I have long wanted to swim around the inner reef at Little Henty Reef in the Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary. The reefs are not far offshore from Hayley Point at Marengo. The weather and sea conditions here are unsuitable most of the time for such a swim. However, the weather and ocean omens were pointing strongly to early Monday 29 June being a good time to go – and indeed it was. A large high pressure system had parked over the state and stayed for a few days. Monday dawned with the ocean in repose, a cloudless sky and not a breath of wind – cold winter perfection.
The 12 hectares of protected ocean in the sanctuary contain two reefs, and a rich profusion of marine life including a colony of 100 or so Australian fur seals on the outer reef. The protected area is about 750m long and 200m wide. Its southern and eastern areas are subject to big surf and strong currents as they are fully exposed to huge swells from the Southern Ocean. The north-western portion of the sanctuary is more protected, and the smaller reef there semi-encloses a little bay inside Hayley Point. I have swum in this bay a lot with my swimming friends, but there are nearly always tidal currents and often strong rips immediately to the north in Mounts Bay. In big swell the shore break in Mounts Bay can also be something to contend with. There are many days when even the little bay is not suitable for swimming.
The image above of the Garmin swim track superimposed on a satellite photo of Little Henty reef (not representative of actual sea conditions on the day of the swim, but showing the mix of waves and currents the place can produce) shows the route swum yesterday. The right turn across the reef back into the little bay was at the southern end of the exposed rock of the reef on the half tide. It was shallow where we crossed the reef at the southern end, and we had large bull kelp fronds brushing our wetsuits as the sea gently surged against the edge of the reef.
The swim around Little Henty Reef on 29 June 2020
L to R: me, Mike. Eastern side of the inner reef. Photo taken by Nadine Lyford.
Swimming past the prolific bull kelp areas on the eastern side of the reef. Photo below taken by Nadine Lyford.
Back in the little bay.
Image on the right: bumped into swimming friends Michelle and Vicki who were also enjoying the winter perfection at Marengo on one of their regular morning swims in the bay. Some of my Apollo Bay swimming friends recently did a swim around the inner reef at Little Henty, and enjoyed it greatly.
This was neither a long nor a fast swim. But it was a memorable ocean swim. What a pleasure and privilege to swim in this pristine and wild corner of the Southern Ocean.
The 100 day swim challenge I set myself just after a state of emergency was declared in Victoria because of the Covid-19 pandemic, was to swim in the ocean every day for 100 days and to swim a total of more than 100kms. No daily swim would be less than 1000m. I started the challenge on 18 March and finished it today, 25 June. Over that period I swam a total of 130kms. The majority of the swims were solo swims.
The 100 consecutive days of swimming in the ocean included some interesting sights and conditions. Combinations of weather, swell and pollution at Apollo Bay due to a harbour dredging project made it difficult on some days to find some ocean suitable for a distance swim. The 1000m minimum distance aspect of the challenge was met save for one day when I had three attempts at doing the swim and on each occasion had to give it away for various sound reasons of unsuitability. The unsuitable locations that day were Marengo, the harbour and the bay. These three aborted swims totalled only 750m.
Day 100 The finish
This gutter, rip channel and the the inner and outer sandbars at the beach at the end of my street, exposed here by the low tide, are not normally visible. Grandson Gus was at the beach with his mum, his brother and Liz when I finished the swim. Two members of a local magpie family of three were waiting for me at the outside shower and sat as I talked to them. When I got under the shower they threw their heads back and treated me to a duet of their beautiful warbling. Wonderful birds.
Apollo Bay Beach at low tide this morning after my 100th swim . (Photo taken by Jess).
The photos and paragraphs below sample some of the interesting swims I had during the 100 days.
Commitments in Melbourne and a late return to Apollo Bay just after dark, gave me the choice of a swim (of at least 1000m) in the dark or giving up the 100 day challenge at swim #34. So the night swim it was.
As we drove through sunset and dusk on the Great Ocean Road on our return to Apollo Bay conditions didn’t vary from calm water and small swell. So I put on my warmest wetsuit, walked down our street in the dark, waded out to chest deep water at Tuxion and started swimming. There wasn’t much town lighting that reached the water. Once past the SLSC some lighting reached the water, but more importantly the lights of the jetty were more or less directly ahead from this point, and reduced the blackness of conditions for the last part of the swim. Visibility in the water was of course zero.
I stopped at 1000m near the wall and walked home in the dark. It was an odd feeling. I was also quite cold. In hindsight, it wasn’t really fun. I have experienced no inclination to repeat the experience. But I would of course swim on any cloudless full moon night, but preferably with company for a number of reasons.
Suffice to say this swim was something of a ‘meerkat’ swim.
Day 47 fin sighting
On a solo swim in murky water in the bay about 300m north of the wall and 180m from shore I saw a dark dorsal fin going the opposite direction about 20m away from me. I saw it rise, cruise level then subside not to be seen again. It didn’t change course or show any interest in me (at least not while the dorsal find was above the water). This interesting event is described in a postscript to a post in this blog: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/05/03/storm-surf/
I cannot identify with any certainty whether this was a shark or a dolphin. If I had to guess I would say that it was probably a mako shark or something similar, looking for salmon which were running in schools in the area at the time. I have seen a lot of dolphins over the years and I have never seen one display a dorsal fin in this manner. In any event, seeing an unidentified dark dorsal fin at close proximity while ocean swimming is more than enough for me to head straight to shore, which I did. I completed my planned swim distance for the day in the harbour.
Day 62 Port Campbell swim
On a day when the pollution in the bay from a harbour dredging project made it too dirty for swimming, the swell and currents made Marengo an undesirable alternative and the water in the harbour had zero visibility, I decided to swim in the bay at Pt Campbell. Conditions there were very pleasant.
I have a long history of swimming in this bay, and this blog has many posts about it. This day it was clear, clean and I had it all to myself. Experience here has taught me that a current going out to sea along the cliffs on the west of the bay would be likely. The current was there. I swam laps back and forth across the bay between the jetty and the western cliffs. Each time I got near the cliffs, I would be carried gently seawards, requiring a somewhat circular turn to regain my selected track as I headed back east across the bay. There is a lot of marine life in this bay. The underwater plants are like a garden in places.
Day 65 after dark harbour swim
Having decided after my day 34 swim that night swimming was best done by others, on this day I again found myself returning to Apollo Bay late after another trip to Melbourne. We arrived in AB after sunset but before last light. I decided on a 1000m swim in the harbour. Quite a few of my 100 swims were in the harbour when conditions elsewhere left no other option.
Day 78 Peterborough – Curdies River swim
I thought my 100 day challenge was going to come to an end this day. Apollo Bay and Marengo were simply not swimmable with swell and currents (and pollution in the bay and the harbour from the harbour dredging). So Liz and I planned a drive west along the GOR to see what the big swell was doing on the exposed west coast.
My guess that the bay at Pt Campbell would not be swimmable turned out to be right. The two smaller photos below show the jetty at Pt Campbell. The bay was a bit of a washing machine.
The larger shot of the waves breaking on the cliffs of a headland was taken from the river mouth at Peterborough. This was not a day for ocean swimming on the west coast unless in very sheltered water.
After taking the photos above, Liz noticed the pleasant looking water in the mouth of Curdies River at Peterborough. It turned out to be an ideal 200m seawater lap pool. There was a slight tidal drift in the river as the tide was coming in. So day 78 of the challenge saw the required swim done and dusted at Peterborough.
The lower right small photo was a failed attempt at staging an exit from an invigorating swim in the wild ocean conditions at Peterborough. It was motivated by two swimming friends who sent me an equally unconvincing staged photo of them allegedly exiting from a swim in a snow meltwater lake in the south island of New Zealand in winter.
Day 88 currents in Mothers’ Corner
Currents in the corner of the bay near the harbour wall have changed since all the sand was deposited there by the harbour dredging. On this day with a 25 knot northerly blowing, Mike and I decided on an invigorating downwinder in choppy water with a bit of swell in it from Tuxion to the corner. Our pace was 1:42/100m on the downwind/down-current swim.
When we turned to swim into the current for a short distance to finish off the swim I noticed that after 75m or so I was making no progress north and was being carried east out to sea by a fair current. I believed I was swimming against a regular rip in that location and the current created by the waves and water blowing south into the dead end where the beach and the harbour wall meet. So I kept swimming north thinking I just had to cross the narrow rip and I would then be able to swim north against just the general north/south current. It didn’t happen. My watch at one point showed 9:16/100m (that’s a speed of around 1 hour 34 minutes for a km!). So I turned left and swam west for the nearest beach from where I could walk up the beach a bit, and resume our short swim north. But I couldn’t make progress in that direction either. So plan C was implemented, which was straight back to the wall and the corner. Not a fright, but unusual to have to go to plan C to get back to shore. Also a good reminder that such currents can be found in places that are normally quiet and calm.
Day 92 Eastern Beach swim
Another day with Melbourne commitments, which required finding some seawater where I could. Turns out it was in Corio Bay at Geelong. I decided that the stretch of beach between the yacht club and Eastern Beach would be OK for a 1000+m swim. The water was surprisingly clear. I waded out through the large areas of sea grass and found some deeper water and headed off to the east. There was a slight east to west tidal drift when I swam.
I grew up in Geelong, and Eastern Beach featured prominently in my youth. The Eastern Beach promenade and buildings are wonderful art deco structures, maintained to this day in good condition. Many family picnics and swims were had there when I was a boy. So were school swimming competitions. I gained some beginner swimming proficiency certificates in this pool (for those brought up in Victoria, the ‘Herald’ and the ‘Junior’). But all swims here were inside the shark bars of the semicircular promenade enclosing the designated swimming area.
So on day 92 of the challenge, I broke with long tradition and swam close to the shark bars but outside the semicircle. I somehow felt this put to rest the fears I had as a boy that those shark bars (or nets as they were in my day) meant there actually were sharks nearby. My 2020 assessment is that finding a shark in that area is highly unlikely. I saw neither shark, nor any other living creature on this swim – save for sea urchins in the shallows east of the enclosure which were good incentive to swim rather than walk while in the shallows.
After avoiding the sea urchins, I climbed over the bars on the eastern side of the semicircular walkway, swam across the swimming area, then resumed my course back towards the yacht club to complete 1250m. I’ve had worse swims. In my adult life I have avoided swimming in Corio Bay. But I enjoyed this swim more than I thought I might.
Day 93 Williamstown swim
Two nights in a row in Melbourne necessitated a swim in Port Phillip Bay. One of my swimming friends from AB swims at Williamstown (usually at dawn) when in Melbourne. So I decided to have my first swim in the bay at Williamstown. A friend who normally swims in the ocean at Kennett River joined me. There was a light northerly which made the water glassy.
I was very pleasantly surprised. I have had unpleasant experiences swimming in Port Phillip Bay on the eastern beaches when forced. But the water was clear, uncrowded and had only light currents. It was an enjoyable 1335m. There was even a cafe serving coffee and cakes for the post-swim chat. I’d go back to this place as a city sea-swim option.
Quite a few of my 100 swims were at Cosy Corner in Torquay. It’s an east facing beach (same aspect as Apollo Bay) which is semi-protected from the bigger W/SW swells which break on the back beach. But there are days when this beach and neighbouring Zeally Bay are surfable.
In the early 1970s I qualified for my surf life saving bronze medallion at Torquay back beach. I also used to surf in the area. I feel at home on the beaches anywhere around Torquay.
There is a large contingent of keen local ocean swimmers who swim year round at Cosy Corner. There are two permanent yellow buoys about 100m offshore and 300m or so apart which many use as turn points. I often seem to find a solid N to S current here. But yesterday (Day 99 of the challenge) the current was strong and in the opposite direction. I did three laps. The laps with the current were at around 1:42/100m pace, and against the current an average pace of 4:13/100m was all I could muster.
I was swimming at Torquay on my way back from Melbourne to Apollo Bay. I was a bit cold after this swim, and the standard life saving first aid measure was applied – hot salty chips.
Marengo was the alternative swimming spot favoured by the local swimmers when the bay became too polluted to swim in due to the harbour dredging effluent pouring into it. But there were more than a few occasions when currents and waves made this little bay uncomfortable or downright unswimmable. There have been a few frights and swims not going to plan in this area over the last few months, including for experienced swimmers. But there were also many enjoyable and safe distance swims had at Marengo over the last few months. In my view it remains a swimming spot to be treated with great caution and respect.
Some local fishermen have expressed the view that with the winter run of salmon in the bays and along the shores in the area, there is an increased risk of shark presence. Common sense suggests that the seal colony might also contribute to shark presence. But it seemed to me sharks were given little thought by the swimmers in recent months as we were preoccupied with currents and the water conditions.
On the bright side the water in the little bay is often crystal clear and fish and marine plants, especially near the shore and offshore reefs, abound. When the swell and currents don’t preclude swimming there have been some memorable swims here. I had a very enjoyable swim last summer snorkelling along the boundary of the closest reef of Little Henty Reef (see photos in an earlier post: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/01/13/my-first-underwater-look-at-little-henty-reef/). Quite a few of my 100 swims were also here. It’s a wonderful spot to swim or snorkel, but only on the right day.
Thee above photos show the area surrounding the little bay in which we swam at times. (The drone shot of Little Henty Reef was taken by Andrew Langmead). The Garmin swim track (superimposed on a satellite photo) gives some idea of the complex movement of water between the shore and Little Henty Reef.
From top to bottom below: Hayleys Point and the shore reef platform; the seal colony on the outer reef of Little Henty Reef; the shore break directly south of Hayleys Point in storm surf. We generally didn’t swim in the little bay when conditions were like this.
Apollo Bay swims
Apollo Bay was of course my first preference for swimming during the 100 days. I have been swimming in this bay for many years. It can produce beautiful winter conditions as shown here in photos taken at the end of my street before my early morning swim on day 95.
For many weeks the bay was polluted by dredge effluent which was pumped into the bay for all daylight hours and on many nights. It’s now a few weeks since the dredging stopped, and the bay remains polluted with a large amount of accumulated dirty sand in the corner near the harbour wall, which seems to be feeding back into the bay with every tidal cycle resulting in generally dirty water in the south of the bay and patches of dirty water floating north especially along the shore. Another unfortunate legacy of the dredging is broken glass along the beach, dredged up from the sludge in the harbour seabed. Efforts to collect and remove all the glass by those involved in the dredging as well as by many locals walking the beach (especially between the wall and the SLSC) have not been completely successful. The photo below shows a typical collection from a single beach walk during the dredging period. There is less glass present now the dredging has stopped, but the occasional sharp glass fragment can still be found in the sand on the low tide.
During the 100 days there were the COVID-19 movement restrictions to contend with. The ‘Apollo Bay Beach fully accessible….’ notice shown below was from a Colac Otway Shire COVID-19 update email about council-imposed restrictions in addition to those legislated by the Victorian Government. At this time, many if not most suburban beaches in Melbourne were closed by councils for all purposes including swimming for exercise during the lockdown period. In Australia, England and other overseas locations, at the height of the pandemic lockdowns, open water and ocean swimmers had no access to beaches or even pools and had to suspend their ocean swimming for some months. Fortunately, Apollo Bay beach was never closed for swimming, so subject to it not being too dirty due to dredging, and to swimmers not exceeding the outside gathering limits, we could swim there. Nearby beaches were similarly available to us for swimming throughout the lockdown.
The elements have added interest to many of my 100 swimming days. Here’s a sample.
Top photo: the bay in front of the SLSC in solid swell with a strong westerly offshore wind (taken with a GoPro from the water behind the breaking waves). Lower L photo: the bay at Tuxion in an easterly. Lower R photo: somewhere between the wall and the SLSC in choppy conditions in a strong northerly. Masts of yachts in the harbour are just visible above the waves.
But the memories of the ocean at Apollo Bay which I draw on most when not here, generally include days like these.
I pulled up well
On day 95 I was heading for a total distance over the 100 days of 125kms (revised up from earlier goals of 100kms then 120kms). I realised that if I put in four 2km days, then a couple of 1700m days I could make 130kms. And so it was. I mention this because it reflects that I am feeling fit and well at the end of the 100 days.
I had no injuries during the 100 days, and didn’t miss rest days. In fact, I think that swimming only 1300m a day is something that could be done for a very long time without a day off.
I feel very distance-fit now.
I found that the morning swims went best with a bit of food in me. My standard became half a slice of toast and honey, half a banana and a couple of glasses of water. This of course was not breakfast, just a starter. A substantial breakfast always follows my morning swims.
But I may have undershot on my banana intake. Ross Edgely who in 2018 swam right around mainland Great Britain in 157 days, covered 1792 miles (2884 kms). By day 100 of his epic feat, he had swum 1230 miles (1979 kms), and consumed 442 bananas, among other achievements. On day 100 he also had RAF aerobatic aircraft perform overhead as he swam to honour his achievement to that point. I may also have undershot in my 100 day challenge by not giving Red Bull a chance to sponsor me.
This is the Garmin record of my downwind leg this morning on day 100. The photo is a favourite taken some time ago from the sand dunes at Tuxion. The silver gull is flying over Apollo Bay, and Cape Patton is the point in the distance.
I don’t plan to swim tomorrow, unless of course conditions are really inviting.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
The Apollo Bay 2020 Rip swimming team: Heather, Jenny, Mary, Michelle, Susie & Sonja, and Andrew, their kayak paddler for the swim.
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.
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.
But I have the collectors’ item when it comes to Port Campbell ocean swim T shirts!
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.
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