Autumn at the Bay

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

Five or six dawn swimmers can be seen on the far right above the dark line of a small wave. The sun is rising just to the right of Cape Patton. The photo was taken from Marengo beach at the southern end of Mounts Bay.

Moderate swell on Little Henty Reef off Hayley Point

The waves over this reef are only surfed by seals and dolphins. Apart from the fact that the waves here mostly break over exposed reef, there are breaks nearby in deeper water which are ideal for surfing.
The water exploding upwards has already hit the reef and ricocheted back into the air to almost double the height of the wave.
The breaking wave in the background is over the reef. The surfers in the foreground are paddling around to their takeoff spot which is to their right.
This was one of the larger sets of the morning. This wave reared high and threw out a big lip of water as it reached the shallower water near the reef. A light north west wind smoothed out the face of the wave, held it up a little longer than would have happened with the wind from behind the wave, and also blew the white mane of spray up and over the back of the wave.
Finishing off the ride between Hayley Point and the reef which is home to an Australian fur seal colony.
Mesmerised.

Body boarder

The Harbour

Safe haven.
Crested terns love to huddle
That edgy hairdo on crested terns requires that beaks be kept pointed into the wind.
One of four resident geese at the Apollo Bay harbour. His limited facial movement permits only two moods to be conveyed – disdain and indignation. I think he was in transition to indignation at this point upon learning I was there to take a photo, and not to pay my respects with a bread offering which he was fully expecting.

One of my many studios

My attempts to capture an image of the full moon rising over the sea were thwarted by cloud on this night. A cold, quiet and beautiful place nonetheless.

Storm Surf

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 forecast

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.

Waiting

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.

But the permanent Australian fur seal colony on the Marengo reefs was present, and the late afternoon light was beautifully clear. They were crowded up a little as it was high tide, and above-water real estate on which to loll was at a premium. But no sign of any swell.
Late afternoon showers were passing through the area. The seal colony is directly under the end of the rainbow.
The telephoto lens was almost up to this task. Most seals have adopted the traditional resting posture with head held proudly high, like so many lifelike bronze statues. The one on the far right has chosen comfort and sloth over style.

The swell arrives

The wind backed around on Thursday night and increased to gale force. The swell arrived on schedule. Winds gusting over 40kts, heavy showers and stormy seas delivered more than I, and probably others, expected. This shot was taken looking south from Hayley Point at Marengo on the Saturday morning. The Australasian gannet above was effortlessly and (so it seemed to me) exuberantly soaring the storm.
This was also taken looking due south from Hayley Point, as one of the early waves in a big set closed out in this spectacular fashion on the reef. I was on a rocky headland, and while I didn’t feel the ground shake, I felt as though I should have. It was an awesome sight. So much power.

A-row for Southern Ocean watchers

Bottom to top: Barham River, Mounts Bay and Marengo. This swell had arrived from the south west and rounded Hayley Point to cross the bay directly into the westerly wind as a substantially smaller but still powerful wave.
Squall lines were coming through in a constant succession. Heavy rain obscured the hills to the north of Apollo Bay. The grey clear strip under the power poles in centre frame is part of the Great Ocean Road.
Wider shot of the same view as in the previous shot, but between squalls. The telephoto lens set to a focal length of 600mm significantly foreshortened the scene, making the Wild Dog Creek valley and hills beyond look closer than they would to the naked eye.

Storm waves on Marengo reefs and south of Hayley Point

Hayley Point, with my regular eyrie for taking photos of the ocean right on the tip near that notch in the scrub line. This photo shows some different stages of a sizeable wave breaking on the reef. On the far right the massive lip has thrown out and is cascading as a giant curtain with white water along the lip and solid curves of green and aqua water flowing down as the tonnes of water in the wave are thrown forward and down. The wave on the left shows the white water having crashed down into the reef ricocheting back into the air in great clouds of white water. Such water often reaches a height as great or greater than the height of the original wave before it broke. The centre section of breaking waves shows the wave finally dissipating and coming ashore, almost completely spent, as merely a two metre wall of white water with spray blowing back off it.
This was taken looking south west from Hayley Point as a massive set pounded its way to shore. There are three waves of this set visible in the photo, and all consist entirely of white water. Top left, through the curtain of spray, the crest of another wave just starting to break can be seen. The show put on by this set did not end at the three waves shown above.
I spent about 90 minutes taking these photos, standing on my usual windswept grassy vantage point beside the reefs. Very heavy rain squalls were coming through, without much respite between them. I have an ingenious waterproof covering for my camera and telephoto lens which keeps them totally dry. I have full access to all camera adjustments and controls when using the cover in driving rain. I wear a snow coat with a hood, my motorbike waterproof pants, and a pair of waterproof boots. I am pleased to report that this allows me and the camera to stay completely dry in the heaviest of rain. The waterproof gear is useful not so much for taking photos in the rain, but for allowing me to stay on a given location during the rain so I can take photos in the periods when it is not raining.

Hooded plover and a sooty oyster catcher

The reef on the shoreline was being successfully foraged on by this little hooded plover and his mate. They seemed to find plenty to feed on. When white water approached from behind, as I have observed on this day and many other days their first reaction was to run rather than to fly, choosing the latter only when absolutely necessary. This bird might have had to counteract a a bit of an uncommanded turn to the left in flight due to the orange plastic tag and the metal band on his leg. Difficult to see why two tags were needed.
Sooty oyster catcher with no oysters in sight. His diet apparently extends well beyond oysters (and in this part of the world his diet may not even include oysters), but the more accurate alternative name of ‘crustacean, worm, bivalve mollusc, starfish and sea urchin catcher, not to mention small fish catcher’, was probably considered too unwieldy. I’m sure the sight of that over-engineered beak strikes fear into the heart of bivalve molluscs.
The swim record was my daily 1000+m swim, in a location sheltered from the big swell.

The majesty and power of the Southern Ocean in a storm

I have never seen (in person) a more intimidating storm wave than this one. It was overcast when this was taken and there were heavy showers in the area. If you peer through the spray blowing over the back of this wave you can see the horizon and whitecaps on breaking waves out to sea.

Postscript

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!

Not worried, just interval training.

Coasting

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.

The New Holland honeyeater seems constantly on the move. It flits and darts at high speed, and only alights on a plant for a very brief time. They are a very difficult photographic subject. The sky was overcast when this photo was taken.
The clouds parted temporarily providing blue skies as the background for a few shots.
The beak on this female house sparrow was discoloured from feasting on the crimson berries on the branches all around it. This bird is not native to Australia. It was introduced from India and England in the 1860s. The species has thrived right across Australia, except in W.A. where they have not become established because of prevention measures taken by the W.A. state government.

Ocean scenery & ocean swims

The view to the north from Apollo Bay beach. There was a moderate swell this day. Friends of mine live in the low house on the cleared land in centre frame. The view from there is even better than you might think.
The stone wall on the right is at the entrance to Apollo Bay harbour. The ship was much further away than it appears here (due the foreshortening effect of the telephoto lens) as it headed west from Bass Strait. This photo was taken from Apollo Bay beach – the breakwater shown was about 600m from where I was standing.

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

Unrideable Waves

Around Anzac Day (25 April) there was a reasonable swell for a couple of days. There was a light offshore wind, and the sea was generally glassy. There was a long interval between sets, but when they arrived they were solid. This was a sneaker wave (surprisingly bigger than average on the day). The photo shows it breaking over the southern side of the Marengo outer reef. This shot was taken near dusk under overcast skies. I had the aperture wide open, I was constantly reducing the speed and increasing the ISO as the light rapidly faded. I was about to give it away and pack up when I saw this wave building out to sea. It was a short wait, and well worth it. This was one of the last photos I took for the day. The poor light washed out virtually all colour, except the vivid aqua sections as shown. The soft white manes of spray were the product of the light nor’ westerly wind.
Smaller wave breaking over the same reef (as shown in the preceding photo) but earlier in the day with much better light and a bit of sunshine.
The unrideable barrel. The dark areas directly in front of it are exposed reef.
Under overcast skies and with only a light wind, the swell was moody, glassy and grey.

Seamus

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

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

Leroy is over 60 and surfs like a young bloke.

Angus

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.

Waiting for waves

This shot reflects the tacit cooperation of these surfers, who all knew each other, in taking their turn on the waves in accordance with the clear but unwritten rules of the surf. The next wave in the distance had grabbed their attention at the moment this was taken.
This cray boat was checking pots which to my eye looked reasonably close to where some of the larger waves were starting to peak. The wave in the foreground is the wave the surfers ride here.

Happy 15th Birthday Minnie

Minnie our little pugalier, turned 15 a couple of days ago. She is showing her age in her movement and sleep habits, but remains alert and still runs up the stairs. She’s a bit deaf, and the eyesight is fading. This photo shows her either in deep reflection on 15 years well lived, or just about to have her eyelids slowly close for yet another nap. I suspect it was the latter. She has lived the dream for every day of her 15 years.

Personal best loaf of bread

I baked a loaf of bread in Queensland in 1975. It was not successful, and was used as an effective doorstop for some months. I had a bit of a break, and then baked this loaf last week. It was every bit as tasty as it looked. I have never baked a better loaf of bread. It was great to eat fresh with butter and honey, and it also toasted very well for the few days it lasted. I plan to produce a third loaf after a shorter break than last time.
I understand I am not the only non-baker who is experimenting during lockdown with the bread making art.

P.S. This is my 100th post on South.

The most liked post so far is:

https://southernoceanblog.com/2019/07/08/she-loves-the-sea/

…how the light gets in

Moments that lifted my spirits in recent days.

Easter moon over Apollo Bay

Gibson Steps

Another visit to the slender headland

Gentle rideable swell off the harbour entrance at Apollo Bay

Daily solo swims in the Southern Ocean

Australian fur seals at home on Little Henty Reef

Storm swell near Skenes Creek in offshore gale force winds

Swanning around in the shore break at the end of my street on a cool but sunny autumn afternoon

A few things that haven't changed recently

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.

The quietude of the cool temperate rainforest

The Barham River flows out to the sea at Apollo Bay from its headwaters in the Otway Ranges to the north. Paradise is located about 6kms upstream from the river mouth, not far west of the Apollo Bay township. By the way, this place is officially called Paradise; that name is not my description. But had I been asked to name the place, I would have chosen Paradise. It is moist and mossy and quiet and dark and thick with ancient tree ferns and towering mountain ash and eucalypts. Darting colourful birds can be seen all around, and many more can be heard. All footfalls on this thick and damp rainforest floor are soft. To stand still on the banks of the Barham River in this paradise, to hear only birds and your own breathing and to smell only the green moistness of the cool temperate rainforest, is to find some peace and quietness.
Overhanging the banks of the Barham River.

The ocean at Apollo Bay in an easterly

This main beach at Apollo Bay faces east. There are vast areas of ocean to the east over which easterly winds can travel without interruption, whipping up wind increasingly larger waves and whitecaps with every nautical mile travelled. An easterly is a direct onshore wind at this beach. The seas thus created produce conditions as shown. The stronger the easterly, the wilder the seas in this bay.
The Apollo Bay surf club in easterly conditions. The beach was officially closed this day, as the easterly seas produce currents which are a hazard for many swimmers.
The gap in the line of trees on the sand dunes, has a set of steps leading down to the beach. This beach is at the foot of Cawood St, which when it leaves the town limits becomes Tuxion Road which leads into the hills beyond. The power pole at the intersection of the Great Ocean Road and Cawood St, used to bear two street signs, ‘Cawood St’ and ‘Tuxion Road’, which being interpreted means, ‘this is Cawood St, and it leads to Tuxion Road in the direction this sign is pointing.’ Accordingly, locals who surf and swim call the beach at these steps, Tuxion. Many of my ocean swims start at the Tuxion steps, or use it as a turning point.

Every wind direction at Apollo Bay creates a predictable and unique set of sea conditions. Those familiar with it could look at a dozen photos taken in different winds, and reliably identify from the sea conditions the approximate direction and strength of the wind shown. There are many comforting constants about the ocean. The sea state in an easterly wind is one of them.

The extraordinariness of clouds

Driving west approaching the Forrest Rd roundabout en route to Anglesea. Signs of mammatus on part of the base of this cloud. The cloud is showing a lot of evidence of strong uplifting air in and around it.
By the time we got to Anglesea, the mammatus had developed significantly. It was a rapidly developing and mesmerising show as we drove towards then directly below this most interesting cloud.
We stopped at the lookout overlooking Point Roadknight, and I took this photo looking straight up into the belly of the beast. There is no doubt that flying in anything close to this cloud would’ve involved significant turbulence.

Mammatus is often associated with a cumulonimbus cloud. But not on this occasion. There was neither rain nor any gusting wind at ground level beneath this cloud. There were no other clouds like it in the sky. Some local lifting mechanism must have triggered the lifting of just this mass of moist air to the point that that the moisture condensed, forming cloud, which process released heat which further accelerated the uplift of the rising air through the colder surrounding air.

Another point of view on mammatus cloud is, what an amazing and awe-inspiring sight.

The thunderstorm

The unstable conditions (air temperature dropping more rapidly with altitude than is usually the case) which produced the mammatus cloud shown above, were more intensely repeated when the cold front from the west arrived. The wedge of cold air advancing east (the cold front) pushed up the moist warmer air ahead of it, and that air being sufficiently unstable, produced cumulonimbus clouds and thunderstorms as shown in this photo. This photo was taken from my front verandah in Apollo Bay, looking south.
I find it fascinating to contemplate the tortuous course of this massive electric charge between cloud and ground.

The combination of a cold front, warm air and cold air and moisture causing thunderstorms like this, is one of the wonderful constants of the atmosphere around our tiny planet. I always find the approach, arrival and aftermath of a thunderstorm mesmerising and satisfying. It’s always a great show which consumes all my attention for its duration.

Six Apollo Bay ocean swimmers swam across the Rip today

The Rip is a notorious stretch of water at the entrance to Port Philip Bay on the south eastern coast of Australia. It is narrow, with a distance of only 3.2kms between Point Nepean on the eastern side and Point Lonsdale on the western side. It is also deep (especially in the middle) and has very strong tidal streams which conflict with swell rolling in from Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean. It is a challenge for ships, a positive hazard for boats and a total no-go zone for swimmers, until 1971 when Doug Mew became the first to swim the Rip. The number of people who have swum the Rip remains small.

Today six women from Apollo Bay, every one of them an experienced and fit ocean swimmer, had an appointment with the Rip between the low and high tides (or more accurately, on the slack water after the tide finished going out, which is around 2-3 hours after the forecast low tide time) to jump off a boat just inside the heads off Point Nepean with a plan to swim straight across the Rip to the beach near the Point Lonsdale lighthouse. They were to be accompanied by an experienced kayak paddler, with other boats in the vicinity as a safety backup. They were one of a number of groups doing this swim today.

Dawn from the Devil’s Elbow on the Great Ocean Road today as I drove from Apollo Bay to Point Lonsdale. There was a bit of texture on the water but there were no white caps, which meant the wind was under 10 knots. This is an exposed part of the cost, and the swell was small. The weather pattern meant that these conditions should also be present at the Rip. The swim had been planned for some time, and had been cancelled twice due to adverse sea conditions creating an unacceptably high risk. A third cancellation was looking very unlikely. I was only going to watch the Rip being swum, but it was still exciting to conclude that it would be happening today.

The weather omens were positive this week. From about mid-week it looked increasingly likely that there would be small swell, a gentle south easterly wind (which is a following wind for the swim) and otherwise good weather – highly favourable conditions for a one-way downwind current assisted swim in pleasant weather.

These were the reasons for the optimism earlier in the week – a slow moving high was forecast to be positioned and shaped as shown, and the wind forecast (I use the Windy app) for the heads was a 9 knot south easterly. The forecast gust maximum was 15 knots, but early in the morning with a high pressure system dominating the weather, such gusts were unlikely. When I arrived at Point Lonsdale, conditions were as forecast. By the time I arrived the swimmers were all wetsuited up and doing the short boat trip from Queenscliff to their deep water drop off point.

The jetty at Point Lonsdale, looking across the Rip to Point Nepean. To the right of the nearest light pole is Point Nepean (not the distant flat promontory, but the darker headland which angles up to the right) – the swimmers jumped off the boat and started their swim just offshore in that area.
Point Nepean as seen from the Point Lonsdale lighthouse beach.
This jetty moves in big seas.
The Point Lonsdale lighthouse. This would have been an aiming point for the swimmers for most of their journey.
The lighthouse was built in 1902 and continues in active service.

There is an elevated lookout at Point Lonsdale from which I was able, with a telephoto lens, to see the boats at the drop off point over 3kms away. The kayakers were in the water waiting for their respective swimming groups to enter the water upon a signal for the swim to begin. This swim is not a race.

The drop off point. The largest boat did the swimmer and safety crew transport. Smaller safety boats were also present and the kayakers were on standby ready to head off with the various groups of swimmers they would be escorting across the Rip.

The admin table on the beach. Rip Swim staffer and English Channel swimming legend Don Riddington who did that swim at the age of 68, and at that time was the oldest Australian (and the third oldest person ever) to swim the Channel. Don and others looking intently out to sea as the first swimmers came into view.

Just outside the heads on the southern side of Point Nepean, the sea was in a different mood altogether. It was not a huge swell, but I imagine the occupants of the boats shown were pleased the engines kept going. The crew on the small boat just visible in a trough on the left might take issue with me calling it a small swell. But the swimmers reported that it was a swell which they felt as nothing more than a gentle rising and falling with no white water. The larger boat in the image is a tourist boat of some sort, and it seemed very fully loaded. The coast shown here is very close to where the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared while snorkelling in December 1967.
Four kayak paddlers and their swimmers mid-swim. The haziness in the air was salt spray from the surf.
There were a lot of high fives, hugs and photos as each team came in. This was one of the first teams to complete the swim.
Kayaker Andrew during the crossing, with none of the
AB team visible due to the swell and small wind waves.
Andrew with some of his team of swimmers visible in this shot.
Three teams completing the swim around the same time.
The Apollo Bay swimmers coming into good camera range, with Andrew taking it easy by the look of things.
Approaching the shallows.
Feet finally on the sand. From my observation, Sonja was first to stand up. But they all arrived together, and it didn’t turn into an undeclared race for the final 200m (as has been known to happen on more than a few social ocean swims at Apollo Bay). Time for some high fives and hugs and general jubilation and satisfaction.
Mandatory group hug. Sharing the joy.
These six are all good friends, and they trained together solidly for many months until they could swim 5kms comfortably individually and as a team. They have swum together all year round in Apollo Bay for many years.
The tight formation march out of the ocean didn’t last long. The yellow flotation device belonged to the organisers, who required one member of each team to carry the device.

The Apollo Bay 2020 Rip swimming team: Heather, Jenny, Mary, Michelle, Susie & Sonja, and Andrew, their kayak paddler for the swim.

Very happy ocean swimmers. The instructions given to all who registered for the Rip swim made clear that the Rip can present very challenging conditions for swimmers attempting the crossing. The swimmers’ expectations and training had certainly taken this into account. But today, the ocean was almost at rest and the currents were entirely favourable. It was a one way down-winder. So the training these six had done more than equipped them for a 3.2km swim in such conditions. But it was of course necessary that they have the reserves to go a lot further in much more difficult conditions in case that was what the Rip dished up today. They all finished with plenty of fuel in the tank, not exhausted and not even cold. All that training paid off in spades.

Sonja’s Garmin watch tells the simple story: 3.2kms swum in 1 hour and 2 minutes, at a pace of 1:55/100m. The last of the outgoing tide would have provided a following current for part of the swim.

Great work you six! You did yourselves and the Apollo Bay ocean swimmers proud.

What’s next?

Two ocean swims west of Cape Otway

The uninterrupted flow of the weather across the vast oceans between Argentina and Cape Otway sees wild storms, strong winds and huge swells hit this part of the south-east coast of Australia with full force. The coast is littered with shipwrecks, and demands respect and caution from all mariners venturing near it.

The so-called ‘shipwreck coast’ stretches over 100kms west from Cape Otway. Over 50 sailing ships have been wrecked along this part of the Victorian coast. It is aligned NW/SE, and faces the prevailing westerly seas and winds that have pounded this coast for millions of years. While not the most southerly point in Victoria, it extends to just shy of the 39th parallel. Cape Otway is technically not in the latitudes of the roaring forties, but it frequently feels otherwise. The parallel of latitude on which Cape Otway sits passes some 240 nautical miles south of Cape Agulhas on the southern tip of the African continent, and the next land to the west is the east coast of Argentina.

The wildest weather and most powerful groundswells to strike the coast east and west of Port Campbell come from the west and south west. The bay at Port Campbell faces directly south west. It is spared nothing in bad weather and big south-westerly swells.

The following two photos of the Port Campbell jetty indicate the range of conditions which can be experienced in the bay at Port Campbell, and this part of the west coast of Victoria.

The weather and sea conditions on the west coast are the subject of previous posts on this blog, including: ‘Wild weather and a big swell on the coast west of Cape Otway’ (published 28 June 2017), and ‘Some winter cameos from the west coast of Victoria’ (published 12 August 2017).

Ocean swimming in this area requires great caution, but also offers great rewards. This post is one average ocean swimmer’s account of two ocean swims in spectacular locations on this coast. I hope to share something of the sense of joy and adventure of ocean swimming in this part of the world.

The 2020 Port Campbell Ocean Swim

The Port Campbell surf life saving club has a long, active and proud tradition in ocean rescue and water safety. In addition to conducting regular beach patrols from November to Easter, the volunteer members provide an important coastal rescue service along 60kms of the coast. They are equipped for inshore rescue operations in areas inaccessible to other vessels and often inaccessible from the land. Port Campbell is the only place between Apollo Bay and Warrnambool that a rescue craft can be launched. Volunteers remain operationally ready every day of the year. They have attended many call outs in life-threatening conditions at isolated and dangerous beaches and locations. They are currently equipped with a 6m rigid-hull inflatable boat to assist in this role, in addition to the standard surf life saving IRBs (inflatable rescue boat), the ‘rubber ducks’. Training over and above life saver training is required to serve on this boat on coastal rescues. In earlier days, there was a team equipped with a rocket with a rope connected to it, for firing from the land where possible to those in need of rescue from the sea.

At Sherbrooke Creek beach (between the 12 Apostles and Port Campbell beach) on 21 April 2019 two volunteer members of the SLSC died when their 6m rigid-hulled rescue boat overturned while they were attempting to rescue a tourist who was in the sea in wild conditions and in trouble. The tourist was subsequently winched to safety by a rescue helicopter. There was a very high swell at the time, and conditions were described by locals as treacherous. They were local dairy farmers. They were highly experienced and respected members of the club. They were a father and son, aged 71 and 32. The club and the whole Port Campbell community were shocked and shattered by the tragedy. The heroism of the two men has rightly been widely recognised throughout Australia and abroad. I salute their bravery. Ross Powell and Andrew Powell and the sacrifice they made will not be forgotten.

Since 2004 the Port Campbell SLSC has participated in conducting a three-swim ocean race series with the surf life saving clubs at Warrnambool and Port Fairy. There is a prize for the overall winner of the series, as well as prizes for individual performance in each of the annual races. Swimmers are welcome to do one, two or all three of the races. The event is called the Shipwreck Coast Swim Series.

The Port Campbell swim is my favourite of all the regular ocean swims conducted by surf life saving clubs along the west coast of Victoria. It’s a true ocean swim. The race has been cancelled on occasions due to rough seas, and this close-knit crew of water men and women does not rush to cancel for rough seas. Indeed, I have arrived to race on days when I was confident it would be cancelled, only to find that the race was going ahead.

The swim takes swimmers out beyond the eastern headland of the bay to where there is a spectacular view down the coastal cliffs to the east. The sea is never still at the far turn buoys, even if from shore it appears to be so. Sometimes the swell is sufficiently large that even with a field of a couple of hundred swimmers, not one of them can be seen by an individual swimmer when in the troughs. I have experienced breaking waves out the back, and strong currents taking me seaward past the eastern headland. I would not contemplate such a swim without the Port Campbell SLSC members on paddle boards, skis and in rubber ducks patrolling the swimming field to ensure safety. It is a wonderful privilege to be 600m or so offshore, swimming in such a place. I was so enthralled and rapt with the wild beauty of this place, that last year, my 11th Port Campbell ocean race, I abandoned the notion of racing, and just cruised around the course with my GoPro camera taking photos and chatting to lifesavers along the way, all of whom laughingly endorsed my decision to tour rather than race. The photos and story of that swim are on this blog in the post, ‘Port Campbell Ocean Swim February 2019’, published February 3 2019.

There is a wonderful small community vibe to this swim. The swim is very well organised and safety is clearly paramount, but the administration and organisation aspects are refreshingly relaxed. The field is generally around 200 strong, so there is no rush, or press or pressure associated with the race. The start and finish lines are friendly places.

So of course, I lined up on Sunday 2 February 2020 for my 12th ocean swim at Port Campbell. I’ve always liked supporting this club and its community, given its history and tradition of selfless support to those in trouble in the sea. I knew it would be business as usual and that on race day, while nothing would be said, the absence of two volunteer members and stalwarts of the club would be deeply felt. In a strange way, it felt like a privilege to swim in their bay on their watch.

The scene upon arrival in Port Campbell. I had 6 mates doing the swim with me. It looks glassy. It’s an illusion. Certainly great conditions for the swim, but not glassy and calm like it appears to be. The wind backed around not long after this photo was taken and the conditions progressively got a little rougher out the back as the morning progressed. When I rounded the outer buoys around 11:15 there were currents, swell, a bit of chop and deep clear green water offering glimpses of the luxuriant underwater plant life that flourishes on the underwater reef and rock formations.
The white buoys are course lines. Keep all buoys on your left. The two outer buoys are taller and orange. Most buoys were not visible most of the time. I had to choose a navigation point a bit higher to aim for, such as a cliff, a building on the shore, trees, a cloud etc.
A rubber duck on the left being checked before the race. The briefing was conducted using the white board on the right. There was excitement in the air as swimmers progressively appeared in wetsuits and stood around talking tactics and conditions. But as you can see, there was an absence of crowds. By way of contrast, the annual Pier to Pub 1200m ocean swim at Lorne attracts 5000 swimmers and over 20,000 spectators.
L to R: Mike, Liz, Andrew and Hamish. These three boys arrived from Melbourne on motorbikes.
The start of the 1200m race. I’m on the far right in the front row, in a black wetsuit.
That’s me in the shallows having just stood up when it was no longer deep enough to do any sort of stroke. I always swim right into the shallows, because swimming through knee-deep or waist deep water is much faster than wading or trying to run through it. Not that it really matters. On this day I placed 178 in a field of 207 overall, and 33 in a field of 42 in the 60+ ‘super veteran’ category. There were 29 swimmers behind me. I chose to focus on them in assessing my performance, rather than the speedy youngsters who didn’t pause en route to enjoy the scenery. My average pace for the swim was 2:03/100m ( 20:30 per kilometre, or 2.993 kph).
Feigning running ability up to the finish line, where with a clock and a pen and paper, my time was recorded by a race official – old school, but it works.
My nephew Andrew. In 2014 he couldn’t swim at all, and he entered the Pier to Pub 1200m swim at Lorne. He came to me for clues on developing some sort of swimming stroke in the 8 weeks before the race. He did it, and has been steadily improving his stroke ever since. He is tall and fit, two good qualities for an ocean swimmer.
Son in law Hamish and nephew Andrew. Hamish grew up in the country, and his early efforts at ocean swimming after he met my daughter were ‘interesting’. He too has improved since and is well on the way to developing a good stroke. Hamish keeps himself running-fit, which is useful for his ocean swimming.
The 2020 Port Campbell crew. L to R: Mike, Al, me, Andrew, Hamish, Hunto and Kerr. The range of swimming times was between 22 and 32 minutes. Everyone did well and enjoyed the swim.
Liz’s Anzac biscuits are the stuff of legends. I rationed them carefully, as ravenous ocean swimmers can quickly account for all Anzacs within reach. Andrew is shown savouring his Anzac after the swim. The T shirt design this year was approved by all.

But I have the collectors’ item when it comes to Port Campbell ocean swim T shirts!

Post-swim awards. Before the earned prizes are handed out, there is always a raffle of spot prizes for competitors whose names are pulled out of a hat. Two years ago I won a pair of goggles. I was ambling across to the raffle area before it commenced, mainly because our lunch booking time was still 10 minutes off. Then the first name I heard over the PA was ‘John Longmead, number 517’. Knowing that you have to be present to collect, I shouted a triumphant response, and started jogging to collect my prize. I was not being heard. My name and number were repeated, and my louder perhaps slightly more desperate response was also repeated. Then I heard the words that the first raffle prize winner, not being present, would forfeit and another name would be drawn. I changed down a gear and flicked the sport mode switch (spent as my legs were from running the 20m up the beach to the finish line in the swim) and sprinted through the crowd, right arm extended, just in time to avoid the completion of the re-draw.
My unearned spot prize in the post-swim raffle. Given the $35 entry fee (online only), I probably broke about even.
A delightful lunch at ‘Forage on the Foreshore’ for our party of eight. This cafe is directly opposite the beach we just swam from. Sam and Laura have been here for a few years now. The standard was high from the start. I have visited here more than a few times over the years on my motorbike, and have always been very grateful for the strong coffee and half-brick size piece of fresh hedgehog. I also always enjoy the friendly service. Sam and Laura do a great job. I heartily recommend their French toast.
L to R: the motorbikes ridden from Melbourne to the swim by Mike, Hamish and Andrew. Hamish’s bike was a hired BMW 750 GS. Its engine blew up on the return trip, near Mait’s Rest about 17kms west of Apollo Bay. It was a standard engine blow up, not involving the rear wheel locking up (which potentially could’ve been disastrous). Hamish returned to Melbourne a little later than planned that evening, riding pillion on Mike’s Triumph Tiger. Retrieval and transport logistics were handled well. All in a day’s outing.
By the time we had finished lunch, the bay at Port Campbell had returned to its natural state. There was barely a person in sight. The headlands, the colours, the sky, the SLSC flag, the clean sand – an iconic Australian beach scene.
The club house of the Port Campbell surf life saving club overlooking the beach and bay.
Port Campbell bay. A beautiful place. The race left no trace it had occurred.

The memorable and never repeated Boat Bay swim at the Bay of Islands on 14 March 2015

The organisers of the Shipwreck Coast Swim Series (the SLSCs of Port Campbell, Warrnambool and Port Fairy) in early 2015 announced the ‘inaugural Bay of Islands swim’, to be held in Boat Bay. This bay is part of the beautiful but lesser know Bay of Islands, west of Port Campbell and the Twelve Apostles. I signed up in a flash, recognising this as a wonderful opportunity to do a decent swim offshore in the waters of this wild coast. The swim was never advertised as a race, and indeed was explained as an organised swim in a beautiful place with some safety backup. What a great idea.

The use of the word ‘inaugural’ in the advertising, caused me to believe the event would be repeated. Unfortunately, it never was. It remains a wonderful memory, all the more so for it having been a one-off. I persuaded good friends Susan, Mike and Richard to join me for this swim. It was always known it would be weather dependent.

This pretty much sums up the swimming issues at Boat Bay. It fails to mention sharks, but their presence is well known and taken for granted. I am aware that others have dived and snorkelled here. But I don’t know of any who have done a swim such as we did.

The link to this video clip (7:50) of the Boat Bay swim is included with the kind permission of Wendy Couch. It captures something of the beauty of the location and the magic of the swim.

https://vimeo.com/user27560798wendycouch

What about a swim out from Loch Ard Gorge, around Mutton Bird Island and back?

I have only heard this unofficially, but it is said that the Boat Bay swim was not repeated because regular fishermen at Boat Bay complained about being denied use of the boat ramp for those couple of hours in 2015 when the swimmers were there.

Prior to learning that the swim was not to be repeated, there was talk was of the 2016 swim being at Loch Ard Gorge, out the entrance, around Mutton Bird Island, and back to the beach. That would be about a 2km swim. The Boat Bay swim was around 1500m. I was most excited about the prospect of the Loch Ard swim – again very condition dependent – but on the right day, what a thrill it would be to do that swim. There is said to be a lot of marine life around Mutton Bird Island, and of course, the remains of the wreck of the Loch Ard.

Loch Ard Gorge

View to the south through the narrow entrance to Loch Ard Gorge

Shorebreak at Dawn

Occasionally the ocean simply offers peace.

These photos were taken before breakfast this morning at Tuxion beach at the end of my street in Apollo Bay, Australia. A consistent surfable swell rolled into the bay from dawn to dusk.

“A wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.”

I stood on the shore of the Southern Ocean this morning under a blue sky with a cool wind on my back, squinting into the sun.  Cold sea water was washing over my feet and a small swell was rolling in orderly lines across the bay.  I was savouring these moments and didn’t want to rush them.

I waded through the shallows then swam over the sand bar at Tuxion and under a few green waves which briefly stood tall in the offshore wind before breaking. A friend I bumped into on my walk to the beach joined me for the first 500 metres. We found our green-water distance from the shore and headed south. The water was cool and clear. The swell lines gently lifted and lowered us, something I always enjoy.   Then after a short chat while treading water out from the SLSC we went our separate ways.

Hamish took some drone footage from a point midway between the SLSC and the lookout from the beach as I swam out to sea a bit and then back.  I then swam north back to Tuxion, the beach at the end of my street. This return leg was a little further seaward of the sandbar because the waves were now breaking further offshore as the tide went out.

The video below (which has no soundtrack) was edited by trimming it to 1’52”. There was no editing of any other aspect of it.  The colours are as the drone camera recorded them. I have also posted 10 screenshots from the drone footage which capture a few features of the swim which I found enjoyable. In sharing this video and the screenshots I hope the reader gets some insight into the joy of an ocean swim.

 

  • At around 0:50 in the video, I have paused at my turn point to enjoy the scenery. A wave passed under me as I did so. I also spent a short time (not captured on the video) before heading back to shore just floating on my back in the swell while looking at the clouds and enjoying being effortlessly suspended by the ocean, weightless, between heaven and earth. Most of my ocean swims are out and back, and in company.  A bit of a chat at the turn point is an established ritual. A longer chat over coffee after the swim is an even more established ritual. Conversations over coffee among those still warming up after an ocean swim are somehow livelier and more convivial than normal coffee chat. There is truth in the ocean swimmers’ aphorism that ‘you’re only one swim away from a good mood.’

 

  •  What appears to be a large dark mass of fish swimming at great speed towards me and then under me as they are chased by a large shark not visible in the shot (at about 1:20 in the video) is simply the shadow of a small cumulus cloud sailing overhead in the brisk sou’westerly.

 

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Always a joy to stroll into the sea without another soul in sight.

 

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Cape Patton (17kms east of Apollo Bay)  on the horizon on the left, and the Apollo Bay harbour wall on the right. Who could stand gazing at this scene and not want to walk into the sea and swim?

 

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Perfectly formed little waves were breaking on the sandbar. They had a brightness and colour which only the backlighting of the morning sun can give.

 

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I walked out through the water pretty much to the edge of the sandbar as can be done on a lowish tide, then started swimming. The stirred up sand visible in the image is from the last set of waves to break over the sandbar.

 

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The middle part of an ocean swim is always about putting the head down, stretching out long, finding your rhythm and pace and settling into it for a while.  It’s a phase of a swim I particularly enjoy. An occasional glance forward looks after navigation.

 

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That’s me in the foreground of this image, just left of centre. I was heading back to shore at this stage. The small swell lines can be seen here. I also like this image as it conveys something of the sense of the vastness of the ocean which is felt by every swimmer when a bit offshore. I like this shot. The apparent remoteness from shore is a bit of an illusion, but the feeling evoked by this picture of a swimmer being so small in such a big ocean is not.

 

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The swim back to shore is assisted by regular brief acceleration as waves pass under me. Just before a wave passes under me, it sucks water immediately in front of it back towards the approaching wave. This is more noticeable with bigger waves. When I can see the seabed while this is occurring, it is clear that despite continuing to swim at the same stroke rate, my forward progress slows or sometimes stops completely for a moment before the wave makes it up to me with a short-lived acceleration towards shore.

 

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As I approach the area where the waves are breaking, I sometimes swim parallel to the shore trying to stay exactly on the line where they are about to break, but without actually getting caught up in the white water. (Swimming along this wave is not in the edited video). This maximises the pleasant sensation of being lifted then lowered by unbroken green water. On some of my longer swims on small swell days I do this for the entire length of the beach which I swim. In the photo the wave is about to break and I am still on its face, but I did manage to stay in the green water. If a bigger wave arrives, or I misjudge the point at which a wave will break, a casual duck dive under the white water is all that is required. Swimming in the waves like this makes me feel really alive.

 

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Strolling ashore after the swim. Behind me is an almost spent broken wave about to reach me, and behind that a green wave just starting to break (see around 1:37 in the video). Self-preservation requires a swimmer to always keep a lookout over the shoulder in the surf zone so as not to be caught unawares by a breaking wave. As the video shows, neither of these waves required a second look over the shoulder in the small conditions. But a breaking wave you are prepared for is so much more easily handled than one that surprises you.

 

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When leaving the surf after a swim, I generally find myself looking back out to sea and down the shoreline at where I’ve just been. These looks, especially if from the vantage point of a sand dune, sometimes reveal where and why the variety of currents I experienced while swimming were happening. They are also a chance to look for the often subtle signs of the general direction of the drift out the back of the waves which I know by that stage having just swum in it.  The direction of this current can be one of the more difficult things to pick from the shore before a swim. At my home beach though I can usually make an educated guess based on tide, wind direction and swell size and direction. But away from my home beach I simply ask an informed local. For the record, the general drift out the back this morning between Tuxion and the wall was south to north.

Drone footage courtesy of Hamish Christie.

Some readers will recognise the title of this post as coming from the poem ‘Sea Fever’, published by John Masefield, the English Poet Laureate, in 1902. The first two lines of the second stanza are:

“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;”

Solid Swell at Local Reefs

When solid ocean swell hits the coast around Apollo Bay, the spectacle of waves of substance hitting the exposed reefs and beaches is not to be missed. This is so even with swell such as in these photos which is not in the large wave category.  Little Henty Reef and Point Bunbury are two of my favourite vantage points for such swell events (as anybody who has had even a cursory glance at the posts on this blog will know). The early December 2019 swell shown in these photos was solid and in the moderate range by local standards. I have seen much larger swells breaking on this reef. (For example, see the post on this blog titled ‘Large Southern Ocean Swell Pounds Local Reefs’, published 1 November 2017).

I am a regular ocean swimmer. On days with swell like this, the southern end of the east facing main beach in Apollo Bay is quite swimmable. In fact it’s exhilarating to swim in the smaller swell (which should not be taken to necessarily mean small swell) which results after larger swell has lost some of its size and energy in the process of turning left through nearly 180° around a point to break on that beach. Big swells are usually accompanied by winds coming from between north west and south west. Winds from those directions blow offshore (from the land out to sea) at the main beach at Apollo Bay, which makes for clean and glassy waves which stand up as they near the shore for longer than they would without the offshore wind.

Having swum in the ocean for most of my life to date, I have experienced all sorts of sea conditions in many different locations. These experiences make it impossible for me to look at the ocean, whatever the conditions might be, without wondering what exactly is causing what I am seeing, and without imagining what it would be like for me to be out there in the middle of it all. Such ruminations usually end up with me conjuring up some delusional scenario in which I survive the troubled seas against all the odds, and make it ashore unaided and triumphant.

None of this is intended to give the impression that I actually want to be out there in wild seas where drowning would probably be a certainty, it’s just that I can’t resist imagining what it would be like and what I would do if out there. So please don’t read any of the observations in the captions below as actual plans, or as expressions of any desire to actually be in the water with these waves. But I certainly find them mesmerising to watch.

The ocean does not issue invitations or free passes and it grants immunity to nobody.  For an ocean swimmer, knowing how to swim is probably less important than knowing when not to swim.

Little Henty Reef, Marengo

This reef is only a couple of hundred metres offshore at Marengo, just south of Apollo Bay. It forms part of the Marengo Reefs marine sanctuary. The reef has many elements to it, and it has quite irregular formations under the water which dictate how and when a wave passing over it will break. Waves seldom break in a uniform way here as they might at a beach with a flat sand or rock seabed near the shore.

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This little barrel is not a random event. Directly in front of it is shallow reef which on a low tides is exposed as the water sucks out in front of an approaching wave. I have photos of this barrel where the bare reef can be seen. It is the wave hitting this shallow promontory of the reef which causes it to pitch forward and create the barrel. If I was tipped out of a boat in front of this wave, I would make every effort to swim (walk?!) to the right to the deeper water beneath the green unbroken part of the wave.  My plans following that move have at this stage not progressed beyond keeping my head above water and returning to shore sooner rather than later. The size and shape of this wave is fine from a surfer’s point of view, but its immediate environment means it will never be ridden. When surf is breaking on this reef in this manner, it is also breaking at nearby locations in deeper water and away from reefs. That is where the surfers will be found.

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This barrel of sorts is a little more chaotic and unattractive. It’s on a different part of the reef to the wave shown in the preceding photo. I would definitely be heading for green water and staying clear of this somewhat startling little formation.

The two photos following were taken a second or two apart.

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For an ocean swimmer it is a pleasure to swim out through the shore break, alternating between duck diving under breaking waves and short little swims in green water between waves, until deeper water without breaking waves is reached. But that has nothing to do with the ‘situation’ shown in this photo. While there would be green water somewhere out the back of this turmoil, if faced with this sight from water level I would turn around and head for shore. I would keep looking back over my shoulder, and as white water caught up with me, I’d turn and face it, and duck dive or pin-drop as it passed over me, then resume swimming towards shore. Eventually I could probably body surf in on smaller broken waves. For me, this lineup of white water would be impassable, both by reason of its size and the shallowness of the water over the reefs on which it is breaking.

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This second photo in the series of two shows that the breaking waves in the previous photo were not abating, but just getting up a head of steam. That exploding white water rising vertically from the wave out the back suggests that a swimmer directly underneath it would have a strong desire to be somewhere else. You would’t have to actually see the beach flags to know that this area of ocean activity would be either left or right of them.

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Another tempting little barrel, with a seductive glassy green wall on which to complete the ride. But again, this is breaking over shallow reef.

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This is exactly the same location on the reef as the first photo in this post. Bigger waves out the back suggest this was a small wave in the set.

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Unlike a wave which breaks uniformly along its length at a beach because of the even sand or rock seabed near the shore, this wave has encountered a reef of irregular shape and depth. The wave is doing entirely different things at left, centre and right of the image. Respectively, it is barrelling, exploding and not breaking at all. The dark strip in front of the exploding wave is exposed reef. That white water has hit the reef as a breaking wave and bounced back into the air to at least twice the height of the wave. My (fanciful) plan of action here is easy. I would stay in the green channel in the foreground, with the reef on the far side and breaking water on the near side. I would expect this channel to have quite a current moving seaward as the water from the breaking waves returned out to sea. Once clear of the breaking waves either side of the channel, I could swim shorewards (hopefully).

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This photo was taken (on a much sunnier day) a couple of years ago  in a significantly larger swell at exactly the same position on the reef as the immediately preceding photo. The point of interest is that both waves share some common features caused by particular features of the reef at this location. The exposed reef is visible in front of the wave in both photos. The wave is smashing on the reef on the left side of both images. The size of the wave in the second photo is such that the wave did more than just crash on to the reef. Its height meant that when the lower part of the wave collided with the reef and its forward momentum decelerated, the considerable volume of water at the top of the wave pitched forward and created this beautiful barrel. Secondly, in both photos, on the top of the unbroken wave to the right of the white water is a narrow section of white water breaking before the parts of the wave immediately beside it. I have observed this feature on waves breaking at this exact spot on many occasions. I can only speculate that there must be a narrow elevated part of the reef beneath this point which causes this narrow part of the wave to break ahead of the rest of that part of the wave. The swell on this day produced waves of genuine consequence.

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“Coming through!” This wave is not offering options. It has a very commanding presence about it that would see all in its path desperately duck diving in the hope of experiencing something less than its full force. This wave is not breaking in deep water, which means that any flogging it administered would probably involve rough reef and projecting rocks. It has the same unstoppable air about it as a big clean up set coming through the take off point at a surf break (a larger than usual wave which breaks further out to sea and wider across the bay than the rest of the waves providing a bit of a working over for all in its path), closing out across the bay, and reminding all it steamrolls that the ocean rules.

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This is the same setup as in an earlier photo. Exposed reef, exploding wave, safe channel. This wave is ending its life, but it is certainly not ‘going gentle into that good night’.  It seems to epitomise Dylan Thomas’s poetic advice to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ This wave could not be said to be going quietly.

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Just by way of contrast, some waves do end their journey across the seas to a distant final shore with beauty and grace. Early morning wave backlit by the sun, on Apollo Bay beach up towards Wild Dog Creek.

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That three different things are happening over a short distance on this wave suggests that duck diving under this may end in tears.  Again, the hint of deeper water in the narrow green channel offers the best prospect here.

Point Bunbury, Apollo Bay

The beach immediately south of Point Bunbury has a reef lining the shore. This reef is more uniform in its structure than the Little Henty reef. So waves tend to break in a more uniform manner at this location, except where there are irregularities in the reef and channels or a change in contour of  the sandy seabed.

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But there is nothing uniform about the way this wave is breaking.  The water is a little deeper where the late-breaking part of the wave is. Not sure what’s happening with the mini breaking wave on the green face under the overhanging lip of the main part of the breaking wave. I haven’t seen such a thing before at this break. But I strongly suspect it would not be ideal for body surfing.

Two shot sequence of one wave – taken only a second or two apart.

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A channel is also the likely explanation for this late breaking central part of the wave. This wave is a whole lot more orderly than wave in the previous photo.

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The left and right sections of this wave have broken some time earlier, and are becoming simply  dissipating white water. But the centre section of the wave over the channel has just broken, with a lot of power. The offshore wind is blowing the spray well over the back.

Another two shot sequence of one wave, taken seconds apart.

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This was a big wave. Estimating the height of the face of the wave is always difficult without a surfer on it. But I’m calling this triple overhead. It looks as though it’s about to close out (break) along its length all at once. But the second photo shows that it turned into a possibly rideable right – but given how close it was to shore, it would have been a glorious but brief ride before the wave shut down and slammed anyone still on it into the sandy seabed, who would eventually surface connected to the half of their broken surfboard with the legroom attached.

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This is more water than I would like landing on my head. Yeah yeah, I know about Nazare, Mavericks, the Cortes Bank and all the rest, and about those who ride there and take much bigger waves than this on the head. But back to me. I repeat, I would not like this much water landing on my head. Water weighs 1 tonne per cubic metre. A wave like this is probably moving horizontally at twenty-something kph. Then there is that fat white lip of solid water which is moving forward and falling due to gravity. Upon being rag-dolled in his shallows water by such a wave, after being surprised that I surfaced at all, I would not be at all surprised to observe that   my wetsuit was now being worn inside out.

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This wave is totally closing out. There is no rideable section of it. When the water throws forward and falls as is happening here, it’s creates a lot more turbulence on and under the water than when white water simply spills down a gentler angled green face of the wave.

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This wave is also closing out. The fact that it is doing so evenly along a substantial section, indicates that there is a relatively level seabed under it. The sections left and right of the white water which are still green but about to break, indicate that the water is slightly deeper there. That is, it looks as though there is a bit of a mound in the seabed where the wave is breaking, making it slightly shallower there. This seabed shape is the converse of the situation shown in the first three photos above under the Pt Bunbury sub-heading in which a channel in the middle of the wave deferred the moment at which the middle of the wave broke.

These next two photos show two different waves breaking in about the same location just south of Pt Bunbury.  There is a reef near the shore  in the area near where they are breaking.

These are big, solid, majestic waves.

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A wave of substance.