The main beach at Apollo Bay faces east and is completely exposed to the wind waves and rough seas brought by easterly and south-easterly winds. The waves erode the beach and dunes up to and sometimes above the high water mark and the wind moves huge amounts of sand. Once the wind gets above around 25 knots the bay becomes a potentially dangerous place for swimmers, entirely unattractive to surfers and a magnet for kite surfers who revel in the 25-30 knot winds.
In strong easterly conditions there is a lot of water moving around creating rips and side sweeps and general movement of water in often unpredictable directions. An ocean swimmer could stay afloat and swim in these conditions but would most likely encounter currents quite different to those normally experienced in the bay which could make it very difficult or impossible to return to shore before becoming exhausted or hypothermic.
So far this week at Apollo Bay the wind has been blowing non-stop day and night from the east at 25-30 knots, gusting higher at times. Monday had some sunny breaks, but on Tuesday we only saw cloud and cold winds. The forecast is for the winds to moderate and stay from the east or south-east until at least the end of the week.
Any water person in the area shown the photos below without being told anything about when they were taken could immediately identify the conditions as easterly. They are very distinctive compared to the conditions when the wind is from anywhere between the NW around through W to S.
I live in Apollo Bay and start most days with an ocean swim. I don’t swim in the open bay in strong easterly conditions, but fortunately the local harbour provides protected waters which are an ideal plan B. These photos capture something of the easterly sea conditions, as well as the contrasting harbour waters in which I have continued my daily swims during the otherwise unswimmable easterly conditions so far this week.
First day of easterlies
Day two of the easterlies
Harbour swim on day three of the easterlies
The easterly by day three had eased a little and was closer to 20 than 30 knots. The open seas were still white and rough. The inviting glassy clear water inside the harbour was the spot to swim today. Eight of us swam in the harbour this morning instead of the usual locations of Apollo Bay (and sometimes Marengo). Of course, warming up over coffee and a chat followed.
Some natural wonders can be assigned latitude and longitude coordinates. Others are fleeting and occasional, and appointments for viewing are not possible. The west coast of Victoria is well supplied with both categories. The photos below are of some of the fleeting offerings of Mother Nature in and around Apollo Bay which I was lucky enough to see. Each encounter was unplanned and a pleasant surprise. Serendipity fuels my photography.
The shots of the surfers were taken after I failed to find the wild easterly seas that the wind direction and strength promised at dawn when I woke up. The wind shifted as I drove away from my house and the waves changed from unruly rough seas to cracking surf. The Australasian gannets were the result of a drive to nearby Kennett River to find some elusive orcas of which I had heard reports. The orcas were a no-show. Finally, the feeding wattlebird youngsters were sighted from my deck when I went outside to check the windsock during the golden hour late one afternoon. All these photos were taken in the past week.
Local surfers making the most of an unexpected two hour session at this break
Some swell events have a long build up and are monitored by surfers for many days before the waves arrive. These waves were different in that the quality waves breaking at this location were unexpected. There was no shortage however of talented local surfers who either saw the waves or heard about them on the grapevine and made a beeline for this break. There are not a lot of occasions when waves at this spot are the best on offer in the district. But on this morning they were.
Professional surf, landscape & lifestyle photographer Katey catching the action.
Diving Gannets at Kennett River
The Australasian gannet is a great favourite of mine. I had the privilege of a visit to a gannet rookery earlier this year. It was in effect a private visit with just me and the volunteer guide. For my detailed descriptions of the gannet and its remarkable skills, as well as close up photos of this beautiful bird both on the ground and flying, see this earlier post in my blog (published 26 February 2020) at:
Getting close enough to gannets plunge diving to enable a good photo is very difficult. These photos were taken from three different vantage points on the shore near Sawmills beach at Kennett River. There must have been a huge area of fish for them to feed on as the gannets were diving and feeding over a huge area. Unfortunately no part of that area was quite close enough to shore for the sort of photos I would have liked. Most of the photos below are small cropped sections of images taken with a 600mm telephoto lens at full extension. As a result the sharpness of many of these images has suffered, but I think the content is sufficiently interesting to publish them anyway.
To illustrate the image quality problem resulting from photographing a small bird in flight from a significant distance, the highlighted area in the image on the left is the cropped section which was enlarged to produce the immediately preceding photo. Hence the lack of sharpness in the image.
Red Wattlebirds Feeding Their Young
The red wattlebird is second largest of the honeyeaters native to Australia. Only the yellow wattlebird is larger. They feed primarily on nectar, but insects are also part of their diet. Their eyes open in a week or so and they fledge 2-3 weeks after hatching. They are fed by both parents for a further 2-3 weeks. The young birds shown below could fly and were probably nearing the end of their dependent phase. But they didn’t budge from this bough while the parent was prepared to go back and forth finding and bringing them food.
The ‘great cormorant’, formerly known simply as the ‘large black cormorant’, is unlikely to have objected to the name change. Flattering first names are the preserve of only a handful of Australian birds, such as the graceful honeyeater, the magnificent riflebird, the splendid fairy-wren, the superb fairy-wren and the powerful owl.
Heading the list of birds not quite so fortunate in this regard would almost certainly be the spangled drongo and the lesser noddy.
A great cormorant cutting it fine on a wave
These five photos are from a series taken at five frames per second in continuous shooting mode. On reviewing the photos of the day, I saw that they included a series of shots of a cormorant appearing to leave its departure from the face of the breaking wave a little late. In the first photo, it appears almost airborne. But the subsequent photos show it seemingly overtaken by the advancing and rising wave and failing to get airborne, culminating in it getting mixed up with the white water. The next photos following in the sequence (not shown below) do not show the cormorant at all. So I can’t confirm whether it became airborne or was submerged as the wave passed over it. If it was the latter, I have no doubt it would have survived given its impressive underwater swimming skills. Perhaps this particular bird hadn’t seen the memo about great cormorants having a preference for still water.
An alternative explanation of course is that this great cormorant, being a master of flying and diving, decided to have a crack at surfing. In that case, he rode the unbroken section of the wave very well, completing the ride by deftly turning back into the white water to flick out over the back as it began to close out on him.
Synchronised great cormorants
Silver gull coming in for a landing just before sunset
Swell breaking over Little Henty Reef
These two shots were taken from a corner of the Great Ocean Road in Apollo Bay, near the banks of the Barham River looking due south. The breaking waves on the south of Little Henty Reef (just off Hayley Point at Marengo) were at a distance of just over 2000m when I took this photo. The sea between the dunes and the white water is Mounts Bay. The swell on this occasion was only moderate, but it was big enough for the offshore bombies (3kms or so ESE of this reef and out of frame) to be working.
The Australian magpie is very intelligent, sings most beautifully and in breeding season swoops on any person who it perceives to be a threat. The swooping behaviour is not designed to attack, but to deter. In flight, making contact “…could be very dangerous for the magpie because impact could break its neck.” (Australian Magpie (2nd Edition) (2019) Kaplan G, CSIRO Publishing, 206).
The magpie is a very vocal species. They message extensively to each other, and more generally to the world at large to defend territory or nests. They can recognise individual magpie voices. They have a quiet warbling song, and a much louder powerful carolling. The carolling is often used in territorial defence, but a group of magpies can also carol in chorus after a predator has been successfully repelled – a bit like a football team singing their club song after a win. Magpies also duet, imitating each other’s call. (Australian Magpie, 185-189). Their carolling is one of the most beautiful bird sounds I have heard.
Generations of magpies have lived in the trees along the creek beside my house. This joyous carolling is a common and welcome sound.
There is evidence suggesting that magpies “…can distinguish between individual human faces and learn who is kind or hostile to them”. (Australian Magpie, 127). The magpies whose territory includes my house know that a carefully chosen small snack is sometimes on offer. Over the years I have had many fly from some distance to my feet on the lawn or the deck rail where I am standing when I call out “Maggie”. They will take a small snack if offered, but after eating it will sometimes just stay there a metre or so from me, looking at me. Of course I talk to them, and they are good listeners, leaving when they are ready.
Sometimes they initiate contact with me by landing on the deck rail outside the window closest to where I am inside the house and peering through the window as if to attract my attention. I usually respond by taking a small snack outside and as I walk towards the door to the outside deck, they hop or half fly along the railing to meet me when I come outside. I have made no effort to train them to do this, but one thing is clear, they have successfully trained me to come at their bidding.
Two of my grandchildren sharing the joy of contact with one of the local magpies.
Cropped enlargements from two of the above photos, showing the detail of this magnificent bird in full defence mode.
We had a quick taste of spring weather, then winter finished in style.
Katey and I, recognising each other through the telephoto lenses, each had the same idea.
If you are not particularly interested in surfers and waves, the photos under ‘Lone surfer – photo 1’ will probably be quite enough to get the general idea of a solo surfer well offshore in these seas and weather conditions. Photos 2 & 3 show the same surfer surrounded by different waves.
Lone surfer – photo 1
The two photos following are cropped enlargements taken from the preceding photo to better show the location of the surfer.
An alternative method of locating the lone surfer: use the arrows in the circle to slide left and right between these two images to see the surfer’s location on the magnified portion of the second photo.
The migration of southern right whales and the humpback whales across the oceans south of the Australian continent is a winter phenomenon. After breeding in the warmer waters along the southern coast of Australia (and along the east and west coasts of the country) between May and November, they head back to Antarctic waters where krill abounds in the cold water. At birth calves would not survive the freezing temperatures deep in the Southern Ocean, which explains the annual migration to warmer waters.
Yesterday Liz and I drove to Logans Beach at Warrnambool, an established whale nursery, to see and photograph whales close to shore. With whale numbers increasing every year, whale sightings along this coast are increasingly common – except for yesterday. Despite keeping an eagle-eyed lookout whenever the ocean was in sight, and despite perfect whale-spotting weather and sea conditions, not a single whale or splash was seen. If you are a reader who likes a blog post to have a theme, then the theme of this post is photos without whales in them.
But the west coast of Victoria between Apollo Bay and Warrnambool is not lacking in points of interest, even when the whales are elsewhere.
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.
A storm deep in the Southern Ocean created swell which quietly arrived on the west coast of Victoria on Monday. It was not a keenly anticipated swell event. Swell was forecast, but not in the exceptional category. Monday was a cloudless autumn day and a gentle offshore wind was working its magic on the ocean. The current closure of the Twelve Apostles lookout and visitor centre and the pandemic travel restrictions took care of the traffic one might otherwise expect on the Great Ocean Road on such a day, and it was all but deserted. We didn’t expect to see any swell out of the ordinary, and indeed Apollo Bay was without swell when we left.
But Castle Cove was indicating the presence of a some swell and excited our optimism about conditions further west. But it was not until we stopped at Gibson Steps that it became clear that this day the planets had truly aligned.
The swell at Gibson Steps on Monday morning
Not satisfied with the faint lines of swell to the horizon and the waves of consequence breaking well offshore at Gibson Steps, we drove on to check out Two Mile from the clifftops hoping for bigger things. But it was not to be. A couple of surfers had paddled out at Third Reef and were floating and paddling around in swell but the break was not firing. A jet ski and surfer had come out from Pt Campbell to Two Mile to find similar regular swell lines. But they gave it away after a lot of circles, parking and a couple of swims in clear water and swell that failed to reach the size required to light up Two Mile.
So after an enjoyable half hour swim in the bay at Port Campbell and lunch on the foreshore in cool air under blue skies, we headed back towards Apollo Bay planning to check the swell at Gibson Steps on the way home. This is what we saw. Ruler-straight swell lines to the horizon, and it had built since the morning.
The afternoon swell
The Gibson Steps neighbourhood
The Twelve Apostles photographed through the anticyclonic haze from 11kms away. Gibson Steps is to the right of frame in this image.
The second image shows the point at the eastern end of Gibson Steps beach. All the wave photos in the post were taken looking about ninety degrees to the right of the direction in which this photo was taken.
Locals on the beach at Gibson Steps
Sizing up the swell
The wave of the session (sequence of 8 photos)
A good look at this powerful turn off the lip of the wave
The three photos on the left show the turn as seen through the telephoto lens from the shore. The photos on the right are cropped details to show the turn up close.
The speed with which he entered this turn can be gauged by the angle of his board, which has the rail buried as he tightens the turn. Centrifugal force is sticking him to the deck of his board.
Stylish completion of this radical turn throwing spray high into the air
Returning to shore
After the waves break well offshore, white water, waves, chop and currents are generated as the waves’ energy dissipates further over the reefs, channels and sandbars in the final 300+m of the journey to shore. Transport for a surfer from the end of his last ride to shore is basically a matter of taking anything and everything on offer, as shown.
The Glenaire Valley
[With the exception of the photo of the Twelve Apostles, which was taken in the morning all photos are posted in the order in which they were taken.]
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.