The experience of sunrise is greatly enhanced by full immersion in cold ocean water. It is not possible to feel anything other than fully alive when greeting the day in this manner.
Indeed, in late August at Apollo Bay it is not possible to feel anything much at all after a lengthy ocean swim, apart from exhilaration. Fingers and toes cease sending messages to mission control, the gift of speech is reduced to short words only understandable if accompanied by sign language, and whistling is completely impossible until after the administration of hot tea or coffee. But the water on this day was 14°C, which is cool rather than cold.
Sunrise at Marengo in autumn
Moderate swell on Little Henty Reef off Hayley Point
Whenever a solid swell is forecast for this coast, some locals in Apollo Bay quietly start to pay just a little more attention to the weather maps, to their tried and tested omens and to the feeling in their bones. They gaze out to the horizon for signs of swell, they judge the frequency and size of the small swell breaking in the bay hoping to be able to describe it as ‘building’, and they keep checking for any visible action on the bombies a few kms offshore. Surfers, fishing boat skippers, swimmers and photographers are among those who will be variously delighted, thwarted or simply awestruck if the Southern Ocean delivers big swell from storms gathering in the cold and desolate southern latitudes well to the south of the Great Australian Bight. The trajectory of the low pressure systems and the associated cold fronts and troughs will be closely followed to learn whether, or where and with what force the weather will hit the Victorian west coast.
The following information and forecasts (screenshots from my iPhone) are the first omens I consulted when there was talk of solid swell on the way. They were auspicious enough to warrant me charging up the camera batteries, preparing the wet weather gear and getting just a bit excited about the reasonable prospect of big swell on May 1 and 2 at Apollo Bay and along the Victorian west coast generally.
The swell was forecast for Friday and Saturday on the first two days of May. So on the last day of April I visited the local reefs and a point where any early signs of swell would be apparent. I have seen forecasts of sizeable swell which failed to deliver. I have also seen substantial swell when none was forecast.
But last Thursday, on the eve of its forecast day of arrival there was no swell.
The swell arrives
A-row for Southern Ocean watchers
Storm waves on Marengo reefs and south of Hayley Point
Hooded plover and a sooty oyster catcher
The majesty and power of the Southern Ocean in a storm
I saw a fin
Ocean swimming is a favourite activity of mine. I have been doing it for many years. One way or another, I have been playing in the ocean for over 50 years. During that period the only sharks I have ever seen in the water are (harmless) reef sharks while snorkelling in the Solomon Islands, a bronze whaler (which seemed to ignore us) while swimming in the shore break at Fishery Bay near Pt Lincoln in South Australia, and a number of large great whites off Neptune Island while on a cage dive organised for that purpose. I have thought about the topic a bit, and my carefully considered view is that seeing a shark in the water, much less being attacked by one, is a very low risk at the places I choose to swim. I remain of that view.
Today was my 48th consecutive day of swimming 1000m or more in the ocean at Apollo Bay (a continuing little project of mine during the pandemic lockdown). I swam a short distance in the bay, then topped up for my 1000m in the harbour. Those 48 swims included one night swim.
I swam out from the harbour wall this morning heading for the wooden lookout for a 1000m round trip. The crew I usually swim with were all leaving the water as I headed off. I had the bay entirely to myself. About 300m from where I entered the water, and about 180m offshore, I was swimming in a leisurely rhythm against a slight head current just enjoying the space and peace. I was not in a rush, and I didn’t care that my Garmin watch indicated I was closer to 3:00/100 pace than 2:00/100m. Each time I breathed to the left I could see the passing scenery on shore and knew the ramp and walkway up to the SLSC were about to come into my direct line of sight. There was nothing and no one to disturb my relaxing reverie. But then there was something.
About 20m to my left I saw a shiny dark dorsal fin emerge while moving south (the opposite direction to me). I saw it surface, stay level for a short time and then subside not to be seen by me again. It did not appear to change speed or direction as we passed each other. I immediately turned left 90° and headed to shore by the most direct route. It was more a case of observing that I did this, rather than recalling any conscious decision to head to shore. I am pleased that I turned before I had a chance to think about it. No point wasting time making decisions. I sensed no adrenaline rush or racing pulse or altered breathing rate. But I did increase my pace and take a few looks over each shoulder to see if the fin or its owner had reappeared. I also hoped to see a few dolphins swimming nearby as had occurred recently when swimming not far from here with four of my swimming friends. But there was no fin and there was no pod of dolphins. There was nothing but glassy ocean.
At one point on the return to shore, without losing forward speed I rolled through 360° changing from freestyle to a couple of strokes of backstroke then back to freestyle, to allow a quick look at the ocean behind me. No fin. Nothing to see to offer a chance at identifying what had swum past me. Just glassy water. My normal roll and breathe routine sees me looking out to each side at about 90 degrees to my direction of travel. The swim to shore for much of the journey saw me looking back over each shoulder as I breathed. I was conscious that I was swimming harder and faster than usual, and I do remember deciding it was probably best to keep doing that. I do remember thinking I should splash as little as possible. I kept swimming until my fingertips were brushing the sand. I was definitely pleased to stand up in shin deep water. I stood on the shore for a while looking out to sea for something, anything that would inform me as to how to file this experience. But there was nothing.
Upon reflection, I would certainly leave the water immediately if this happened again. An ocean swimmer responds to a solitary dorsal fin nearby (with an unidentified owner) the way a chicken responds to the silhouette of a hawk in the sky above it, whether it’s a cardboard cutout or a raptor with intent. But was it a shark or a dolphin? There is no way to reach a sound conclusion either way. There are solid entries for column A and column B. I don’t have enough information to resolve what it was. The fin did not have that inward curve on the trailing edge typical of a dolphin fin. Also, the movement I saw was not the familiar top of the parabola appearance and disappearance of the fin and part of the body – there was no hint of ‘porpoising’. Further, it only surfaced once while I was looking, which is not typical of dolphin behaviour I have witnessed. I understand dolphins can swim alone, but most that I have ever seen around here are in pairs or larger groups. The fin owner appeared to be swimming alone. It was definitely not a seal. I saw no disturbance of water behind the trail of the fin which could have suggested a vertical shark fin. Yet it showed no interest in me. The most recent swim I had with dolphins (with four friends) saw them acknowledge our presence and swim towards us from a distance of greater than 20m. The fin was of a size which gave the impression of something bigger than me, but not something huge.
I intend to continue to leave the water when solitary dark dorsal fins on unidentified creatures swim in my vicinity. Today’s prematurely concluded swim must be filed as merely an interesting experience. I will of course continue to swim in the bay.
The unimpressive track of my brief swim. Note the initial relaxed pace of 2:32/100m at 60 strokes per minute (the watch records only the left arm, hence 30spm = 60spm).
This initial relaxed pace contrasts with my pace after the 90° turn. My initial pace improved from 2:32/100m to 1:56/100m, and my stroke rate went up from 60 to 68. The second window shows that I then settled down to a steady 2:00/100m pace, but at 70 strokes per minute which I sustained!
Images from recent days in Apollo Bay doing stuff that requires only time – all within walking distance of home.
The New Holland Honeyeater and the House Sparrow
These birds literally flew between my camera lens and the surf break I was trying to focus on. They landed on cliff-top scrub that was just below my line of sight to the reef. As there were lengthy breaks between sets of waves, I wound the telephoto lens right back and took a few shots of these feathery little photo bombers from close quarters.
Ocean scenery & ocean swims
The first two swims were done in the conditions and at the times and locations shown in the photos with the sunrise and the steps. The third swim was done in calm water – I just love the photo (which showed the conditions about two kms south of where I swam).
Surf & Surfers
Seamus looking for speed as the lip started to throw out overhead. The other photo shows the end of the ride on this wave, with Australian fur seals relaxing on the reef in the background.
Tommy can certainly lay claim to paddling out and over an unbroken section of this interesting and unrideable wave. But the wave he was heading out to ride was on the break to his right as he paddled out (as shown top right), which while not quite as spectacular, was eminently rideable.
The third photo was taken as the wave was closing out, the ride was over, and Tommy decided to bail out over the back of the wave. The photo captured the moment when it appeared he was levitating from the deck of his board to achieve this exit.
Leroy is over 60 and surfs like a young bloke.
Angus is a young bloke who was giving it a red hot go on this day. Those are his feet in the air on the left as he decided against a duck dive on the board, and simply dived for depth relying on the leg rope to bring his surfboard with him. It was a solid wall of white water. The timing of his dive looked pretty good to me.
This is Angus completing a long ride by pulling on a bit of speed then shooting up the face of the fading wave and through the crest of white water for an exuberant airborne exit over the back.
In these difficult times we need the facts. But we don’t need them 24 hours a day. I offer these images hoping they might provide an agreeable distraction and an opportunity to be pleasantly lost in your own thoughts of other things and other places, even if only briefly, upon contemplating the scenes below.
These photos were all taken in or near Apollo Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.
Apollo Bay in Autumn
The Southern Ocean
My photographer’s eyrie, sheltered from the wind and overlooking Little Henty Reef and the Southern Ocean beyond.
That white spot on the grass is a rock I put there to rest my camera monopod on so the camera is at a comfortable height on the sloping ground.
A remote Southern Ocean beach without a name on a rugged little bay on the west coast of Victoria. Sounded ideal. Was. Lizzie and I packed a good map, a picnic lunch, my wetsuit and snorkelling gear and the waterproof camera. We also carried a mud map drawn by a helpful local to assist us in finding this beach. Bit of a trek from where the road ended, but worth it. It was a wonderful few hours respite from the world notwithstanding that the sky was overcast, the visibility underwater wasn’t very good and the March flies were out in force living up to their calendar connection. While many landed on us in their usual annoying way, neither of us got bitten for some reason – a bonus we gratefully accepted.
The awesomeness of an ocean swim with wild dolphins.
I have only had wild dolphins intentionally swim to me and with me on two occasions.
The first occasion was in the late 1970s off Thistle Island in the Southern Ocean at the mouth of Spencer Gulf. There is a sheltered beach on the north side of this island, from which I swam out 200m or so to be a little closer to a couple of dolphins cruising around quietly. I didn’t know how they would react to my appearance, but I was confident the worst possible reaction would be that they would simply ignore me. My confidence was not misplaced. As I drew closer, they swam straight towards me. Then followed an unforgettable engagement as they slowly swam around me, under me, surfacing and diving near me. They made a variety of sounds which I could hear very clearly when my head was underwater. That swim is etched indelibly in my mind.
Fast forward 40 years and a bit.
This GPS track of yesterday’s ocean swim shows the corner of our bay at Apollo Bay where the beach meets the harbour wall. For years friends and I have swum varying distances from this corner to varying turn points, in all seasons and sea conditions and in all types of weather. The usual out-and-back course is a straightish leg going out to the north, and a similar leg coming back, sometimes with a curve in it following the arc of the beach. Dolphins are the explanation for the departure of this swimming track from the norm.
Over my years of ocean swimming at Apollo Bay I have seen stingrays large and small, many varieties of fish including tuna and barracuda, banjo sharks, a penguin, a sea snake, an octopus, Australian fur seals, dolphins, southern right whales and humpback whales. From time to time to my knowledge we have also been visited by mako sharks, blue sharks and on one occasion a 15 foot basking shark. There are numerous occasions on which I have been swimming when dolphins were visible in the distance, but there was no interaction of any sort. A forty foot southern right whale once showed mild and fleeting interest in me while I was paddling my surf ski, by swimming towards me, surfacing near me, looking at me and then silently sinking below the surface and moving on out to sea. I have also had seals do a lap around me and dive directly below my surf ski, but they never lingered. Those few exceptions aside, such sightings have not involved any form of interaction with the creature being observed.
But yesterday morning was different. There was very little wind, the sea was calm and there was no swell to speak of. It was overcast and about ninety minutes after low tide. As five of us walked into the sea near the wall to commence our daily swim, we spotted the unmistakeable lazy rising and falling fins of a small group of dolphins about 75m past the corner of the wall. Without any discussion the five of us started swimming out towards them.
As we got to within 25-30m of the dolphins, some of them swam directly towards us. Each of us repeatedly had the wonderful experience of one or a pair of dolphins gliding directly beneath us, at a depth of no more than a couple of metres. We were all floating face down, loathe to look up for a breath in case we missed the next pass. We were not disappointed. Suzie, who was first out to the dolphins, had a large adult dolphin swim under her and roll on its back and look at her. She was rapt. As the other 3 or 4 adults had a calf with them, we speculated later that this may have been the senior male of the group checking out the first visitor.
After swimming close to us for a period, the group of 3 or 4 adults and the calf would wander a little further out to sea then pause to continue playing amongst themselves, circling and diving and generally gliding about. We would then swim towards them again, and the whole scene of them swimming back directly towards us, then around us and very close to us would be repeated. We gave it away when we were 400m or so offshore and put our heads down and swam to shallower water near the beach. The dolphins headed out to sea.
It was a rare privilege to have these beautiful creatures choosing to be around us and seeming to accept us wanting to be close to them, even if only for a short time. What a swim this turned out to be. As I was leaving the water, the world seemed a brighter place than it did before this swim.
I did have a look over the barrier and the steps were not at all inviting. I think the warning is accurate.
Sea stacks from a different angle
Down a rough dirt track
The slender headland with sheer cliffs on both sides.
I have been visiting the coast around Port Campbell for many years, and I am still discovering new places. This is one of them. I had never even heard about this spot. As is usually the case, taking the road less travelled proved very rewarding.
This was the view looking south from the end of the track. The slender headland shown in the aerial photo above is on the right in both images. There was a sandy beach at the head of this cove, and clear aquamarine water in the tiny bay with a seabed of reefs and kelp beds.
NOTE: I would not take children out on the narrow headland. With care and common sense, it can be walked. But in my view it remains a dangerous place with an element of risk not present at other attractions along this coast. It can be safely and satisfyingly viewed without walking out on this headland. Warning signs in the area warn of the dangers and risks here.
These images show the precarious state (at least to my uneducated eye) of the two headlands jutting out into the ocean at this location.
The first two photos show the headland (and a closeup of it) immediately to the east of the narrow headland. Apart from the various layers eroding at different rates due to their different composition, there are two major cracks visible near the top of this headland. Perhaps it would not be an entirely foolish guess that at some point the top third or more of this cliff will fall into the sea, leaving a clean new face exposed to the elements for slower processes to continue working on. The fourth photo below under the heading ‘Muttonbird Island’ shows a cliff on a headland where just such a separation has occurred (albeit in the lower rather than the upper section of the cliff face on the headland). It appears to have created something of a small reef directly where it fell.
The other two photos show the western edge of the cliff edge on the western side of the slender headland. At this height, the rock and limestone is only being eroded by wind and rain. Once again, the harder layers survive and the limestone is first to go. The small fragment extending out in the bottom image was as it looks – almost paper thin. It looked as though it would snap as easily as a thin dry biscuit. There are no footholds or handholds on these worn fragments, and some appear to be barely holding their own weight.
Looking north from the middle of the narrow headland at the beaches and caves in the gorges either side.
Sherbrook River beach is 1200m west of the beach in Loch Ard Gorge. It can only be reached on foot. Even on the day this photo was taken, there being no surf to speak of, there was quite a bit of water moving in and near this bay. There was a rescue tragedy here in April last year when two life savers (father and son) from Port Campbell lost their lives when they responded to the call to help a tourist who was swept out of his depth in huge seas at this location. They travelled in a rescue craft from Pt Campbell to the Sherbrook Beach area and it capsized in the huge breaking waves near the adjacent cliffs. The tourist was winched to safety by a helicopter and survived. That story is briefly told in the post on this blog titled, ‘Two Swims West of Cape Otway’ published 8 February 2020. The paragraph on the sign headed ‘Unpatrolled Area’ appears to have been added after the sign was originally made and installed. I don’t know whether or not it was one of the responses to the tragic incident at this beach. One might have thought the first two warnings on the sign should have been enough to deter anyone from even putting a toe in the water on a day of huge swell.
Loch Ard Gorge and Muttonbird Island
The sandy beach in the top right of the image is the Loch Ard Gorge beach. In 1878 the clipper Loch Ard was wrecked on a reef on Muttonbird Island in fog and treacherous seas. Of 17 crew and 37 passengers, only two survived. Both were washed into the gorge now know as Loch Ard Gorge. Sizeable intact parts of the Loch Ard are still on the seabed on the south western tip of Muttonbird island. It is a site which attracts scuba divers when conditions permit diving in the location. The Loch Ard was a clipper, which is a square rigged three masted sailing ship. It was 263 feet long, with a beam of 38 feet and it drew 22 feet of water. It weighted 1693 tons and its masts were around 150 feet high.
This small cove which is immediately adjacent to Loch Ard Gorge (on the western side), has a large cave at its northernmost point, and an interesting door shaped cavity nearer the seaward point. I’d love to investigate this area on the right day in a small boat. The second of these photos shows the fracture surface left after the southern tip of the headland completely broke away in a moment or two, rather than eroding away gradually.
Left: a fracture line on the eastern tip of Muttonbird Island, indicating a possible eventual point of separation of this point into the sea below. The debris would probably form a reef if the water was not too deep at that location.
Right: On the northern end of Muttonbird Island there is a tunnel I never knew about until the day I took this photo. There is every indication that it gives clear passage (for a swimmer at least) through to the small circular bay on the other side of the arch. Plainly the route of choice if swimming around this island.
Just off Hayley Point, south of Apollo Bay (on the south east coast of Australia), lies Little Henty Reef. It consists of two rocky low-elevation islands. The closest is about 150m from shore, and the furthest is around 600m offshore. There is a channel between them. This reef system is exposed to big swells from the Southern Ocean. Large waves and gale-force winds from the Roaring Forties are common in this part of the world. Despite such weather and sea conditions Little Henty Reef is the permanent home of about 200 Australian fur seals.
The two reefs and their immediately adjacent waters are protected by the 12 hectare Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary. The area is rich in marine life and is ideal for snorkelling (especially on the reef closest to the shore) when conditions permit. (See my blog post published 13 January 2020, titled ‘My first underwater look at Little Henty Reef, Apollo Bay’). There are many days when conditions do not permit.
The Seals, the Kayakers and the Swell
The Seals and the Swell
Little Henty Reef is at the southern end of Mounts Bay. The adjacent bay to the north is Apollo Bay. Seals from the Little Henty colony often make their way around into Apollo Bay, either singly or in pairs. I have had them approach me on my surf ski, and playfully dive around and under the ski. I have seen them in the water while I was swimming, but they have never approached me as a swimmer. They often hang around the harbour mouth feeding if the opportunity arises but mostly they just loll around seeming to enjoy the change of scenery.
Earlier this evening, three days after the photos of the kayakers were taken, I wandered out along the town jetty and came across this solitary seal enjoying the view from his vantage point on the harbour wall. After all the distance shots of seals in this post, I thought a few closeups of a seal might be of interest. These images were taken with a zoom lens.
The Australasian gannet has a remarkable set of flying and feeding skills. It is also a very beautiful bird.
It’s perfectly adapted for flying and soaring, as well as for diving at high speed into the sea to catch fish. An Australasian gannet can fly in excess of 500km in a day seeking food, at speeds of 35-40 knots. It soars whenever possible on its outstretched 2m wings. I admire the capabilities of this bird.
They sometimes herd fish (pilchards are favourites) into dense shoals by soaring 10m or so above the surface. Then they dive and eat. They fold their wings back to dive from heights of 15m or so, with the ability to repeatedly dive to depths of 15-20m. They can also dive effectively from lower heights, usually done in rougher conditions. They hit the water at speeds up to 80kph (some say higher speeds are reached in the dive) and can propel themselves and manoeuvre under water (i.e. swim!) using their wings. They have been observed to catch as many as five fish in a single dive. Their eyesight is specially adapted for the underwater phase of their hunting. They only stay underwater for around 10 seconds but will generally swallow the fish before surfacing. I have witnessed a group of Australasian gannets plunge diving en masse and feeding very successfully offshore at Apollo Bay (photos below). It’s a great spectacle.
The gannets are found mainly in southern and eastern Australia and New Zealand. There are established gannet migration routes between these countries. They are very strong flyers, and fly well out to sea for food, as well as between Australia and NZ on migration journeys. Gannets from Australia have been recorded flying as far afield as Mauritius and New Zealand. But more typically, they fly long distances around the southern half of the Australian coastline. Fledglings leave the nest around 100 days after hatching. They travel many thousands of kms until around the age of three they return to their home nest to begin breeding when they are 4-7 years old.
They nest and raise their young between July and April. The period of incubation of a gannet is around 40 days. The young birds fledge around 90-100 days after hatching, and are able to fly from this time.
They live to around 25 years old, and form monogamous long term relationships with breeding partners.
What an interesting and impressive bird! They are also one of the most elegant and beautiful seabirds to grace our coast.
The Gannet Colony at Point Danger
How Gannets Relax
Fledglings and Chicks
Landing approaches at the busy Pt Danger breeding colony
Gannets on the wing
These are Australasian gannets plunge diving on a school of fish. It’s a spectacular thing to see – the vertical dive, with the last minute folding away of everything that might come unstuck upon hitting the water at up to 80kph, the fearless beak first entry at maximum speed, then the dive to perhaps 15m or so using its wings underwater to swim and manoeuvre. Fish are caught and often eaten before the bird surfaces. These photos were taken from the shore at Apollo Bay in December last year. Please excuse the poor quality of these photos – the birds were feeding over 600m offshore, the sky was overcast and this was the best the big tele lens could do.
The Australasian gannet species is not under threat. The populations are in fact growing in both Australia and New Zealand.
It was a wonderful privilege to spend an hour or more with these gannets. The pleasure was added to by their utter lack of concern at my presence. Opportunities to observe such wild and beautiful birds up close and in their natural habitat are rare. Prior to visiting this breeding colony, the best gannet sightings (and photos) I had were of them soaring high above me over a beach near Freycinet in Tasmania. My hour at home with the gannets was memorable.