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 reefs and rock pools along the west coast of Victoria only reveal their beauty to those prepared to get wet. For half the time they are entirely concealed by the ocean at high tide, and for the other half they present as relatively unattractive seaweed filled pools scattered between rocky outcrops on the reef, visible only at low tide.
But for those prepared to slide into the kelp, the seaweed and the still water of these pools with a face mask and snorkel, a beautiful world awaits.
This 24 second video clip shows the abundant fish life in the vicinity of a rocky outcrop with all sorts of hiding places on and under it. In still photos of the fish shown swimming here, their camouflage makes them virtually invisible unless they are over clear sand. This area was close to the ocean beyond the reef, and so the water was highly aerated and moving constantly. If I were a fish, I would seek out such conditions.
The parts of these pools connected directly to the ocean have currents pulling out to sea on the outgoing tide. But there are lengthy sections which are perfectly calm and still. I cruised slowly through them turning left and right as pathways presented themselves. This 21 second video shows me swimming through a wall of kelp which opened up into a wide and deep pool fringed by kelp beds.
I drifted weightlessly at low altitude over the white sandy trails through the rock pool labyrinth. Enjoy some of the highlights of the tour.
The ever elegant egret was the subject of a post on this blog in August last year. I have long wanted to see and photograph this bird displaying its breeding plumage, which until yesterday evening I had only ever seen in photos. The mud flats and tidal shallows near the mouth of the Barham River play host to many species of birds especially around dusk.
So as the breeding season for this egret is October to December, yesterday evening I walked slowly along the banks of the river when the sun was an hour or thereabouts above the horizon, hoping the egret might make an appearance. Golden evening light alternated with duller light as occasional low clouds west drifted through the area. As it turned out, I was rewarded with the arrival of this solitary eastern great egret. For an hour or so, he walked up and down his side of the river, and I walked up and down mine. We kept a close eye on each other. From previous experience I know that a river width is about as close as this bird will let me approach without taking off. It was a most enjoyable hour.
But as usual when I’m on a mission armed with a camera and with a particular subject in mind, serendipity threw irresistible distractions across my path. The first was this new holland honeyeater, which momentarily alighted on a solitary fragile looking reed waving in the wind.
The next five photos are a sequence showing the bird doing a hover-like vertical takeoff. It took some creative and very energetic wing movements before it was safely airborne, with the landing gear retracted, and the head in a streamlined position directly in front of the body.
Two photo sequence of the very effective feeding routine.
Three photo sequence below. This bird just kept striking beautiful poses. The lush banks of bullrushes and the foliage behind them provided protection from the wind. Good for egret fishing, and for photos.
Four image sequence of the egret feeding on edge of the water near the mud flats. Beyond the mud flats was the banks were crowded with lush green foliage, visible in these photos only as reflections in the water.
A most enjoyable hour.
When not being the star of the sunset feeding rituals performance as shown above, this egret lives just a few hundred metres upstream, on a quiet corner of the Barham River away from the public and paparazzi (well, most of them anyway). The extras also retreat to this spot.
Cockle Creek in Recherché Bay is remote. It’s the most southerly point you can drive to in Australia. It’s below the 43rd parallel of latitude in the direct path of the roaring forties. It is closer to Antarctica than Cairns. The next land mass to the west is South America, and to the east New Zealand. It sounded to me like a good spot for a swim.
Our overnight accommodation on our way south from the Bay of Fires to Cockle Creek was at the very comfortable Wave Station near Middleton. It faces Bruny Island, over the interesting waters of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. The few shacks at Cockle Creek are in a quite different architectural style.
Cockle Creek and Recherche Bay
Across the western mountains to the west coast
We drove from Cockle Creek to Strahan on the west coast via Queenstown and Derwent Bridge, with an overnight in Huonville en route. There is a 90km stretch of the Lyell Highway from Derwent Bridge to Queenstown which crosses some high country. It is regularly snowed-in during winter, and icy roads are common. But we crossed the pass with no problem, finding only roadside remains of snow clearing activities last weekend. There was snow on the highest of the surrounding peaks.
Queenstown’s gravel football oval
The Arthur River flows into the Southern Ocean at the small settlement of that name. This settlement is on the lonely north-west coast of Tasmania. It faces due west and gets the full brunt of the roaring forties sweeping in from the Southern Ocean. There was a near gale blowing when we arrived.
The Arthur River flows to the sea from deep in the heart of the Tarkine temperate rainforest which is the largest temperate rainforest in Australia (over 400,000 hectares of virgin wilderness) and the second largest in the world. Fallen trees from this forest which find their way into the river, make the distance to the estuary. The result is logs on the beaches, the river shores, the rocky reefs and most alarmingly for boats and swimmers, in the sea. It would be a whole new level of risk to see a 60 foot log dropping in on you on a wave. I imagine that in heavy seas, timber of this size could sink or capsize a small boat in an instant. It could certainly ruin a good body surf.
Marrawah on the north west coast of Tasmania
Marrawah is a small farming centre 17kms north of Arthur River, located near the long curve of Anne Bay. The land is impossibly rich and green, and the green foreground in the photos below is a paddock on a working farm on which our rented cottage was located.
Next stop Cradle Mountain.
Postcript: At Cradle Mountain we visited the premises of a breeding program aimed at increasing the numbers of healthy Tasmanian devils in the wild. They also have a breeding program for the spotted quoll, another carnivorous mammal and a direct competitor with the Tasmanian devil in the wild. (These are only iPhone photos, but better than nothing).
Being sentimental about a car does seem pointless. But my blue Volvo has served me so faithfully for so many years, that driving her on her final trip today (200kms from Apollo Bay to Melbourne) made me sad. Hence this brief photographic reminiscence about my favourite mode of transport between my house and the sea for all those years, to mark the end of my Volvo era.
All these photos (with the exception of the final one of the Volvo under the Milky Way) were taken on the final drive today.
Being sentimental about a car does seem pointless. But nevertheless, I will miss this car.
Paradoxically, my favourite sunrise photos are taken before the sun rises.
These dawn photos were all taken from the beach at the bottom of my street in Apollo Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.
The elusive New Holland honeyeater
Bad moon rising
I’ve taken many photos of the moon appearing to rise out of the sea. So this marine buoy which courtesy of a gentle swell was rising like a full moon (repeatedly), seemed worthy of a photo or two. Adobe Lightroom does facilitate such childish mischief. But entertainingly, more than one person saw this photo without hearing how it came about, and after a superficial glance declared it a lovely moon shot….
Just bobbing around in the shorebreak when nobody else is in the water is one of life’s joys.
Catching a wave, diving under a few sometimes out of necessity but mostly just for fun, enjoying the brief ride skywards as a wave rears before breaking, allowing yourself to be tumbled in the alternating dark green water and clouds of white bubbles, diving deeper to touch the seabed as a larger wave breaks overhead, or simply floating on my back and enjoying the views all around me – these are among the things that keep me returning to the sea
A lot of my ocean swimming is preserved in sets of numbers. So a swim without numbers, just playing in the sea, is truly tranquil. I often think of how sea creatures swim when I swim over longer distances, yearning for the tiniest fraction of their streamlining and effortless power and elegance. But when playing in the shore break, only the seal comes to mind – the masters of joyful play in the ocean. There is a permanent colony of 100 or so Australian fur seals on a reef off the point of the next bay around from where I was playing in the shorebreak.
When I swam yesterday there was an offshore wind, rain showers passing through, and the weather generally felt more like winter than autumn. There was a good long-period groundswell building, big enough for some fun, but not anywhere near the size where vigilance and planning and timely action are required for the experience to remain enjoyable. These were solid but friendly green waves, bearing only good will to any who surrendered themselves to the ocean. There were no adventures on offer today, just peace and relaxation. The sea is not always thus.
I have long wanted to see the aurora australis (southern lights) from my home coast, but living in Victoria as I do, it seems I could be waiting for a while. Gazing south from some coastal vantage point on a moonless clear night and seeing the southern sky lighting up on cue with dancing curtains of green light (or some variation on that theme) is not a common event for Victorians. Those in Antarctica see them best of all. Residents of Tasmania and the south island of New Zealand see them regularly even if not frequently. It seems Victorians should really view themselves as lucky if they see one from their local coast at all. I may eventually decide that a better solution than waiting is to visit somewhere closer to the south pole.
But two nights ago, a rare opportunity to see the southern lights from Victoria (and places further south) was promoted with excitement by numerous boffins, their animation index peaking (excitement is a relative concept, but I could tell they were excited about breaking this news to an aurora-hungry population of Victorians and others). This was in stark contrast to the kp numbers (a scale of 0-9 where 9 is a strong geomagnetic storm with visible auroras likely) which were excitingly high, but started to drop off as soon as my alarm sounded at 3am yesterday. Should I go back to bed after seeing these disappointing numbers? Well, I was already awake, the moon would soon set, the sky was completely clear of cloud, and while the air a little chillier than I would have preferred it was tolerable in appropriate snow clothing including thermals, neck muff and NZ possum hair hat (9°C wind chill 7°C), so I decided I would not ignore the advice (promise?) of some, umm, unknown persons and unidentified organisations on the internet that this was the morning I would see the aurora. I stoked the wood fire in readiness for my weary and chilly return after dawn and drove a short distance to where I took up position in long dewy grass on a small cliff on the Great Ocean Walk overlooking a beach, a reef and the Southern Ocean. A refrigerated light northerly on my back prevented overheating.
Following the anonymous but unanimous advice online that 3am-5am would be peak aurora viewing time for Victorians on Friday, I positioned myself in the cold and dark by 0315 with my camera on its tripod and pointing south. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I realised it wasn’t all that dark, thanks to what must have been a noteworthy astronomical event in itself – the brightest moon for quite a while. The sky was bluish, and the Milky Way and the rest of the star show a little dim as a result. Apparently an aurora can be so faint that a glance at your luminous watch numerals can ruin your night vision and deprive you of your next ten minutes of aurora viewing as your eyes re-adjust. Even on a moonless night the naked eye (pluralise if that better fits your particular eye situation) may not be enough to allow you to see the aurora show in full flight or at all. So with a near full moon on a cloudless night that was outdoing the MCG night lights, I realised that until 0501 (forecast moonset time) I would have to fill in time by taking photos of the Milky Way, while monitoring the gradual onset of my hypothermia. As it turned out between 0501 (moonset) and sunrise was the most productive time, not for aurora photography but for Milky Way and dawn photos.
The photos below appear in the order in which they were taken, between around 0330 and a bit after 0700.
A mysterious thing happened with some of the images taken from Marriners Lookout between first light and sunrise. On the viewing display on the camera I could see a faint but unmistakeable green arc of light which may or may not be from the aurora australis. It was where the aurora was meant to be, it was the right colour, and there was nothing else in the heavens casting an arc of light of this colour, dimension, proximity to the horizon and orientation. Further, I have taken a lot of dawn photos and never seen a green arc such as this associated with the gradual spread of morning light from the east. It was invisible to the naked eye, but recorded nonetheless by the sensitive light sensor on the Nikon D810. The mysterious thing was that the faint green arc of light visible on the image on the camera display, was not visible on the downloaded image on my computer.
Each of the two images below is a photo of the actual display on the back of the camera of the images on my camera memory card. These photos have not had any editing or post-processing whatsoever. It is far from the mesmerising display of coloured light dominating the southern night skies that I’d hoped for and that I would associate with the aurora. But I have seen similar single green arcs on photos confirmed as capturing the southern lights. It may however be some reflective or refractive effect above the boundary area of the advancing morning light. Or it could be an artefact of the camera optics or the digital photo process. I will seek expert advice on this.
Update: the experts seem to agree that the source of the green light was not an aurora. There are numerous speculative explanations for the green light on the image (along the lines I suggested above), but an aurora is not on that list. My novice status as an aurora hunter is confirmed.
Seeing the full show of the southern lights remains a tantalising and elusive goal. But spending some hours on a clear dark night gazing south from Marengo or Marriners Lookout, with meteors occasionally blazing across the skies and the grand arch of the Milky Way scintillating overhead with countless stars spread from horizon to horizon in every direction, is always a wonderful few hours. Then there is the sunrise. All this is available every single night the sky is clear, yet it always feels such a privilege to be on some lonely and chilly vantage point to see it.
The swell in autumn along the west of Victoria is sufficiently reliable for the Rip Curl Pro surfing contest to be held at Bells Beach around Easter each year. This year was the 58th year of the contest. The Rip Curl Pro was the second event on the 2019 World Surf League World Tour (the professional circuit for surf riders who qualify to be on the tour).
The swell didn’t arrive on time, and some of the heats were held at Johanna west of Cape Otway. But just in time for the finals, a big swell was forecast for Friday 26 April. As it turned out, the swell at Bells Beach was big, raw and rendered quite unfriendly by very strong cross shore/onshore winds.
Apollo bay got its share of the Friday 26 April swell but it was not an epic swell. Like the surf at Bells Beach, it was less than it could have been from a surfing point of view by reason of strong winds from the wrong direction. But it was still a swell worth seeing.
On Monday 8 April 2019, around Apollo Bay there was a bigger and cleaner swell than the Friday 26 April swell. There was also an offshore wind on that day. I posted photos of this swell in my blog post of 24 April 2019 (“Apollo Bay in Autumn”).
Some of the photos I took on that day were published in the Colac Herald, a local newspaper published every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Three of the photos published are in the thumbnail images below, together with the front page teaser enticing any browser in a newsagent to fork out $1.50 to see for himself or herself if being stunned ensued. There were no subsequent reports of any stunned readers, nor of any increase in circulation of the newspaper.
The Colac Herald article is below. In addition to the above three photos it included a shot taken at Little Henty Reef on Friday 26 April (that photo appears earlier in this post).
I did not write the captions for the photos as published, nor did I write the few paras about me.
As this blog is personal, and has no commercial element whatsoever, the publication of these photos achieved no more than sharing my photos (and my blog address) to a wider audience. This process was interesting if only for the conversations it started with locals, many of whom were surprised that this area could produce swell of this size and quality. The boys in the photos were local boys, who were pretty pleased to have a few shots of their gutsy surf session published.
The 5m shark sighting
On Tuesday 23 April, I went for a 1700 ocean swim. Within half an hour of leaving the water I heard reports that a shark had been sighted from the harbour wall, not far from where we swim. I have an app which reports shark sightings:
There was a faint niggling doubt in my mind that there was something not ‘great white’-like about the swimming motion of the shark as shown in the video. I had a good close look at some great whites a few years ago on a cage dive off Port Lincoln in South Australia. It was highly instructive to watch them feeding and stalking and swimming about. I did a bit of research on the internet, and the evidence supported the possibility of it being a basking shark.
While basking sharks grow larger than great whites (up to 10m), they eat only plankton and are harmless to humans. Further, they do not have the sizeable girth of the great white, and their dorsal fin is a different shape.
I shared my thoughts on this topic with some of my ocean swimming friends.
The basking shark ID found favour with some of us, even though wishful thinking was perhaps ahead of science in reaching this comforting conclusion. In any event, ocean swimming in our bay has gone on uninterrupted and without concern.
For completeness, the locals say there has never been a great white sighted in the bay. At a more general level, the last shark fatality in Victoria was in 1956. Also, there are no reefs in the bay, just sand. Accordingly there is much less marine life in the bay than on the coast east and west of us, where there are reefs and kelp forests and marine life in abundance. In short, none of us expect to get eaten swimming in our bay. If you are interested in reading more about my thoughts on sharks, they are recorded in a post on this blog, dated 6 September 2017 and titled “Sharks and Ocean Swimming.”
Between the south coast of Australia and Antarctica there is nothing but increasingly cold and wild ocean. The Otway Ranges on the west coast of Victoria are home to areas of untouched and unspoilt cool temperate rainforest. Moist winds from the oceans to the south create high rainfall on the southern fall of these ranges, which is where this unique and ancient plant community flourishes.
On a wet and cold Sunday morning recently Liz and I walked deep into the cool temperate rainforest, located about a 40 minute drive from Apollo Bay, where I took some photos.
The photo above was taken with a fast enough shutter speed (1/1600 of a second) to arrest some of the motion of the falling water. Individual drops and streams of water can be seen.
The photo below was taken using a 10 stop neutral density filter. The filter is basically dark glass which fits over the camera lens, requiring a lot longer exposure time to capture the image. The camera must be on a tripod, and ideally the shutter should be released by a cable release to avoid moving the camera and blurring the image. I didn’t have my cable release with on this day, and some minor loss of sharpness resulted. The long exposure made possible by the filter smooths out the moving water creating an altogether different impression of that component of the image.
I have yet to see two sunrises the same. It always feels like a privilege. The end of my street presents the view shown in the next four photos. I usually check out the ocean conditions first thing each day.
Autumn can be a season of big swells on the southern coast of Australia. The first two photos below were taken from Point Bunbury at Apollo Bay yesterday, looking due south. These waves were breaking over the reef near the shore. Where these waves were breaking is a snorkelling location in calm weather.
Today the swell was bigger than yesterday. The first three photos below were taken from Point Bunbury at Apollo Bay this morning.
The next seven photos were taken from a point just west of Skenes Creek, looking east into the morning sun. This angle saw most of the colour washed from the images, so I took the hint and edited them as black and white images. Before editing, the colour images had about the same amount of colour as the black and white versions below.
While at Point Bunbury yesterday taking photos of the big surf, and being forced to shelter from gale force squalls and hail as I did so, I spotted this sparrow in the distance flitting about in the turbulent air. She alighted on the hardy vegetation on the sand dunes in a semi-sheltered spot. Then the clouds parted momentarily providing sunshine, and with the telephoto lens at full stretch I took this image without the sparrow being aware I was even there.
I feel that sparrows are underrated, possibly because they are everywhere in large numbers. The fact that they are so often seen scavenging in urban environments probably contributes to them never being mentioned in the same breath as the wedge tailed eagle, the great eastern egret or the spangled drongo (there is such a bird!). The fact that they are not truly native to Australia (having been introduced to this country around the 1860s) might also contribute to them having a very small fan base. But closer inspection reveals beautiful colours on their plumage and fine features worthy of admiration. They are a delicate finch-like bird. Perhaps they should consider re-branding, starting with a new name. I like to think the sparrow in the image is a wild sparrow, who wouldn’t stoop to dining on crumbs outside the bakery, or school lunch leftovers in the playground. There must be some who survive entirely in the wild. In any event, I find it a captivating little bird, worthy of much greater appreciation than it receives.