a channel with a rip flowing out through the surf. The yellow arrow shows the head of a rip which has reached deeper water and is dispersing. The sand carried out and the swirling currents assume a more circular shape where the reef stops heading seaward and terminates.
A narrow rip flowing through a channel near the eastern end of the beach.

The following three photos were taken in rapid succession and show a rip undergoing changes quite rapidly over a short period of time.

Out the back the rip was partially concealed by incoming surf. The channel was quite visible in closer to shore, where it clearly divided the white water.

In this relative lull between sets the rip was clearly visible as it flowed through the surf zone out the back.

The yellow arrow shows a smaller rip extending right through the surf zone to deeper water. You can see the mushrooming sandy water and isolated chop and texture near the head of the arrow, where this rip flowed into deeper water and ended.
Gibson Steps on a very different day. Offshore wind and big swell. This surfer had to paddle out through over 300m of reefs, rips and white water to get to the takeoff point for this wave.

Johanna

Johanna is another exposed west coast beach, not far west of Castle Cove. It has sand dunes on the main beach and cliffs and reefs extend from the western end of the beach. There are numerous reefs here, and pronounced strong rips and gutters. It is the alternative surf break for the Easter Bells surfing competition when there is not enough swell at Bells. The rip in this photo has the visible rip attributes referred to earlier – no breaking waves and surface texture obviously rippled as the rip flows against the direction of the water either side of it.
Closeup showing the marked texture differences in the water surface where the rip is flowing.
These small and irregular little peaks are typically formed where a rip is flowing against the direction of the surrounding currents.
This rip at the western end of the beach is going out through the surf break at an angle.
Note that the actual channel of this rip takes a right hand turn as it nears the deeper water. This was not apparent from the previous photo taken a very short time before this shot. It pays to examine the water from the shore for longer than an initial glance.
This small flow away from the shore is technically a rip. I have included it because it displays very clearly the textural differences in the water surface between a rip and adjacent water. This texture difference is a clue as to the location of a rip and is easy to see when swimming.

Marengo (Mounts Bay)

Mounts Bay, immediately south of Apollo Bay, has stronger rips, gutters, swell and shorebreak than Apollo Bay. This temporary looking sign was put up by the local council last summer after an incident in which there was a near drowning at the beach in Mounts Bay near the mouth of the Barham River. Lives would have been lost had rescuers not gone to assist the swimmers in distress. Lives have been lost at this beach in conditions that could not be described as wild or rough – the cause was rips that took weak swimmers out of their depth.

Where a river, creek or drain enters the ocean expect uneven depth of the seabed and rips and currents in the immediate vicinity.

At the southern end of Mounts Bay, Little Henty Reef lies close to shore. I have included this photo because I find the currents here more difficult to read from the shore than at other ocean beaches where I swim at regularly. The currents in this area are complex because of the following features: the shape and orientation of the reefs which are divided by deep channels, Hayleys Point nearby around which large swell flows, offshore underwater parts of the reef that are quite irregular in shape, area and depth, and variable water depths of some significance. Sometimes identifiable rips and tidal flows can be seen here, but on many occasions, strong and variable rips and tidal flows that are not visible from the shore can be present. I have encountered strong tidal currents here in conditions as shown in the photo. I treat this beach with considerable caution. I have often experienced three distinctly different currents in the short swim in conditions as shown from the shore to the closest reef. The water on left of this image is around 10 feet deep, but at the other end of the small reef the water between there and shore is over 30 feet deep. There is so much more happening here than at a beach with the standard gutter, sandbar and rip setup close to shore. I like to snorkel around this reef and take photos. To swim out to it I aim for a prominent rock in the middle of the closest reef which I line up with Cape Patton on the horizon 17kms to the north east. Close attention to these markers lets me see early and constantly what if any current I am dealing with. If they reveal that the current looks like taking me north or south of the reef before I will reach the reef and is such that even 45° or more of drift correction is not doing the job, I turn around and swim back to shore. And I do this even on a day where the water still looks calm. My guesses from the shore as to currents here are improving, but not based on what I see so much as by reference to previous swims here in similar conditions.
Just north of Little Henty Reef the shorebreak can have a bit of punch to it. This photo shows the tell tale trail of sand heading out to sea in a couple of rips. These rips are narrow, flowing quite fast, and transient. On this day they died off in the longer lulls between sets of waves. Swimming across them to water where there was not a rip would be the obvious thing to do, but care would need to be taken that the next rip was spotted in time so good choices could be made. Also, swimming north beyond the shorebreak on this beach takes you to progressively bigger waves and stronger permanent and temporary rips going some distance out to sea. Further, as the photo shows, the sandbars extend further offshore up the northern end of this curved beach, with a correspondingly wider surf zone. Frankly, I’d find somewhere else to swim in these conditions at this location.
More subtle rips just north of Little Henty Reef heading well out into deep water.

Storm Point, Smythes Creek, Sledgehammers

This small bay and point are near Storm Point, a km or so west of Marengo on the Great Ocean Walk. Small rips going out parallel and close to a rock shelf or other terrain on the edge of bay are common. The surf on this day was very small yet the rip channel on the seabed (probably more rock than sand) is clearly defined by the green water and is probably a permanent feature. If a swimmer floated out in this tiny rip even in these conditions of virtually no surf the current may be enough to drift the swimmer slowly seawards for a short distance. Obviously, swimming to the shallower water on the right where there is evidence of small waves breaking would remove you from any such current and swimming/walking ashore there would be simple. This is a micro model for similarly situated larger rips, and one way to get out of them.
Smythes Creek on the Great Ocean Road east of Apollo Bay is a popular surf break, but not on messy onshore days like this. This photo shows two feeder rips joining forces and heading out through the surf zone to deeper water.
This point break is known locally as Sledgehammers. It is situated between Apollo Bay and Cape Patton. It has open exposure to the south west and big swells hit here without much change of direction which means they arrive here with a lot of force. The shore has reefs and rock shelves and is not user friendly in big surf. There was clean surf this day with an offshore wind. The orange arrow shows a very clear and quite substantial rip heading straight out to sea. In such conditions this rip is easily spotted and could be utilised (to assist in the paddle out the back) or avoided by surfers.

Logans Beach, Warrnambool

Logans Beach is a whale nursery near Warrnambool. It is also a popular surf spot. I have seen this highly visible rip on repeat visits here. There is obviously a permanent channel where this rip is flowing out through the surf break. On the day this photo was taken I watched a surfer enter the water in this rip and get a speedy ride out to his takeoff point in this rip; highly preferable to paddling out against breaking waves and duck diving the surfboard under them.

Port Campbell

The Southern Ocean at Port Campbell can be wild. There are many stories of shipwrecks in this area. The bay near the town is narrow and less than a km in length. If faces south west and receives the full force of wind and weather and swell from that direction.

This photo was taken from the clifftops overlooking Two Mile on a day with strong onshore winds and big swell. There is a permanent channel created by the underwater topography which sweeps out of the bay and around the western headland at the bay entrance to the offshore reef known as Two Mile. It is a famous big surf location. When conditions of tide, wind and swell combine to push huge amounts of water against the cliffs and into the bay, strong rips return the water out to sea via this channel. This channel is highly visible in big surf conditions. On days with less swell, the channel can still be quite visible with areas of breaking waves either side of it and no breaking waves over the channel. This is not necessarily because there is a strong rip (or indeed any rip) flowing at the time, but rather reflects the significant depth of the channel.
This photo was taken looking south from the clifftops on the eastern side of the entrance to Port Campbell. It shows the same channel flowing out to sea and turning right towards Two Mile. The green arrow traces a path over shallower water immediately east of the channel where the surf breaks from many hundreds of metres offshore. Surfers paddling out to Two Mile use the red arrow route for current assistance, and for the paddle back in I have seen many use the green arrow route to avoid the head current in the rip over the channel, and to get some assistance from breaking waves heading shorewards. A few years ago I was swimming in an ocean race at Pt Campbell on an out and back course of 1200m or so from the beach to the entrance of the bay. At the seaward turn buoy, even though conditions were nowhere near as intense as shown above, I relaxed with my back to the buoy to unfog my goggles and take in the view only to quickly discover I was being taken out to sea at a good rate by the rip in this channel. There was a rescue boat holding position seaward of me (for exactly this situation) and the crew directed me to immediately swim east towards the other headland which quickly got me out of the channel and the current and eventually back to the town beach.
Sometimes the weather and the ocean can make a familiar bay like Pt Campbell totally uninviting….
…..and sometimes the ocean there is completely at rest.

If you unexpectedly find yourself in a rip taking you somewhere you don’t want to go

Don’t panic. This is more easily said than done. Being uncomfortable about your position is OK, panicking about it is not and may well cause you to drown. If you suddenly realise you are making zero progress towards your aiming point (the shore) or that you are going out to sea when you thought you were swimming to shore, don’t just put the head down and start swimming harder. Best to tread water while you have a think about the situation and allow a few moments for any adrenaline rush from being out of your depth while going in a direction you didn’t want to be going to ease off a little.

If you are in unpleasantly turbulent water and there is quieter water in close proximity (even if it is the unbroken water beyond the surf zone) consider drifting or swimming there at an easy pace to regroup. If you are in deeper green water beyond the surf zone, the rip will have eased up or stopped. You are unlikely to come up with a quality plan if you remain in 2 metres or less of water over a sandbar where the breaking waves are big enough to throw you around and repeatedly thump you into the sand.

Come up with a logical plan. Your opportunity to swim back to shore will be either to your left or right if you are facing shore in or near the rip or just beyond the surf zone (where the rip has faded or ended). First line up a near and a far object on the shore to see whether you are drifting left or right. If you are it will most likely be tidal drift, but it could also be a rip taking you away from shore on an angle. If there is a strong drift, its direction is a consideration in whether you go left or right before heading back to shore.You must think your way out of the situation, not frantically try to power your way out of it.

Be prepared to amend your plan if execution of it is seriously not working out as hoped.

If the breaking waves are not making life too uncomfortable for you in the surf zone, look for an area of white water where waves are breaking as each set comes through and swim parallel to the shore until you have that area of breaking waves directly between you and the beach. This will usually take you out of the side of the rip. Then head to shore.

If you have swum out to the green water just beyond the surf zone, when a set of waves is breaking between you and the shore, sometimes you can see where the higher sections of the wave are (over the shallower seabed which can be your ticket to the shore), and gaps where the breaking waves are lower or not breaking at all (deeper water where a rip may be flowing out). Your route to shore will be through the shallower water, not the deeper water where the water may well be moving out to sea.

If you are in the green water beyond the surf zone looking for the best option to get to shore, provided you are not cold or exhausted, it may be worth treading water while you carefully watch a couple of sets of waves go through. You can then time your return to shore based on the sets of waves you observed. In small to moderate surf you may seek to go ashore with wave assist, or in bigger surf you may wish to wait for a lull between sets to head for shore. The timing of your swim ashore can be everything in this situation.

Pick a landmark to aim for so that you ensure you stay on track and don’t drift back into the rip. If you are drifting left or right as you swim towards shore, apply an angle of drift to help you track in a straight line. Check every few strokes by lifting your head a little and looking forward that you are staying on track. Take regular glances back over your shoulder as you swim through the surf zone to keep an eye on waves approaching you. If it is a completely broken wave of manageable size you could accelerate a bit as it reaches you, or perhaps even body surf it if you have that skill. If it is a large broken wave you might pause as it approaches, turn and face it, and duck dive or ‘pin drop’ to let it pass over you – then resume swimming towards shore.

If you have swum towards shore through a surf zone you will reach shallow water where you can walk to shore. But if the surf zone you have swum through was over a sandbar you may encounter a gutter where the waves are not breaking as much or at all. Don’t relax completely, because if conditions were enough to form a rip that carried you out a ways, the water in the gutter is probably flowing strongly too, feeding the nearest rip. You may need to point towards somewhere left or right of your target on the shore to avoid drifting parallel to the beach in the gutter. In such conditions the gutter may well be too deep to stand in.

Alternatives to swimming directly back to shore. If you are swimming in a curved bay with a nearby point (what is ‘near’ depends on your distance swimming ability), and you find yourself out in the green water just beyond the surf zone and looking for the best way back to shore, swimming parallel to shore to go ashore at the point can be considered if swimming through the surf zone looks entirely unattractive or unsafe for you. But remember that most points have a rip running out to sea alongside the rock shelf which will have to be contended with if this option is taken.

In a curved bay, I have noticed that the sand bars are often further offshore where the beach has a marked change in direction, than where the beach is straight. So an option to consider in that situation is to select a spot for your swim ashore which has less distance of white water to swim through ie on a straight section of the beach. This may involve swimming parallel to the beach for some distance to find the shortest appropriate swim to shore through the surf.

Note that in big swell, where the water is not too shallow, duck diving under a breaking wave works very well at avoiding turbulence even if it requires duck diving a couple of metres or more below the wave. But as the water gets shallower, a point is reached where duck diving under the wave does not avoid the turbulence and you will get rolled and tossed around as each wave passes over you. Don’t linger in such a zone – you need to get to either shallower water where you can safely stand or to deeper water (either by swimming towards a gutter closer to shore and then to shore, or out to sea beyond the surf zone where the waves while large are not breaking) where you are not receiving a flogging with every wave. The latter is quickly exhausting.

A Reminiscence

I have been swimming at this Victorian west coast beach for years. The swim I am about to recount happened not on a half tide on a sunny day with small surf as shown in the satellite photos below, but on a cold mind-winter’s morning a few years ago. The water’s edge was much closer to the dunes than shown in the photo, and the gutter was wider than shown in the photo.

There was a solid swell and a high tide with a strong offshore wind. It was overcast and showery and the line of the horizon across the sea was notchy indicating big swell way out to sea across the entrance to Bass Strait. The water would’ve been around 12-13°C. The air temp was less than that with wind chill in low single figures. I was wearing a good quality winter wetsuit, a neoprene armless vest under it and a lined cap. I wasn’t cold. I was swimming fit and had swum virtually daily since summer which included some long distance swimming races of distances up to 5kms.

I paused before entering the water a bit south of Milford Creek as the waves were breaking quite a way out, probably beyond the sandbar. The distance across the gutter to the sandbar was only about 50m. Being a bit daunted by the size of the breaking waves and the distance I’d have to swim to get to the green water out the back for my swim to the harbour wall, I paused and watched a couple of sets come through. They weren’t getting smaller, so I decided to take it in stages by swimming across the gutter (where I knew I’d be out of my depth) to the sandbar where I believed the water would be shallow enough to stand in. I figured that would be a good vantage point from which to assess whether to swim back to the beach (a short and easy swim) or to continue to swim through the surf zone to the deep water out the back and then down to the wall – a swim I have done many times in widely varying conditions.

I quickly reached the breaking waves over the sandbar and while at a stretch my big toe occasionally brushed the sand, I was out of my depth. That was OK and had happened before. The brief 50m or so swim to the sandbar revealed a steady current to the north. That was pretty standard in such conditions. I was having to keep ducking under breaking waves while I was over the sandbar. Some I bobbed down for, others I duck dived under. Both techniques saw me getting rolled and bounced around rather than cleanly making it under the waves. I swam out just a bit further thinking the water might be a bit deeper giving me room to dive under them with comfort before I decided whether to continue or retreat. But the waves were still breaking heavily and the water while not deep enough for comfortable duck diving, was not shallow enough for me to stand.

The view out to sea revealed waves that certainly looked bigger than they had from the shore, and they probably were. The breaking waves were a very substantial wall of advancing white water. Diving under each wave was the only option. A retreat back to shore was suddenly looking very attractive. I realised I had been swept up the beach a bit and was some distance north of where I entered the water. I headed back towards the edge of the gutter for what I still believed would be the short swim back to shore, albeit in water too deep to stand in. On entering the gutter I quickly realised I was going north and that my distance from shore was increasing. There is a break in the sandbar near where the Milford Creek runs into the sea, and (as I later discovered) the gutter I was in was feeding into the rip there.

So I only really had one option, and that was to swim away from the shore until I was beyond the breaking waves and in deeper water. I duck dived every approaching breaking wave as I swam seawards again across the sandbar. Some gave me a disorienting somersault or two and hard contact with the sand. I swam past the outer edge of the sandbar where the breaking waves usually stop, but there were large enough sets rolling in that some were breaking out to sea beyond the sandbar. I have seen this before, but not often while swimming. Once I cleared the sandbar I was in deeper water and while I couldn’t reach the sand when I duck dived, I could go deep enough to avoid the main turbulence of the breaking waves. On a few occasions I dived deep enough for my ears to pop which happens to me when I’m snorkelling at a depth of 8-10 feet or more. While I was heading away from shore, as soon as I stopped getting thrown around out of control under breaking waves I began to feel that my situation was improving a little.

I was relieved when after diving under yet another sizeable breaking wave out the back I surfaced and saw that there were no more breaking waves on my horizon. I stopped swimming and trod water. I was about 150m offshore (out from the waterline) according to my Garmin GPS watch. I realised I was breathing harder than usual and that my pulse rate was up. I didn’t feel panicked, but I knew I was closer to it than I should have been. I looked around and checked the tidal current – it was not huge and was going south. That was good – a tail current for the longer swim to the harbour wall at the southern end of the beach. I was now in a familiar situation – out the back in green water with an entirely manageable swim south to the harbour wall – the final leg of my original plan when I entered the water.

I couldn’t see the shore when I was in the trough between lines of swell. I had a great view in all directions from the crests. The seas felt big. Normally I love swimming in rising and falling green swell lines. I wasn’t quite feeling the love at this stage but I did feel that the situation was now under control. My breathing had slowed and I felt comfortable.

The swim to the beach at the southern end of the bay was uneventful. The swell size started to ease once I got south of the SLSC into the relatively protected corner of the bay. While I was a little further offshore than usual, deep water is deep water. I had a following current and the swim was entirely safe. I was enjoying the swim well before I swam past the rock wall of the harbour and into the shallows in the corner. Despite having friends swimming in the bay that morning, I didn’t see any of them. Our long habit of swimming together is really a habit of swimming at the same time at the same beach, but for all practical purposes, solo.

Postscript: I should’ve listened to the inner voice telling me I didn’t like the look of the size and extent of the surf where I went in. I allowed confidence to overrule caution. When I finally got out the back beyond the breaking waves, the shore looked a very long way away. I should’ve realised that on the high tide in that swell I wouldn’t be able to stand on the sandbar. I should’ve looked at the conditions a bit longer before going in, and I might have spotted the rip that I encountered. I shouldn’t have felt uncomfortable about the longer than usual swim through the solid surf zone. I have swum similar distances out through solid surf before at the start of a distance swim. But I think it was the fact that I decided to swim back to shore (and attempted to do so) but couldn’t get there that heightened my sense of discomfort about having no other option but to keep swimming out to sea.

I was in the water for longer than I had intended, and my warm wetsuit, vest and cap served me well. I wasn’t cold at any point. I was distance swimming fit and had confidence that subject to hypothermia I had a much greater distance in me than I would need to swim to get to shore.

I have had a handful of rip episodes over the years. Each one has taught me valuable lessons. I have heard pilots say that experience is the sum of the frights you survive.

Snake habitat; koala courtship; swimming in and around Apollo Bay harbour

My last snake encounter on the Great Ocean Walk was last year when I was walking ahead of Liz and was informed by her that I had just walked past a coiled up tiger snake on the grass beside the track. We waited a short time and it moved off. This was in mid-winter. Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera with me. Numerous local friends have reported similarly unthreatening tiger snake encounters on this track. But it does seem that the longer the walk, the more snakes you see. A friend on a 14km run along the GOW recently saw three large snakes.

Snake sightings are so common on the GOW that news of a walk on that track without sighting a snake is an occurrence perhaps more noteworthy than a snake sighting. But I have never heard or read of anybody being bitten by a snake on this track. Seems they are not very interested in humans. So a good lookout and not rushing seems to allow time for walker and snake to see each other and get out of each other’s way without threat or incident.

These two photos were not taken by me. The photo on the left shows a tiger snake on the Great Ocean Walk. The photo on the right, taken recently by a friend during a run along the GOW, shows part of a substantial snake (one of three he encountered on a 14km run) which is either a brown or a tiger. Tiger snakes in this part of the world come in a variety of colour schemes and patterns – not all have the distinctive dark stripes. It was the report of my friend from his 14km run and snake sightings that prompted me to take a walk on the track in the heat of the day to see if I could capture a decent photo of a tiger snake in broad daylight.

The start of the Great Ocean Walk.

These warnings are near the start of the GOW at Marengo. The sign on the right is down the track a bit warning of the dangers of big surf. There are numerous points on this walk where there is a choice between a beach and rock shelf walk, or following the cleared track on higher ground. Big swell and a high tide usually remove the first option.

It was on a sunny summer’s day with cloudless sky, high temperature and very little wind that I decided to take my Nikon and telephoto lens for a couple of kms down the GOW around midday to see if I could spot and photograph a tiger snake. I wore jeans and my shin high leather motorbike boots, and carried a compression bandage and an EPIRB (the latter is always in my pack on bush walks and motorbike rides).
Beautiful bays and points around every corner in the early kms of the GOW. Clearly defined little rip in this corner.
Snake territory if ever I saw it!

There is variety in the width and surrounds of the main track on the GOW. Some parts are narrower than others, with more dense vegetation on both sides of the track. I was keeping a very good lookout on the track and its verges, and I walked quite slowly hoping to spot a snake without disturbing it so I could get a good photo using the 150-600m telephoto lens. My anticipation of a sighting was keen. All the omens were right. But I had overlooked one factor which I discovered during whale seasons past – arriving at the scene of a reported wildlife sighting or a location of common sightings, equipped with my Nikon DSLR camera, a substantial telephoto lens, a spare SD card and battery, seems to ensure that no wildlife will be seen that day. I neither saw nor heard a single snake on this entire walk. Disappointing.

False alarm. This is an evolutionary adaptation of sticks, to look like a snake so they will be left alone. It worked. I didn’t touch it. (Disclaimer: I am not a formally trained herpetologist or stick expert).

My Spot satellite messenger is like a recreational EPIRB. It uses the same satellite network (which means it works anywhere on the face of the earth) but instead of calling in the SES, the police, the military and rescue helicopters, it sends an SMS or email with a pre-written message to a limited number of family and friends I have chosen. There are a couple of messages which can be sent. The one I use most is the ‘current location’ message. The tick on the map shown is my location when I activated the Spot satellite messenger (this is the map display received on a mobile phone by my selected contacts). The houses on the right are Marengo.

L to R: EPIRB, Spot Satellite Messenger, snake-fang-proof leather boots and wildlife-deterring Nikon SLR with telephoto lens and monopod.

As an ocean swimmer and ski paddler, I learned long ago that when you get offshore a bit the ocean is always rougher than it looks from the shore. These seas looked pretty calm from the shore with only a hint of whitecaps. But there was definitely some swell out there. This boat was having an exhilarating run to Apollo Bay.

No snake photos for my trouble on this day. But any walk on the GOW is a privilege and a pleasure.

Koala Courting

There is a creek beside my house lined with tall eucalypts. Koalas are frequent visitors. Territorial disputes, competition for mates, courtship and mating are all equally noisy affairs. First-time witnesses to the grunting and growling sound a koala can make are always surprised at how substantial and deep and fierce it sounds.

This smallish female was chased higher and higher up a tree by a male who was snorting and growling constantly as he pursued her. Unsurprisingly, it turned out not to be a winning tactic.

The snorter and growler unhappy that his raucous and overbearing behaviour was apparently entirely unattractive to the female koala who adroitly kept out of his reach. I must say, he doesn’t look as though he’d be great company.
It seems ‘ears down’ signals unhappiness. I think he is annoyed and crestfallen at all that wasted chasing, snorting and growling. He will just have to learn that chasing a frightened female up a tree, snorting and growling and trying to corner her there then sulking upon rejection, simply doesn’t cut it.
He eventually lost interest in the female, raised his ears to their usual position, and sat motionless in the wedge of this tree for a lengthy period. His eyes remained open, so I assume he was sulking, not sleeping.

Swimming in and around Apollo Bay Harbour

While swimming in the open ocean is my first choice, conditions sometimes warrant an alternative, and the harbour is a fine plan B.

As these GPS swim tracks show, doing laps up and down beside the eastern wall of the harbour (third photo) is just one option. The other two photos show swims which go out the harbour mouth then west towards the shore, then back over the harbour wall on foot where there is a pier to jump off to complete the swim via moored boats back to the boat ramp or the little beach.

Some time back I invited any of my swimming friends who felt like an afternoon swim to join me in the almost tropical conditions in the harbour. One response was scepticism and a request for photos. These are the photos I supplied.

Friends swimming in the harbour on a day when easterly conditions made it the best choice.
A peaceful and beautiful location for a swim under the backdrop of the foothills of the Otway Ranges.

February Photos on the Victorian West Coast

Apollo Bay and the surrounding coast and hinterland are where I spend most of my time. These photos were all taken in February 2021 in the final weeks of summer. With the exception of the spectacle of the gas exploration rig being towed through Bass Strait south of Apollo Bay, these photos capture ordinary daily life on the west coast. Sometimes I go on a mission with the camera to capture big swell, whales, the Milky Way or whatever. Sometimes I just take a photo or two while doing other things.

Moonrise

Taken from the beach at the end of my street. This is a three-quarter full moon rising over Bass Strait. The full moon was a few nights earlier. The town is Skenes Creek and the bright white light is from a car on the Great Ocean Road with its headlights on high beam.
Low tide with no wind or swell.
The waning gibbous moon now higher above the horizon. Silver, white and dark blue replace the golden hues on display when the moon first appeared on the horizon.

Clouds

A cold front passing south of Little Henty Reef. This cloud reveals the wedge of cold air displacing the warmer moist air which rises to a height where the dew point is reached causing the water vapour to condense and form the line of cumulus cloud shown. There is a heavy rain shower just behind this advancing wedge of cold air. This was a classic cold front with a temperature drop and wind change around to the south-west immediately behind it.
The same frontal cloud viewed from the edge of the Great Ocean Road, looking over the Barham River and Marengo. This band of cumulus at the leading edge of the front was very close to forming a roll cloud which can occur in these conditions.
Early development of a cumulonimbus cloud south of Mounts Bay. This cloud evidences very strong vertical uplift, which is invariably accompanied by strong downdrafts. There is heavy rain beneath the middle of this cloud. This would be quite a turbulent cloud to fly through in an aeroplane.
The underside of an actively developing cumulus cloud, viewed through a beach access track in the sand dunes on the back beach at Apollo Bay (Mounts Bay).
This inviting turquoise ocean is on latitude 38° S.
This photo was taken from the back deck of my house in Apollo Bay. It was taken late evening on a day when the wind had blown steadily from the east all day. Such air is moist and as night approaches, the air temperature drops and the moisture in the air which rises as the wind blows against the coastal hills condenses at lower and lower heights forming mist and low stratus cloud. The wind was light by this time, and the mist was slowly moving in and around the eucalypts. It was ethereal and peaceful.

Aire River Mouth

The Aire River mouth near the Glenaire Valley is a favourite spot of ours in all weather and seasons. On this still overcast morning Lizzie and I were the only people there.
We spotted this strongly built male black wallaby in the dunes just watching us walk past him. He appeared to be interested in us rather than wary of us. We wondered if he’d had much or any prior human contact.
Eventually after we had passed him, he hopped off in an unhurried fashion. The black wallaby is also known as a swamp wallaby. They are common in the Port Campbell National Park, the Bay of Islands Coastal Park and surrounding areas.

Port Campbell Ocean Swimming Race

I first entered this ocean swimming race in 2007. I missed the 2010 and 2015 swims, but in 2015 I did the Bay of Islands swim (a one-off as it turned out) instead of the Pt Campbell swim. In relation to the Bay of Islands swim, see the second part of my post at:

https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/02/08/two-ocean-swims-west-of-cape-otway/

These 14 ocean swims were all in genuine (and sometimes challenging) ocean conditions in beautiful remote locations.

The course being setup – basically, out through the heads and back for a total distance of 1200m or more.
There was a light but steady onshore wind and conditions were relatively calm inshore. Out beyond the jetty and the heads there was some swell. Near the outer turn buoys the view down the cliffs is always a spectacular treat and well worth whatever time it takes to stop out the back for a moment and enjoy it. The Garmin recorded my swim stats: 1350m at av pace 2:09/100m and stroke rate of 60spm. Stroke distance 1.57m per two arm cycle.

My swim wave was scheduled for 1020. Around 1000 I put my hat, sunglasses and car keys on the driver’s seat, shut the door, and went to open the back door. During that short walk the car doors auto-locked (a malfunction of some sort) and my wetsuit and goggles were in the car. I made the start line in time. That’s the short story. The next three paras contain the detail for those interested.

No time to get the RACV to attend. So I borrowed a coat hanger from the Surf Life Saving Club rooms and refashioned it in the standard way to hook and open an inside door handle after inserting the wire between the door edge and the door seal. I have done this on more than one occasion (usually on somebody else’s car). But those crafty Germans have designed a car door seal which cannot be entered in this way. It was now about 1005 and my fellow age group swimmers were gathering at the starting line on the beach.

So back to the SLSC at a brisker walking pace where I found the masonry brick shown in the picture. The rear quarter window seemed the obvious and cheapest way to gain entry. A gentle tap with the brick did nothing. After progressively harder whacks which were now attracting the bemused attention of unhelpful onlookers, the window finally shattered but the force used sent the brick and my arms through the new opening. My hands and forearms received numerous minor scratches from the sharp shards around the window frame. I ignored the tiny droplets of blood appearing on my minor scratches as there was now only about 10 minutes to my race start. I thought I was on the home run as I threaded my hand inside the window to unlock the doors using the inside back door handle. But pulling on the door handle did not unlock the doors! Swimming mates were now coming looking for me to tell my my race was being marshalled for the start. The coat hanger wire at full stretch would not reach diagonally across the car from rear left quarter window to the driver’s seat to get the key tantalisingly in full view but so far unreachable.

So back to the SLSC again. I found a broom and twisted an end of the coat hanger wire around its handle, fashioned a hook on the other end, and after a bit of angling with time running out fast I delicately hooked and retrieved the key. It was now approaching 1015. A quick change into my wetsuit (after shaking as many glass fragments off as I could with a quick shake), confirmed I had my cap, watch and earplugs and jogged to the start line and joined the milling swimmers just as the starter’s briefing finished. The starter’s gun was then fired. Not a problem.

It was a very enjoyable swim and I didn’t think once about the VW key saga while doing my 1350m.

Some of my long time ocean swimming friends from Apollo Bay at the finishing line, all wearing the big smile of a cold water ocean swimmer coming ashore. Clockwise from top left: Boo, Vicki and Michelle (third and fourth-place getters in their age group), Suzie (fastest of the Apollo Bay swimmers) and Jenny.

A beautiful location for an ocean swim. Boo coming ashore after her swim. The course buoys are still in place. The course was out on the right hand side of the bay, keeping the white then yellow buoys on the left, and back to shore down the jetty side of the bay keeping the buoys on the left. The tall orange buoys are the seaward turnpoint markers.

Apollo Bay swimmers striking a pose. Boo strolling up the finishers’ race and not looking at all exhausted after her swim. Mark, me and Keelan after the swim. Always a great day. I had ten friends swimming in this race.

The Ocean Onyx, gas exploration drilling rig

Drilling rigs on the open sea are a spectacle.

Apollo Bay harbour and bay in a moderate easterly. One of the tugs which was towing the rig can be seen near the horizon about a third of the way from the left edge of the image. The rig is out of frame.
The Ocean Onyx, a gas exploration drilling rig being towed to an area 30-80 kms south of Port Campbell for gas exploration work. The rig was towed by two sizeable tug boats on very long lines and considerable distance apart from each other.
The breakwater on the eastern side of the Apollo Bay harbour mouth.
Apollo Bay harbour mouth.
The start of the north-south rock wall on the eastern side of the harbour.
Temporary addition to the skyline of yacht masts at Apollo Bay.

Catching a few waves on the surf ski at Apollo Bay

The surf ski is one of my favourite ocean toys. A previous post on this blog contains photos and detailed descriptions of the ski in action from many perspectives. See:

https://southernoceanblog.com/2019/04/26/things-ive-seen-from-my-surf-ski-at-apollo-bay/

In contrast this post contains videos and photos taken with a GoPro from one angle only – a camera mounted on the back deck of the ski. They were all taken in a single paddle session yesterday afternoon just after the low tide in perfect swell conditions for the ski. Many sets were breaking around the corner of the harbour mouth (where a couple of surfers had a reliable right to themselves), and some of the bigger sets were breaking across the middle of the bay. Despite very crowded beaches, I had the big green-wave part of the bay entirely to myself.

This is the GPS track of my ski session as recorded by my Garmin swimming watch. For the record, I was in the water for 50 minutes and travelled 3.7kms. It was much more fun than those bare numbers might indicate.

Launching from the harbour

The main beach was crowded both on the sand and in the water. So I opted for a quiet and calm launching spot in the harbour (where I often swim when conditions in the bay are not suitable).
The serenity of the paddle out through the boats and across the seagrass was a contrast to the conditions waiting just through the harbour mouth.
Leaving the harbour between sets.

Through the harbour mouth to the surf

An eskimo roll on this ski is not possible. But a refreshing and surprising half roll without notice is entirely possible. All it takes is a moment’s inattention. The ocean now had my attention. I remained upright for the rest of the session.
There were some solid sets marching through. I let a couple go through to the keeper to see what was on offer before I paddled for my first wave.

The first wave of the day

Video

This was a nice green wave which was easily caught. On the ski, most waves are easily caught. You don’t need much of a wave to get a ride. The slight weight redistribution achieved by leaning forward as I paddle to catch a wave helps considerably.
As this wave neared shallower water it began to show signs of breaking so I exited to the right. The rudder is operated by foot pedals. A paddle blade in the water can also assist in a turn on the wave as a course correction, or to turn 180° and exit over the back of the wave. Here I had the left blade in the water to steady the ski as I was about to be completely abeam the wave which was steepening. This is a point which tests balance and use of the paddle to stay upright.
There is no reason I couldn’t have stayed with the wave after it broke, but I do like the clean speed and ride on an unbroken green wave.

The wave of the session

Video

This was the biggest wave I caught this session. It steepened quickly behind me, requiring only a couple of paddle strokes before the tail rose and the nose dipped down as the wave picked me up and propelled me shorewards. After catching it I generally stay in touch with the water via a paddle blade to stay on course (pointing straight at the shore, or perhaps turning left or right a bit to go along the wave). It’s a great feeling gliding effortlessly across the bay at 20+kph without paddling..
The moment the wave reached me and the tail lifted, the nose was at risk of going underwater. That arc of spray is from the bow being partly buried. I am leaning well back in this photo to get my weight back as far as possible to stop the nose burying itself in the water. (This is the exact opposite of the ‘leaning forward’ technique mentioned above, used when paddling for a wave which is barely steep enough to catch). If the nose does go under, of course the ski goes over. Catching a larger steeper wave and staying in control of the ski is exhilarating.
Not long after I caught it this wave broke behind me. Because it was one of the bigger waves, the white water didn’t just spill gently down the face. It broke solidly and suddenly, with a lot of water completely covering the back half of the ski and hitting me in the back. The ski can easily broach at this point and rudder and paddle blade can be useless to stop it once it starts. Best to get in early. Fast and strong use of the paddle for balance can save the day, but sometimes there is so much water hitting paddler and ski side on that a roll and dismount (refreshing as always) still happen. The early preventative step to take is to lean forward and paddle hard when the wave is about to break, keeping as much of the ski ahead of the white water as possible. This tends to keep the ski more stable.
Until I owned a GoPro, I had no idea there was this much water this close to me on such a wave.
Having decided to exit this wave to the left, the left blade has gone into the water as well as full left rudder being applied, and the ski turns back in a gentle arc to the calm water behind the wave. When abeam the wave as shown, there is a risk of coming off the ski. But I stayed upright on this wave throughout.
Temporary green ledge to rest my left arm on.

A 60 second ride from the harbour mouth to the beach

Video

I took this ride from near the harbour mouth all the way into the beach near the corner of the breakwater wall. It was a 60 second ride. There was some breaking wave action behind me on the way in, but not as much as on the earlier larger wave.
Riding a wave right to shore here involved threading carefully between swimmers and all sorts of things that float. You can’t afford to let the ski get out of control and broach, because the broken wave will take it all the way in and as it’s 18 feet long, it has potential to injure swimmers who don’t or can’t get out of the way. Better to keep it pointed at the shore and to paddle hard if necessary in the shore break to stay on course. That is of course, provided there is reasonable room for the ski to come ashore safely nose first or sideways, as there was on this ride.

This young fellow came up beside me and started a conversation about my ski. After a bit of a chat, his enthusiasm for the ski being obvious, he accepted my offer to taking the captain’s seat and the paddle for a moment or two to see how it felt. He seemed to enjoy that.

Final paddle into the calm of the harbour

After my wave ride into the shore, I paddled back out close to the breakwater (where there are less breaking waves) to the harbour mouth. I didn’t have to slow down too much to comply with the 5 knot speed limit.
The compass pole in the harbour. This is marker around which we often swim. This pole is used by fishing boats and other boats to moor on when swinging the vessel’s compass. This involves measuring minor errors in the magnetic compass readings attributable to interference with the earth’s magnetic field by metallic objects on the boat. The precise errors on various headings are measured and recorded on a compass deviation card (usually fixed to the compass or somewhere very close to it). So if e.g. the boat is actually pointing due magnetic north (360°M), the compass due to interference from objects on the boat may read 357°. This information is recorded on a deviation card which permits the captain or navigator to compensate when using the vessel’s compass to allow him to steer an accurate magnetic course.
Such peace and tranquility in the harbour after the session in good surf.
A most satisfying session ended as peacefully as it started.

A short and beautiful swim

Much of my ocean swimming is done alone. But when I swim out to the reef at the southern end of Mounts Bay, I like to swim with company. Conditions looked good for the reef swim on the low tide around mid morning today so I rang some possible starters to swim with me but they were unable to join me. So a solo swim it was.

The bay between the reef and Hayley Point was not crowded. There was a low tide of 0.7m, no swell and an offshore wind. I was wading in waist deep water at this point.
On the swim out to the reef I duck dived a few times and did some low passes over the sandy seabed in the channel. I have seen better underwater visibility, but the water was certainly clear enough for an enjoyable swim-tour along the fringe of the reef.
As I swam out to the reef I lined up a rocky feature on the reef with a second reference point on the hills in the background to identify which way the current was moving. The current varied across the short swim and this morning it was most noticeable near the shore and near the reef. But at no times was it a problem.
The seabed between the shore and the reef is pure sand without a single rock or marine plant. But the rocky fringe of the reef is covered in a profusion of marine plant life. This was the view as I neared the reef from the west.
Shafts of sunlight illuminating the reef plant life. The ocean here looks and feels so nutrient rich.
Towards the southern end of the reef, the water in the channel I swam across is much deeper than it is at the northern end. The underwater fringe of the reef slopes down at quite an angle.
Looking south to Hayley Point as I cruised over the shallows beside the reef. The aqua water on the top right is the sandy channel between the reef and the beach..
The plants in the water close to the reef were in constant motion as gentle currents swirled around them.
Bull kelp attached to a rocky underwater outcrop of the reef.
I saw quite a few small fish in this area.
The view due south from the kelp beds beside the reef – Hayley Point on the right. There is a shallow pass in the reef out of frame to the left here which you can swim through to get to the eastern side of the reef. It is full of healthy giant bull kelp which is enjoyable to swim over and through on a low tide, especially in a wetsuit.
I had my usual ocean swim at Apollo Bay this morning which I enjoyed. But the ocean and the underwater views at this reef in these gentle conditions are something else.
My relaxing swim back to shore started from this point. A solo swim at this reef in conditions such as these is a very special privilege.

Wind and Waves

The constant and ever-changing backdrop to life in Apollo Bay is the ocean. Swells come and go on the west coast of Victoria, unlike the wind which blows most days. The size of the swell is determined by storms in higher latitudes deep in the Southern Ocean. The strength and direction of the wind on the reefs and beaches where the waves complete their journey determine the nature and quality of the waves as they reach the reef or shore on which they break.

Little Henty Reef – solid swell in an offshore nor’westerly

This sequence of three images taken in rapid succession shows a sizeable wave breaking about 600m east of Hayley Point on Little Henty Reef. The wind was directly offshore.

This was solid swell. The volume of water in this wave is apparent from the fact that it had already broken over the shallow water above the reef (see the curtain of breaking white and green water forming something of a barrel in the centre of the image), yet there was so much water pushing forward that a second curtain of white water has pushed over the top of the first creating a second lip and curtain of water. In my experience this is not a common feature of a breaking wave.
The two green triangles of breaking water on the right of the image must have been caused by two underwater promontories on the reef lifting these parts of the wave causing them to break ahead of the rest. I have seen and photographed this feature of this wave on many occasions, albeit that it takes different forms depending on the tide, the wind and the size of the wave. Obviously a much shallower part of the reef is beneath the breaking wave on the left of the image. The unbroken section on the right must have deeper water beneath it.

Little Henty Reef – below the surface

The section of Little Henty Reef closest to shore is partially exposed at low tide. It is a swim of between 100m and 300m from shore depending on where you start and whether you swim to the northern or southern end of it. Currents are usually present in the little bay between this reef and the shore, and their direction and strength determine which part of the reef to aim for on the swim out. Swell, tides and currents can create conditions in which it would not be safe to swim out to this reef. I have never swum out to the reef when there were no currents.

I took these three photos on a leisurely solo swim out to the reef on a low tide in early January, when there was not much swell or wind. There was however a solid current flowing parallel to the reef. This photo shows the dense beds of algae in the shallows around the perimeter of the reef.
This was near the southern end of the inshore reef, and as shown by the marine plants the current was flowing and swirling constantly.
After swimming around the reef over the kelp beds which surround it, I swam north of the reef to the open beach for a play in the clean glassy little waves of the shore break. This is a breaking wave not far from shore, shown from the inside.

Apollo Bay back beach – small swell in an offshore westerly

Mounts Bay is the next bay directly south of Apollo Bay. Point Bunbury separates the two bays. Hayley Point and Little Henty reef are at the southern end of Mounts Bay. Locals refer to this stretch of beach as the back beach.

This small swell, looking tidy and groomed courtesy of a steady offshore westerly wind, was breaking around the middle of the Mounts Bay beach. There is a well established sand bar not far from shore here and the waves were essentially closing out (breaking along a long section at the same time, rather than from left to right or right to left) upon reaching the sand bar. There is a shallow channel between these two lines of breaking waves.
This long boarder was not deterred by the constant supply of closeout sets. He spent most of the time while I was watching sitting on his board, and negotiating white water as wave after wave closed out in front of him (and on top of him). I didn’t see him catch an unbroken green section of a wave – but he did get up his board for a few brief rides on the white water after the wave had broken. At least he avoided the slightly busier lineup a little further up the beach.
Up the beach from where the waves were closing out, there was a more rideable break a bit further offshore. These waves were peeling nicely, and a handful of surfers were catching a lot of waves and clearly enjoying themselves. This photo and the next were taken when the surfers were out of frame to the left, paddling back out after their rides. The low point with the sandy beach is Point Bunbury.
The offshore wind working its magic on small clean swell. A quite rideable left in the foreground.
Certainly not overcrowded.
This photo is the first of a sequence of three. This young bloke was catching at least his share of waves, and acquitting himself well on the rides I saw.
To get serious ‘air’ you need a bit of speed for which you need a wave perhaps a little steeper (and ideally larger) than this one. He did well to get his board around 180° while airborne, but instead of continuing to rotate, the nose dug in and he exited stage right. Good attempt.

Shark Warning

Sharks are always in the ocean. The only things that vary for swimmers and surfers in relation to sharks are how close they are, and if a shark is close, being aware of that fact. There are desirable and undesirable modes of achieving such awareness.

On the left below is the GPS track of a recent pre-breakfast 1000m solo swim of mine in the harbour. As shown, I turned around at the harbour mouth. All I saw there was a very large stingray on the seabed, which I often see in that area. I didn’t see any sharks and had no concern about sharks posing any threat to me. Upon returning home, I received a reliable message (from a friend who assumed I had yet to go for my swim) that a shark had been sighted at the harbour mouth heading out to sea. The sighting was around the time I was swimming. Around mid-morning (by which time the shark would’ve been well out to sea or kms along the coast), the Dorsal shark app on my iPhone published the location of the sighting at the harbour mouth (top right image below). A little later the surf life savers had placed the standard shark warning sign on the beach.

This shark sighting demonstrates nothing more than the self-evident proposition that sharks are in the sea, and if you go in the sea, you will be in the sea with sharks. It also demonstrates that warning systems (apart from shark sirens and surf lifesavers clearing people out of the water approximately contemporaneously with a shark sighting) such as an app or a sign on the beach, are by reason of delay largely of historical interest and amount to shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.

I assume on every ocean swim at Apollo Bay that I might at some point be swimming within radar range of a shark minding its own business. I further assume that it’s highly likely that it will have no interest in me. There are numerous types of shark in the area, most of which pose no threat to humans. But if I see a shark fin while I am swimming I will leave the water for a while. On this point, see the postscript to an earlier post on this blog:

https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/05/03/storm-surf/

But the history of the interaction of sharks and people in the water at Apollo Bay is that humans eat a lot of flake, but the sharks leave humans alone. Being partial to the occasional piece of battered flake with my chips, I do hope there’s nothing in the karma thing.

Looking beyond Apollo Bay, records show that the last fatal shark attack in Victoria was at Portsea in 1956.

I think there is a direct parallel between the risk of shark attack at Apollo Bay and the risk posed by venomous snakes on bush walks in the area. On the first 1-2kms of the Great Ocean Walk which commences at Apollo Bay, it appears there is a resident sizeable tiger snake which likes to snooze on the walking path. Its presence has surprised many walkers. I have seen it at close quarters on that track (in mid-winter) and so have many of my friends (all year round). No-one has been bitten or threatened. There are of course plenty of other snakes on that walk, especially in summer.

But save for a generic snake warning at the start of the Great Ocean Walk, there is no ‘recent snake sighting’ warning system. Nor is there a snake sighting app as far as I know. Snakes are in the bush. Sharks are in the sea. Enjoy the bush and the ocean while taking sensible precautions regarding these and any other low level risks.

Little Henty Reef – moderate swell in an onshore southerly

A couple of days ago there was a moderate swell at Apollo Bay. The onshore southerly wind meant the water was a bit rougher and the waves a little less regular than they would have been in offshore or nil wind conditions.

The notchy uneven horizon is a reliable indicator of swell at sea.
You’d need to tighten up your swimming goggles (and perhaps even your Speedos) to duck dive under these waves.
In the aqua barrel of momentarily smooth fast flowing water (just right of centre in the image) is a length of bull kelp going over the falls. A swimmer or surfer in the wrong spot at the wrong time would have a similarly exhilarating experience. But it would have an unpleasant ending as that aqua water is about to smash on the exposed (or very shallow) reef under it. The mass of white water rising in front of that wave has already hit the reef and ricocheted skywards.
After the wave initially broke over the reef, it rapidly changed form and size as it dissipated its energy over the extensive shallow reef beneath it. While a mini barrel can be seen in this photo, it was short lived. The whole wave smashed into chaotic white water shortly after this shot was taken.
This is the first of a sequence of three photos of a single wave taken in rapid succession. This was a larger wave which commenced to break in the shallower water some distance seaward of the exposed part of the reef.
With or without a surfboard, it would be a memorable duck dive under this wave at this point.

The Ocean at Rest

Cape Patton photographed from Apollo Bay beach (Tuxion) under a rising full moon. The thin white line at top right is a meteor.

Morning Ocean Swim (and a King Parrot)

The ocean at Apollo Bay is cool in summer and cold in winter. This is exactly how a group of ocean swimming locals like it. They swim all year round and have been doing so for many years. There are about 20 swimmers in total and on any given day at least a few of them (usually more) will meet at ‘the wall’ for a short swim or a longer swim as the mood takes them. The swim goes ahead in most weather and sea conditions, save for those brought by very strong winds from the east or thereabouts. Photos of such conditions are in an earlier post at: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/10/28/easterly-seas-at-apollo-bay/ . There is always a convivial post-swim catch up over coffee at one of the local cafes.

‘The wall’ is where the stone harbour-wall meets the beach. This is the meeting and starting point for the daily morning swims. These eight were heading in for their Saturday morning swim. There are varying levels of fitness and swimming experience and ability in the group, which are accommodated comfortably by each person swimming on a route of their choice at a pace of their choosing. Some swim in pairs, but larger groupings are rare.
Catching up with each other is an important feature for all the swimmers. So the pre-swim chat, the post swim chat and the chat during a breather at the turn point are never hurried. But in winter the duration of the chat at a turn point can be determined by swimmers needing to resume swimming to stay warm.
The standard routine is to enter the water without rushing. Some wet their face to begin the adaptation to cold water. Everyone wets their goggles. L to R: Will, Aileen, Marion, Boo, Sue N, Sonja, Caroline and Jenny.
I included this shot for the unusual spectacle on the horizon on the left. This is part of the payload and superstructure of a large container ship traversing Bass Strait from west to east. This ship was well out to sea. But as I was taking these photos 600m or so from the swimmers entering the water, the foreshortening effect of the telephoto lens created the illusion of proximity shown.
And they’re off. But it’s not a race. Every now and then some swimmers will casually initiate or accept the challenge of an undeclared race, but it’s all in good spirit. This photo shows another feature of this group – they have only done half a dozen strokes each here and yet they are already heading off in different directions. This always occurs. There is generally a gathering at the turn point, but on the return trip the group once again spreads across the bay at different speeds and in different directions. This adds up to varied arrival times. While there were ten swimmers in the water this morning, at no point was it possible to capture them all in the one photo, either in or out of the water. Independence in the water is the norm.
This demonstrates well the difference between ships and boats. It has been expressed this way: a boat can be carried on a ship but a ship cannot be carried on a boat.
A ninth swimmer (Susan M) arrives just after the others had started swimming. Three swimmers can be seen swimming over an unbroken wave. Not long after Susan arrived, a tenth swimmer (Jim) also joined those already swimming.
Swimmer in the foreground (Will), ship in the background. I was taking photos from a raised vantage point. Will would not have been able to see this ship on the horizon beyond the harbour walls.
The orange buoy is one of the reliable seaward markers provided the sea isn’t too rough. It is one of two used by the harbour dredge to anchor while it clears sand from the harbour mouth. It is about 500m off the beach at the SLSC. On occasions we have used it as a turn marker for a longer 1500m or 2km swim. Will is on the far left, Sonja is directly in line with the buoy and that’s Jenny’s left arm on the right between the waves. The notched horizon is a good indication that there was definitely some swell around this morning.
L to R: Boo, Caroline, Susan M and Sue N. having a leisurely chat at their selected turn point. These five would have swum 500-600m this morning. Marion, not with the group at this point, may have swum further.
Marion (in the pink cap) joined this group at their rest/chat/turn point, probably after swimming a little further north on her own.
Sonja heading back towards the wall after a brief stop at the turn point opposite the servo. Sonja, Aileen, Jenny, Will and Jim would have swum around 1200m all up.
Jenny swimming over a wave showing signs of breaking. As a general rule green water is preferred on a distance swim, but there is no problem duck diving under breaking waves – it just becomes a slower swim.
Jenny cresting a line of green swell. It is exhilarating swimming beyond the surf zone when there are lines of green swell rolling across the bay. Being lifted and lowered on rolling swell is one of the many pleasures of ocean swimming.
Aileen and Jim on the return trip.
L to R: Boo, Susan M, Sonja and Caroline. Not sure if Caroline is forcefully making a point to Boo, or whether they are both leaning against a current or wave.
Jenny and Jim chatting in the shore break at the end of their swim as Aileen swims towards them.
The swim ends. The enjoyment of the company continues. Apollo Bay ocean swimmers reliably turning up virtually every morning of the year for a swim in the company of whoever else turns up, without any specific arrangement, is a wonderful thing.

Portrait of a King Parrot

There is no smooth segue between the topics ‘ocean swim’ and ‘king parrot’, save perhaps for saying just that. So, moving right along and seeing we are now discussing parrots, this juvenile male king parrot landed on the verandah rail at my house and looked at me through a window as I sat reading the newspaper. He hopped around and stared straight at me, as if beckoning me to come outside. I fetched my camera and went outside and he walked along the verandah rail to a position close to me. He was utterly unfazed by being near me. In fact he was much friendlier and more relaxed than the magpies which visit me quite regularly.

He was a most sociable and cooperative subject for this impromptu portrait sitting.

I was not close to the bird for these closeups. I had a telephoto lens on the camera, and had to increase my distance from the bird to take these shots. Sometimes this took several attempts as he would keep walking towards me after I had walked back a bit.
Neck extended and feathers streamlined.
Neck shortened and feathers fluffed out.
Beautiful pose. The sheen on the feathers on his back caught my eye.
At maturity this male will have bright red feathers all over his head and underparts. His wings will remain bright green, with a light green (almost pale blue) stripe on the inner leading edge of his wings (which is partially visible in this photo). His upper beak will be bright orange, in contrast to the female’s dark brown upper beak. There will be hints of deep blue in his dark tail feathers. A dazzling bird, in flight and perched.
What a treat to receive a visit from this exotic and friendly native bird.

A Great Cormorant Riding a Wave, a Swooping Magpie and a Gang of Geese

The ‘great cormorant’, formerly known simply as the ‘large black cormorant’, is unlikely to have objected to the name change. Flattering first names are the preserve of only a handful of Australian birds, such as the graceful honeyeater, the magnificent riflebird, the splendid fairy-wren, the superb fairy-wren and the powerful owl.

Heading the list of birds not quite so fortunate in this regard would almost certainly be the spangled drongo and the lesser noddy.

The great cormorant is said to prefer large bodies of still water. But they frequent coastal waters as well. In the Apollo Bay area, coastal waters are rarely still. This photo was taken from Point Bunbury earlier in the week. Great cormorants are often seen flying up and down the dunes diving and feeding just offshore from the beach south of Point Bunbury.
The great cormorant feeds mainly on fish which it catches by diving. It typically dives up to 20m in depth and stays submerged for up to a minute or so. It swims underwater using only its webbed feet, with its wings folded by its side. This contrasts with the Australasian gannet which uses both its webbed feet and its wings when it wishes to swim deeper than the 10m or so which it achieves from the momentum of its dive. This photo was also taken from Point Bunbury earlier in the week.
There was a moderate swell breaking between Point Bunbury and the mouth of the Barham River at Apollo Bay when this photo was taken. This great cormorant was cruising up and down the shorebreak diving and landing occasionally between waves, presumably feeding. It stayed well clear of the white water.
The great cormorant sports a distinctive bright yellow patch on the cheeks and is the largest of the Australian cormorant family. The other members are the black-faced cormorant, the pied cormorant, the little pied cormorant and the little black cormorant.

A great cormorant cutting it fine on a wave

These five photos are from a series taken at five frames per second in continuous shooting mode. On reviewing the photos of the day, I saw that they included a series of shots of a cormorant appearing to leave its departure from the face of the breaking wave a little late. In the first photo, it appears almost airborne. But the subsequent photos show it seemingly overtaken by the advancing and rising wave and failing to get airborne, culminating in it getting mixed up with the white water. The next photos following in the sequence (not shown below) do not show the cormorant at all. So I can’t confirm whether it became airborne or was submerged as the wave passed over it. If it was the latter, I have no doubt it would have survived given its impressive underwater swimming skills. Perhaps this particular bird hadn’t seen the memo about great cormorants having a preference for still water.

An alternative explanation of course is that this great cormorant, being a master of flying and diving, decided to have a crack at surfing. In that case, he rode the unbroken section of the wave very well, completing the ride by deftly turning back into the white water to flick out over the back as it began to close out on him.

Synchronised great cormorants

Silver gull coming in for a landing just before sunset

Yet another graceful glide to a perfect landing.

Swell breaking over Little Henty Reef

These two shots were taken from a corner of the Great Ocean Road in Apollo Bay, near the banks of the Barham River looking due south. The breaking waves on the south of Little Henty Reef (just off Hayley Point at Marengo) were at a distance of just over 2000m when I took this photo. The sea between the dunes and the white water is Mounts Bay. The swell on this occasion was only moderate, but it was big enough for the offshore bombies (3kms or so ESE of this reef and out of frame) to be working.

Magpies

The Australian magpie is very intelligent, sings most beautifully and in breeding season swoops on any person who it perceives to be a threat. The swooping behaviour is not designed to attack, but to deter. In flight, making contact “…could be very dangerous for the magpie because impact could break its neck.” (Australian Magpie (2nd Edition) (2019) Kaplan G, CSIRO Publishing, 206).

The magpie is a very vocal species. They message extensively to each other, and more generally to the world at large to defend territory or nests. They can recognise individual magpie voices. They have a quiet warbling song, and a much louder powerful carolling. The carolling is often used in territorial defence, but a group of magpies can also carol in chorus after a predator has been successfully repelled – a bit like a football team singing their club song after a win. Magpies also duet, imitating each other’s call. (Australian Magpie, 185-189). Their carolling is one of the most beautiful bird sounds I have heard.

Generations of magpies have lived in the trees along the creek beside my house. This joyous carolling is a common and welcome sound.

There is evidence suggesting that magpies “…can distinguish between individual human faces and learn who is kind or hostile to them”. (Australian Magpie, 127). The magpies whose territory includes my house know that a carefully chosen small snack is sometimes on offer. Over the years I have had many fly from some distance to my feet on the lawn or the deck rail where I am standing when I call out “Maggie”. They will take a small snack if offered, but after eating it will sometimes just stay there a metre or so from me, looking at me. Of course I talk to them, and they are good listeners, leaving when they are ready.

Sometimes they initiate contact with me by landing on the deck rail outside the window closest to where I am inside the house and peering through the window as if to attract my attention. I usually respond by taking a small snack outside and as I walk towards the door to the outside deck, they hop or half fly along the railing to meet me when I come outside. I have made no effort to train them to do this, but one thing is clear, they have successfully trained me to come at their bidding.

Two of my grandchildren sharing the joy of contact with one of the local magpies.

The greens keeper at the local golf club. There is one magpie (a male) which nests in the trees in the background in this photo, which has declared Damian to be his enemy number one. So as Damian does his rounds of the fairways, greens and tees, this magpie regularly swoops on him in full nest-defence mode. The photos below were taken while I was talking to Damian with the mower turned off. The magpie engaged in a relentless cycle of aggressively swooping on him (but never touching him), then briefly retreating to a series of different locations in a close radius around Damian, from which the next sortie would be planned and executed. Interestingly, the magpie never showed any interest in me whatsoever, and on some occasions actually landed near me as it planned its next swoop on Damian. It clearly recognised Damian as its target person.
Most magpies never breed. Only a small minority of birds have surviving offspring. One study suggests that only 14% of all magpies ever reproduce. (Australian Magpie, 99). Accordingly, “….breeding magpies are the high achievers of magpie society. They have survived years of hardship, fought hard to get a territory and have been able to find a partner. The magpies that breed are healthy, mature, experienced and possibly the best stock we have.” (Australian Magpie, 210). In short, Damian’s nemesis is a Top Gun magpie. This tree branch was one of the perimeter points from which it swooped on Damian. The body language of this bird tells the story of his immediate intention.
Damian has taken to wearing flexible nylon wire ties on his cap to encourage the magpie to keep its distance. The magpie here does not look at all deterred.
Magpies use wing flapping and beating, as well as beak clapping as strong and aggressive warning signals. (Australian Magpie, 185). This bird was totally in the zone whether half a metre from Damian’s head, or on the ground regrouping for the next fly past. It seems to have a bit of a wild look in its eye here.
So much for the deterrent value of nylon wire ties. This bird has never actually physically struck Damian. But it seems to revel in swooping him.
The message is clear.
One of the varied approach paths for a close proximity fly past was below the radar at almost ground level. I love the focus on this bird as it manoeuvres getting ready to climb up for another display right in Damian’s face. The undercarriage hasn’t even been retracted here.
All guns blazing.
Compared to the earlier shot of the bird below the radar, this one shows even more intensity as the ‘fists’ are clenched. The target is in the cross-hairs of that laser-like stare and this approach was at speed.
Damian remained impassive, but the magpie was continuously otherwise.
Yet another perimeter location from which to continue the mission. What a beautiful bird. Feathers slightly ruffled by the wind and I suspect by all that acrobatic manoeuvring.
Climbing away after the final fly past at high speed with landing gear retracted. Full sound effects.

Cropped enlargements from two of the above photos, showing the detail of this magnificent bird in full defence mode.

Apollo Bay Harbour Residents and Visitors

These are domestic geese, who belong to nobody, and to everybody in Apollo Bay. They live in and around the harbour. They are arrogant, very pushy when they think food is in the offing and they often get on each other’s goat resulting in some cranky honking and hissing and extended-neck fake charges at each other. They swaggered towards me with a superior and proprietorial air. It was significantly less than a welcome. I felt as though I had wandered into a bad neighbourhood. So I avoided direct eye contact, kept moving and felt grateful to be ignored.
The gang leader.
This goose seemed to be drinking, but it would have been salt water. I can’t find any suggestion anywhere that it has some sort of water desalination filter (such as is found in certain seabirds e.g. penguins, albatrosses, pelicans) – but maybe it does.
It was definitely eating this sea lettuce (green algae).
Goose giving me an unblinking stare from close quarters. I blinked first.
Spur-winged plover.
The sooty oyster-catcher and the Australian pied oyster catcher. They spend much of their life on rocky tidal shorelines. These strongly built birds use “…powerful pecks, stabs or hammering to open heavily armoured prey including mussels, limpets, chitons and sea urchins.” (Menkhorst, P and others, The Australian Bird Guide, 2017, CSIRO Publishing. 122). The sooty oyster catcher nests on offshore islands and sea stacks. The pied oyster catcher nests “…on ground in open settings near shore, especially on beaches and dunes…” (Menkhorst, P & others, 122). These birds have many common features, and share the same habitat. I find it interesting that they evolved in different directions with their contrasting plumage. What evolutionary purpose is served by this difference?
Australian pied oyster catcher and silver gull ignoring the ‘birds of a feather’ principle.
Crested terns. I always think of the crest on this bird as being like some sort of edgy hairdo that only a cool bird would sport. Not sure what’s going on with the wing action here – could be drying their wings.
Crests lowered (not fallen) and preening taking priority over feeding for this pair.
Apollo Bay harbour, with the air full of crested terns and lesser crested terns wheeling in all directions not long after one of their periodic group takeoffs.

Classic Spring Weather in Apollo Bay

Spring arrived as if a switch had been flicked. The air is warmer, the sun is brighter and the ocean somehow no longer looks wintry. Well, at least that was how it looked before the gale force winds arrived.

All these photos were taken in the first 7-8 days of spring 2020.

A morning ocean swim under a clear blue sky

This beach is 300m from my front door. It’s not always this calm.
I was the only person in the water when I swam. The wind was very light and on my back as I entered the water.
The figures on the beach in the centre of the image are Sue and Marion, swimming friends of mine. They were walking north to enjoy the swim back to the harbour wall in these conditions. I have taken better portraits of my friends. This was taken during a pause in my swim when I was directly out from the surf life saving club.
Glassy green waves standing up over the sandbar.
Behind the wave as it breaks. That’s not rain hitting the water, but spray which the offshore wind was blowing over the back of the wave as it broke. It falls like rain, and pings on my wetsuit hood or cap just as rain does.
More spray being blown over the back, not rain. Marriners Lookout on the horizon.

A cold front passes over Apollo Bay

We woke to near gale force winds this morning. A cold front was approaching and the north westerly wind increased in strength as it got closer. I timed my morning swim to coincide with the arrival of the front. Cloud cover increased and the wind slowly backed around from NNW to NW and eventually around to the W. It progressively eased as the front moved through and headed for Melbourne and eastern Victoria.

Unlike swimming conditions in recent days, the sun struggled to put in an appearance. The best it could manage through the thickening cloud was this pale white light which looked more like moonlight over the water than morning sun on a spring day.
As the cloud cover increased the sun’s last hurrah before the front and the rain arrived was this weak torchlight display over Cape Patton.
Then the sun disappeared behind the cloud that arrived with the front. I was swimming not far from shore over the sandbar which is where the waves were standing up green and clean (as shown) before breaking in the shallows. This wave is very similar to the wave in the fourth photo in this post. But the difference in the light (sunny skies compared to dull overcast) casts a very different colour and appearance on the water.

Some ocean swimming markers

Most of my ocean swimming is done between the Apollo Bay harbour wall and points north. Some trips are one-way, but mostly they are out and back swims. The Tuxion beach steps, the wooden lookout structure on the dunes and the surf life saving club building are frequently used distance measuring and/or turning points. The following three images show these locations. Use the slider to better locate these reference points.

These photos (and a few others in this post) were taken with my GoPro camera on a dull day while rain was falling. The GoPro (or at least the model I have) excels in bright light but not otherwise. Apologies for the lack of clarity, especially on the magnified parts of these three photos.

The steps at Tuxion beach on a day of very small swell. When we swim in solid swell it is usually much bigger at this spot than in the south of the bay near the harbour wall where in most conditions the water is more protected. There are days when we have swum north from the wall and paused directly out from these steps before swimming back that the size and force of the breaking surf between us and the shore (we swim well offshore on such days) is enough to make the 800m return swim back to the wall a decidedly more attractive option than swimming ashore through such shorebreak. Sometimes the distance from shore we have chosen to ensure we stay seaward of the big breaking waves proves to have been underestimated and we have to duck dive under a breaking wave as a big set comes through and breaks seaward of us.
The lookout. This is located just 100m or so south of the servo (another popular turn point and distance measurer) or Thompson St to be more formal. The lookout has a peculiar non-rectangular plan form such that there are quite a number of spots out to sea from which it can be viewed and from which it appears you are on a line at 90° from the shore. Accordingly, I consider myself directly east of it when the light pole some distance behind it appears in line with the lookout, as shown.
The Apollo Bay Surf Life Saving Club building. The marker here for me is the clearly defined track through the dunes in front of the clubhouse. I consider myself at this landmark when I can see the fence on both sides of this track.

Rain drops, not spray from a breaking wave

One reason for planning my ocean swim to coincide with the arrival of the cold front and the band of rain it brought, was the hope of swimming in strong winds and heavy rain for a short time, perhaps with a bit of thunder in the distance for atmosphere. As anybody who has done it can attest, swimming in such conditions is most enjoyable. But it was not to be. Instead of rampaging across Apollo Bay, this front just sauntered in to town, taking its time, being polite, saving its thunder for some other day and providing merely grey clouds and steady light rain with not much wind at all. I don’t believe any rain even registered in the gauge. This photo shows a few raindrops, not spray from breaking waves. The swim was still very pleasant. There was a small bit of swell between me and the harbour when I took this photo. Near the top left of the image the masts of yachts in the harbour are visible.

Silver gulls at Peterborough

The mature silver gull has bright orange bill, legs and eye rings. These birds were juveniles. The colour of the legs etc on these birds has been faithfully reproduced in these photos.

This photo was taken on a cold day. This bird looked very cosily covered in feathers to survive the cold air temps and colder sea temps on the Victorian coast in winter. This might be a ‘Peterborough and surrounds’ evolutionary thing for silver gulls. It can be very cold there by the sea in winter.
What a fine, healthy and self-assured looking specimen. Am I imagining just a hint of sternness in where its right eyebrow would be if it had one? It did not tolerate me getting very close to it. This was taken with a large telephoto lens.

A calm, golden evening at Apollo Bay

Apollo Bay harbour late afternoon. I generally consider buying a cruising yacht on these walks. But when I mention it to Liz, she says ‘Fine’, then adds, ‘Write to me.’ She has a way with words.
The fleet of working and recreational boats. Only one visiting boat that I could identify here. A local sailor could probably spot more.
Liz watching the lengthening shadows about to merge into evening light.
Long board rider enjoying small but golden waves as the sun disappeared behind the hills. Whether this was the last ride of the day or the first ride of the evening is a moot point.
Where Apollo Bay beach meets the harbour wall. The locals call this protected beach Mothers’ Beach.

Gale force winds ahead of another cold front

This cold front brought very strong winds to Victoria, especially along the coast. Close isobars, steep pressure gradient, stronger winds, wind blowing anticlockwise around a high and slightly angled across the isobars to the outside of the system etc etc

I woke to gale force winds rocking the house. I drove to Hayley Point as soon as it was light, as this is where the interesting stormy seas in the area are usually seen at their best. But as this weather event was a big wind, not a big swell, there wasn’t much to see in Mounts Bay. There was a bit of swell as shown above but it wasn’t getting a chance to stand up at all. The 35-40 knot wind was flattening the waves and blowing the breaking crests back at water level, not in the elegant rising and curving manes of white water seen behind big surf in normal offshore winds.
So I drove to Pt Bunbury (near the golf course in Apollo Bay). This is an easterly point surrounded by sea on three sides. With the wind howling in from the NW, there was a fetch of some kms of ocean between the north of the bay and Pt Bunbury. Of all the local vantage points the wind would be strongest here. This is because the stretch of relatively frictionless ocean over which the wind had blown since it left the land in the north of the bay was long enough to allow the wind to accelerate at sea level in a way it cannot accelerate at ground level over hills, trees, houses and other obstacles which create friction and which hold it back. So I chose an elevated green on the windward side of this point from which to measure the wind speed.

I measured the wind at Pt Bunbury at 41 kts (76kph). This is a Hall wind gauge used by hang glider pilots. It is calibrated in knots and is quite accurate. It can be used as shown to measure wind speed. Alternatively, it can be used (and I used it in this way) as an airspeed indicator when attached to the base bar of the hang glider.

Winds at just 2000 feet above means sea level were calculated by one of my weather apps to be over 50 knots (92kph). Many locations at elevations of this order and above experienced winds of this strength and more on this morning.

The wind was of sufficient strength while I was trying to take a photo of the wind gauge, that on more than one occasion I was blown back and had to take a backward step to stay upright. When the wind speed doubles, its force increases four fold, when it triples, the force increases nine-fold etc. So this 40 knot wind compared to a 10 knot wind had 16 times the force. It felt like it.

35-45 knot winds lashing Apollo Bay harbour and dunes. The sand I got in my eyes taking this video took two days to disappear.
Looking due east over the mouth of the Barham River as the gale force winds tore the tops off the waves, lifting water from the surface and turning whitewater into high speed smoking trails of spray. In small areas where the gusts are noticeably stronger the wind lifts more spray from the water. Spray blown from cresting waves during a gale is known as spindrift.
A marked area of spindrift offshore from Pt Bunbury.
Turbulent gale force winds, spindrift rising from the sea, shorebreak flattened by the wind, wave crests ragged and blown away, stormy seas to the horizon and a great crested tern soaring over it all. An adult great crested tern weighs only 275-370g. Its fine hollow bones and aerodynamically perfect array of feathers not only survive in this wild wind, but allow the bird to positively revel in it. This bird was not struggling at all in these conditions, and flew with its usual precision and purpose. What a delicate and wonderful counterpoint the presence of such a bird is to the mighty forces of the stormy ocean over which it flies.
There is a craypot buoy visible just right of centre and near bottom border of the image. This pot wasn’t checked while I was there. I wonder if crayfish have any idea there is a gale blowing above the surface of the water above them. I suspect they don’t. When swimming in rough water I often remind myself that it’s only rough on the surface. Crayfish could well do the same.
Little Henty Reef. This photo was taken from 2100m away on Pt Bunbury. Only small swell was breaking, but the spray was blowing downwind for hundreds of metres like white smoke streaming downwind from a bushfire. This spray consists of water droplets which have mass, which when blown off the top of a breaking wave would normally fall to the water surface close behind the wave. Streaming spray falls the same vertical distance in stronger winds, but in a 40+kt wind the spray travels much further horizontally while it is falling. Spray as shown here only occurs in very high winds.
Apollo Bay harbour in gale force winds. I suppose I should’ve taken a video to properly convey this fact. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

An ocean swim after the wind eased

An hour or so after I measured the wind at Pt Bunbury at 41 knots, this was the scene at Tuxion beach looking north. I went for a solo swim to the north and back again (1000m). The wind was still strong, but because it was offshore at this end of the bay, such swell as was there was completely flattened. Whitecaps are not visible because the wind must travel some distance before whitecaps are formed. The stronger the wind, the shorter the distance it takes to create wind waves and whitecaps.

Final Days of Winter in Apollo Bay

We had a quick taste of spring weather, then winter finished in style.

The high over Apollo Bay provided clear skies and a warmish day, while swell from the south west reached our shores ahead of the low pressure system that created it. This water was winter-cold to swim in. The preview of spring was followed immediately by winter’s last official hurrah. The photo shows the main beach (east facing) at Apollo Bay.
It was a small swell, but groomed nicely by the light offshore wind. This wave is typical of the close-out sets on the sandbank which parallels the shore on the main beach at Apollo Bay.
An eastern great egret normally found along the banks and exposed mud flats of the Barham River, amongst the trees and vegetation on the banks of Milford Creek seeking shelter from rough weather. It was very aware of my presence even though I was quite a distance away. It kept a close eye on me. Interestingly, on its home ground on the Barham River it is cautious, but treats me with much less regard and something more like disdain. This photo was taken from my east-facing verandah. To see photos of this bird in its more usual environment, see my post devoted to the elegant eastern great egret: https://southernoceanblog.com/2018/08/24/the-eastern-great-egret/ Another post on this blog also features this beautiful bird: https://southernoceanblog.com/2018/08/24/the-eastern-great-egret/
The late afternoon view from my back verandah on a still afternoon when salty mist from the surf hung in the air getting golder by the minute as the sun neared the hilly western horizon.
Tuxion Road. Also Cawood St. It was as peaceful and quiet as it looked. But next day winter returned with a strengthening cold northerly / nor’ westerly wind followed by a cold front and gale force winds with rain and hail.
The air temperature dips quickly once we are in the shadow of the hills. A neighbour beat us to the punch at putting a match to the wood fire in preparation for the cold night that followed.
For the few hours before dark a couple of days ago, the swell picked up sufficiently for surfers to consider it worth the paddle out at the Point. Some waves were ridden. Looking south past Hayley Point at Marengo. The wind picked up the next day and blew for days as the last cold front for winter marched over the state.
Photographer on the spot at Hayley Point to capture some late afternoon light on the surf.

Katey and I, recognising each other through the telephoto lenses, each had the same idea.

Photo by Katey Shearer
This photo was taken from a roadside parking spot on the GOR overlooking the surf break known locally as Sledgehammers. The point in the distance is Cape Patton, about 5kms as the gannet flies from where I was standing to take the photo. Another local surf break known as Boneyards, is about a third of the way between the point I was on and Cape Patton. I saw no surfers in the water with the naked eye nor did I notice any through the telephoto lens as I took these photos. I was not surprised given the strength of the wind and the amount of water moving over and around the various reefs between me and Cape Patton.

If you are not particularly interested in surfers and waves, the photos under ‘Lone surfer – photo 1’ will probably be quite enough to get the general idea of a solo surfer well offshore in these seas and weather conditions. Photos 2 & 3 show the same surfer surrounded by different waves.

Lone surfer – photo 1

So it was with quite some surprise that I later learned there was a solitary surfer out in the very waters I had photographed. Upon checking the photos the evening after taking them, I noticed what I initially thought might have been a seal some distance out to sea. On zooming in I could see that I had unwittingly taken a photo of a lone surfer, wetsuited and hooded, sitting on his board way out in the middle of this cold, windy and moving ocean. He would’ve paddled out at Boneyards. I believe the tide wasn’t ideal for surfing this location at that time, which may explain why there was only one surfer out. Seeing a solo surfer out in big waves and wild seas in winter is not an uncommon event along the west cost of Victoria. Respect.

The two photos following are cropped enlargements taken from the preceding photo to better show the location of the surfer.

An alternative method of locating the lone surfer: use the arrows in the circle to slide left and right between these two images to see the surfer’s location on the magnified portion of the second photo.

Lone surfer – photo 2

This sequence of images follows the same format as those of the surfer in photo 1: original photo, two increasingly enlarged cropped portions of that photo, and two slide images with the area around the surfer magnified on the second image.

Lone surfer photo 3

The dark object on the centre left of the image is exposed reef as the water sucks out towards the approaching breaking wave.
Solid swell from the south marching directly into very strong winds from the north.