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!
The Australasian gannet has a remarkable set of flying and feeding skills. It is also a very beautiful bird.
It’s perfectly adapted for flying and soaring, as well as for diving at high speed into the sea to catch fish. An Australasian gannet can fly in excess of 500km in a day seeking food, at speeds of 35-40 knots. It soars whenever possible on its outstretched 2m wings. I admire the capabilities of this bird.
They sometimes herd fish (pilchards are favourites) into dense shoals by soaring 10m or so above the surface. Then they dive and eat. They fold their wings back to dive from heights of 15m or so, with the ability to repeatedly dive to depths of 15-20m. They can also dive effectively from lower heights, usually done in rougher conditions. They hit the water at speeds up to 80kph (some say higher speeds are reached in the dive) and can propel themselves and manoeuvre under water (i.e. swim!) using their wings. They have been observed to catch as many as five fish in a single dive. Their eyesight is specially adapted for the underwater phase of their hunting. They only stay underwater for around 10 seconds but will generally swallow the fish before surfacing. I have witnessed a group of Australasian gannets plunge diving en masse and feeding very successfully offshore at Apollo Bay (photos below). It’s a great spectacle.
The gannets are found mainly in southern and eastern Australia and New Zealand. There are established gannet migration routes between these countries. They are very strong flyers, and fly well out to sea for food, as well as between Australia and NZ on migration journeys. Gannets from Australia have been recorded flying as far afield as Mauritius and New Zealand. But more typically, they fly long distances around the southern half of the Australian coastline. Fledglings leave the nest around 100 days after hatching. They travel many thousands of kms until around the age of three they return to their home nest to begin breeding when they are 4-7 years old.
They nest and raise their young between July and April. The period of incubation of a gannet is around 40 days. The young birds fledge around 90-100 days after hatching, and are able to fly from this time.
They live to around 25 years old, and form monogamous long term relationships with breeding partners.
What an interesting and impressive bird! They are also one of the most elegant and beautiful seabirds to grace our coast.
The Gannet Colony at Point Danger
How Gannets Relax
Fledglings and Chicks
Landing approaches at the busy Pt Danger breeding colony
Gannets on the wing
These are Australasian gannets plunge diving on a school of fish. It’s a spectacular thing to see – the vertical dive, with the last minute folding away of everything that might come unstuck upon hitting the water at up to 80kph, the fearless beak first entry at maximum speed, then the dive to perhaps 15m or so using its wings underwater to swim and manoeuvre. Fish are caught and often eaten before the bird surfaces. These photos were taken from the shore at Apollo Bay in December last year. Please excuse the poor quality of these photos – the birds were feeding over 600m offshore, the sky was overcast and this was the best the big tele lens could do.
The Australasian gannet species is not under threat. The populations are in fact growing in both Australia and New Zealand.
It was a wonderful privilege to spend an hour or more with these gannets. The pleasure was added to by their utter lack of concern at my presence. Opportunities to observe such wild and beautiful birds up close and in their natural habitat are rare. Prior to visiting this breeding colony, the best gannet sightings (and photos) I had were of them soaring high above me over a beach near Freycinet in Tasmania. My hour at home with the gannets was memorable.
As a young pilot flying around the west coast of South Australia and across the vast deserts to the north in the late 1970s, I saw so much that was new and mesmerising that I bought a Nikon 35mm film camera and snapped away whenever I was awestruck, which was often. That habit has persisted to this day.
Taking photos for so many years has taught me to be observant and patient in capturing an image worth keeping. These habits have proved particularly rewarding when it comes to taking photos of birds. Serendipity has also played a role. With one exception, all the birds in the photos below (nearly all of which were taken in and around Apollo Bay), I encountered by chance. The exception is the eastern great egret. I first encountered this bird by chance, and was enthralled by the protracted slow motion dance of us staying close yet keeping our distance around the mudflats at the mouth of the Barham River. But I now know where that bird lives and what the rules are, and have sought him out with success on many occasions.
Upon first coming to Apollo Bay, I thought that seagulls, cormorants, sparrows, magpies and cockies, with the occasional wedge tailed eagle over Marriners Lookout pretty much summed up the bird life in the area. How wrong I was.
These photos have all appeared on my blog. But in compiling the photos for this post I am working on the assumption that nobody has followed/read this blog from its commencement, or devoted a substantial part of their annual leave to immersing themselves in the back catalogue.
I wish to share with readers through this collection of favourites of mine, the beauty, the majesty and the sheer wonder of some of the birds I have encountered and photographed in the paradise that is Apollo Bay and its immediate surrounds.
This post is all about the photos. The words are superfluous, so please treat reading the comments as entirely optional.
Sooty Oyster Catcher
Pied Oyster Catcher
Eastern Great Egret
A truly exquisite bird.
The song of the magpie is second to none. It is truly beautiful and uplifting. I got to know this particular male magpie over three breeding seasons. Its territory is in and around my house and the tree lined creek beside it, and up and down the street I’m on. I have watched it rear young with its mate (two young for each year I have observed). This bird would come down from a lamp post and land at my feet upon being called by me. It was also familiar with my house, and would peck on the front door or adjacent window. It would also look through windows and find me in the house. It knew when I was getting something from my special stash of approved maggie tucker, and would head to the nearest door before I did. It would take the food from my hand, and sometimes then stay put on the balcony rail, as if for the company. Sometimes when I was using the outdoor shower after a swim, this bird would land near me and throw its head back and treat me to a song or two, while enjoying a bit of splash from the shower. This species likes to interact with humans, and many householders in Australia have a special relationship with their local maggies. They are very territorial.
Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoo
New Holland Honeyeater
This tiny darting little bird lives on nectar, and sometimes insects. It moves too frequently and quickly for an observer to have any hope of ascertaining its true beauty. The photo yields wonderful surprises with this little bird.
Weather generated in the roaring forties hits this part of the world with glorious force. The reason is that Apollo Bay is just around the corner from Cape Otway which extends unprotected into the Southern Ocean.
The Southern Ocean in a post-frontal gale
Summer announced its arrival around here with a series of cold fronts and all that comes with them. Gale force winds and rough seas swept in from the west and south west.
A glassy wave in the lee of the headland at Wye River
The story of these few shots is simple. I was driving to Apollo Bay and passing through Wye River. I watched the rain shower passing over Wye as I approached from the east. As I climbed up the hill after crossing the river and passing the general store, the rain was receding to my east, and the sun was shining from the west, with the inevitable result. I did a quick U turn and parked illegally but sort of out of the way, and caught these couple of shots before the rainbow disappeared.
A storm sweeping across Apollo Bay
These six images were taken in late winter. The passage over Apollo Bay and surrounding coast of this substantial cumulo-nimbus cloud included very heavy rain and hail. I didn’t see any lightning or hear any thunder. Between the squall lines which brought this storm were short periods of bright sunshine. An irresistible light combination for a photographer.
The Great Cormorant on a low level mission over the shore break
I was standing on the point at Lorne looking towards Split Point lighthouse at Aireys Inlet, when two great cormorants (their formal name, not my adjective) flew fast and low straight towards me then straight past me. I captured what I could.
Australasian Gannets feeding 600m offshore at Apollo Bay
I have included these five shots because of the interesting bird behaviour they show. They are of poor photographic quality, principally because this activity was happening 600m offshore from where I was standing. I know the distance because they were diving near an orange buoy I sometimes swim around, and I have measured the distance with my GPS watch. The 150-600mm telephoto lens was set at a focal length of 600mm for these photos.
The Australasian gannet cooperates with other birds to round up fish in a loose sort of way, then they dive at high speed into the water and catch them at depths up to 40 feet or so. They can swim and manoeuvre quite well under water. The fish is generally swallowed before they surface. These birds are also great flyers. Many have been recorded flying between Australia and New Zealand. Their large wings are built for soaring and efficient flying. It is therefore all the more remarkable that they can tuck the wings in so well to permit a streamlined high speed dive and entry into the water, without doing any damage to themselves.
I have a strong sense of location. Wherever I may be, I keep track of north, I consider the major geographical features in the four cardinal directions, I note how far from the sea I am and I make it my business to know what the weather is and to have a guess as to what it’s likely to do in the short term. Wind direction and strength are always important to me. I love to read the wind on the water. When near the coast, monitoring ocean swell size is essential. Clouds fascinate me on many levels, and my eyes have turned skywards when given half a moment since I was a boy.
When there is time for contemplation, I like to think where the meridian of longitude on which I am standing would lead were I to follow it north or south. Similarly, I wonder where circumnavigation of the earth following the parallel of latitude beneath my feet would take me. When standing on an ocean shore, I like to know which continent is due south, or west or east of me. I like to orient myself in terms of latitude and longitude rather than postcode and governmental boundaries. When in Apollo Bay, I find it more interesting to think of myself as being at a point on the globe rather than at a street address within the boundaries of the town. The title of this post hints obliquely at this perspective.
It was a surprise to me when standing on the beach at Cockle Creek in the far south of Tasmania recently (located just south of 43° S), to learn that the next continent directly west was South America. The sustained westerly gale force winds in which I was standing were the full uninterrupted blast of the roaring forties. It will perhaps be a surprise to some Victorians to learn that the first land to be encountered flying due south from Apollo Bay is Antarctica. Such a track would even be west of King Island. It may be an even greater surprise to some Victorians to learn that the first land to be flown across on a direct southerly track from Torquay is also Antarctica. That track would take you between Tassie and King Island.
Before getting to photos of the Southern Ocean, which until this morning were to be the opening photos in this post, I cannot resist sharing a few snaps of one of the ‘other things’ mentioned in the heading. I received a visit this morning from the sometime resident in the eucalypts which line the creek beside my house in Apollo Bay. I was made aware of his presence by the noise of the fracas as my little black dog Minnie, emboldened by the secure fence between her and the eucalypts, was exchanging rowdy unpleasantries with this koala. The koala was giving it all he had, with that improbably loud and deep-throated ‘growling cougar’ noise koalas are capable of making. He even deferred his climb up the tree, staying low so he could eyeball Minnie and give her his best.
By the way, koalas are not bears. They are marsupials. The ‘bear’ tag was given by the early English settlers. They were wrong, but it stuck.
The Point at Marengo and Little Henty Reef
Point Bunbury & Mounts Bay
A dog and a ball and a beach
Australasian Gannet Soaring Effortlessly
I mentioned in a previous post on this blog that the Australasian gannet had moved rapidly into a top three position on my list of favourite birds. I have read a lot more about it, and it now heads that list. It’s a beautiful and amazing bird.
38° 45′ 26″ S, 143° 40′ 11″ E (aka Apollo Bay) under the Milky Way and a Rain Shower
As we drove off the ferry at Devonport gales from the west were lashing the west coast of Tasmania with wild waves, snow and ice. We had experienced 5m swells and 45 knot winds on the trip across Bass Strait. All part of Tasmania in winter.
The low terrain on the lee side of the island meant that at least the roads in that area would be open. So it was that we drove off the ferry having abandoned our plan to start our tour of Tassie with a night at Cradle Mountain and headed east instead.
With visions of east coast beaches in our minds it came as a complete surprise while meandering across the north-east of the state to suddenly find ourselves surrounded by magnificent temperate rainforest, replete with myrtles, sassafras, giant tree ferns and moss and moisture on everything. To simply stand in such rainforest for more than a moment or two and to breathe in the silence and the moist plant-scented air is a feast for the senses and the spirit.
Bay of Fires Conservation Area
We drove up the dirt road which parallels the coastal dunes going north from Binalong, and turned down a rough track to our right which took us to the beach in the next photo. Our first glimpse of this beach as we walked clear of the scrub and low dunes was a breathtakingly beautiful sight; and it was mid-afternoon, not even sunrise or sunset. The sand was white and clean, the water was crystal clear, and the offshore wind made the inshore waters and small swell lines glassy. The orange patches visible on the granite boulders are lichen, a common feature on all beaches in the area. We were the only people there.
Dawn patrol at the Bay of Fires
Freycinet National Park (between Bicheno & Coles Bay)
Not far south from St Helens is the spectacular Freycinet National Park. Having spent some time in this area on a previous trip we planned to bypass it on our way south to Cockle Creek. But we couldn’t resist a diversion to call in at one of the long beaches in the northern part of the National Park.
The hour before sunset is an hour of light like no other. Colours are richer, shadows are longer and darker and a soft golden glow washes over everything before switching off in an instant as the sun sets. Colour and focus quickly fade into shadowy twilight and night.
The Barham River at Apollo Bay
Silver gull in full hunting mode
I have taken a lot of photos of seabirds in my time, but I have never seen a silver gull do what I captured this one doing. He had his eye on a fish (I assume) and instead of landing near it and floating as gulls do when they land on the water, he kept his legs fully retracted and using his wings for power motored along using his streamlined underside as a hull and apparently keeping up with his fast swimming target. This was just like a floating hull aircraft landing on water and continuing to taxi at high speed. He bobbed his beak into the water a couple of times while speeding along the surface under wing power, with visions I think of grabbing the fish he was chasing. But it was not to be this time.
Taking advantage of ‘ground effect’ for low and slow flight
When a bird or an aeroplane flies within half a wingspan or so of the ground, the air flow over and under the wings is affected by the proximity to the ground such that drag is reduced. This is called ground effect. All pilots and birds know about it and use it to their advantage, but birds use it better and with far greater finesse. A bird flying in ground effect is using less energy than if it was flying higher.
Getting this shot was harder than photographing an airborne blowfly with a (600mm) hand held telephoto lens at full stretch
Turning on to short final for a full stop landing on the riverbank
Mid-air collision avoidance miracles
There were essentially two agenda items for this evening gathering of crested terns (lesser crested terns and greater crested terns): sitting on the banks of the river, and taking off en masse, doing a wide circuit, and landing to resume sitting on the banks of the river. Feeding opportunities were taken at any time as they arose.
The birds were in such close proximity to each other immediately after takeoff that it was remarkable to me that there were no collisions or near misses requiring evasive aerobatic manoeuvres. It was somehow all under control, despite how it looks.
Crested terns in the golden glow of the setting sun
Juvenile Pacific gull glowing in the final moments of sunlight above evening shadows
As autumn turns to winter on the west coast of Victoria, the beaches are emptier, the wavs are bigger, the ocean is colder and the nights are longer. The awesomeness and beauty of nature seem to peak in winter. It may well be my favourite season. It certainly is at the moment.
Not so big Wednesday.
The forecast for Wednesday 29 May 2019 was for very big surf on the west coast. Surfers and photographers prepared and waited for the sun to rise on an epic swell (which inevitably, down the track, would have been dubbed ‘Big Wednesday’). Instead, it was just a solid wintry swell which arrived a couple of days before the official start of winter (Wednesday 29 May 2019).
The first ten photos below were taken facing south east from Marengo point, near Apollo Bay.