Much of my ocean swimming is done alone. But when I swim out to the reef at the southern end of Mounts Bay, I like to swim with company. Conditions looked good for the reef swim on the low tide around mid morning today so I rang some possible starters to swim with me but they were unable to join me. So a solo swim it was.
The constant and ever-changing backdrop to life in Apollo Bay is the ocean. Swells come and go on the west coast of Victoria, unlike the wind which blows most days. The size of the swell is determined by storms in higher latitudes deep in the Southern Ocean. The strength and direction of the wind on the reefs and beaches where the waves complete their journey determine the nature and quality of the waves as they reach the reef or shore on which they break.
Little Henty Reef – solid swell in an offshore nor’westerly
This sequence of three images taken in rapid succession shows a sizeable wave breaking about 600m east of Hayley Point on Little Henty Reef. The wind was directly offshore.
Little Henty Reef – below the surface
The section of Little Henty Reef closest to shore is partially exposed at low tide. It is a swim of between 100m and 300m from shore depending on where you start and whether you swim to the northern or southern end of it. Currents are usually present in the little bay between this reef and the shore, and their direction and strength determine which part of the reef to aim for on the swim out. Swell, tides and currents can create conditions in which it would not be safe to swim out to this reef. I have never swum out to the reef when there were no currents.
Apollo Bay back beach – small swell in an offshore westerly
Mounts Bay is the next bay directly south of Apollo Bay. Point Bunbury separates the two bays. Hayley Point and Little Henty reef are at the southern end of Mounts Bay. Locals refer to this stretch of beach as the back beach.
Sharks are always in the ocean. The only things that vary for swimmers and surfers in relation to sharks are how close they are, and if a shark is close, being aware of that fact. There are desirable and undesirable modes of achieving such awareness.
On the left below is the GPS track of a recent pre-breakfast 1000m solo swim of mine in the harbour. As shown, I turned around at the harbour mouth. All I saw there was a very large stingray on the seabed, which I often see in that area. I didn’t see any sharks and had no concern about sharks posing any threat to me. Upon returning home, I received a reliable message (from a friend who assumed I had yet to go for my swim) that a shark had been sighted at the harbour mouth heading out to sea. The sighting was around the time I was swimming. Around mid-morning (by which time the shark would’ve been well out to sea or kms along the coast), the Dorsal shark app on my iPhone published the location of the sighting at the harbour mouth (top right image below). A little later the surf life savers had placed the standard shark warning sign on the beach.
This shark sighting demonstrates nothing more than the self-evident proposition that sharks are in the sea, and if you go in the sea, you will be in the sea with sharks. It also demonstrates that warning systems (apart from shark sirens and surf lifesavers clearing people out of the water approximately contemporaneously with a shark sighting) such as an app or a sign on the beach, are by reason of delay largely of historical interest and amount to shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.
I assume on every ocean swim at Apollo Bay that I might at some point be swimming within radar range of a shark minding its own business. I further assume that it’s highly likely that it will have no interest in me. There are numerous types of shark in the area, most of which pose no threat to humans. But if I see a shark fin while I am swimming I will leave the water for a while. On this point, see the postscript to an earlier post on this blog:
But the history of the interaction of sharks and people in the water at Apollo Bay is that humans eat a lot of flake, but the sharks leave humans alone. Being partial to the occasional piece of battered flake with my chips, I do hope there’s nothing in the karma thing.
Looking beyond Apollo Bay, records show that the last fatal shark attack in Victoria was at Portsea in 1956.
I think there is a direct parallel between the risk of shark attack at Apollo Bay and the risk posed by venomous snakes on bush walks in the area. On the first 1-2kms of the Great Ocean Walk which commences at Apollo Bay, it appears there is a resident sizeable tiger snake which likes to snooze on the walking path. Its presence has surprised many walkers. I have seen it at close quarters on that track (in mid-winter) and so have many of my friends (all year round). No-one has been bitten or threatened. There are of course plenty of other snakes on that walk, especially in summer.
But save for a generic snake warning at the start of the Great Ocean Walk, there is no ‘recent snake sighting’ warning system. Nor is there a snake sighting app as far as I know. Snakes are in the bush. Sharks are in the sea. Enjoy the bush and the ocean while taking sensible precautions regarding these and any other low level risks.
Little Henty Reef – moderate swell in an onshore southerly
A couple of days ago there was a moderate swell at Apollo Bay. The onshore southerly wind meant the water was a bit rougher and the waves a little less regular than they would have been in offshore or nil wind conditions.
The Ocean at Rest
Little Henty Reef lies just a short swim off Hayley Point at Marengo on the west coast of Victoria. The reef and adjacent waters are part of the Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary.
There are days when it is unsafe to swim at Little Henty Reef. Early this morning conditions for an ocean swim there were perfect. Clear blue skies, no wind, no swell and only a light south-to-north tidal current in the bay between the reef and Marengo beach. The water was cool and clear. This morning I swam with Mary, Michelle Sue and Susie – all regular local ocean swimmers.
Susie descending effortlessly to the seabed.
Little Henty Reef has featured on this blog since it began with my first post in June 2017. If you’re interested in seeing the reef in other moods:
The air temperature was 7°C and the wind was blowing at 25-30 knots. The wind chill was around 1°C. There was thunder from time to time and being wet from the near constant rain created a further refrigeration effect. These were the conditions in which some of the photos below were taken. The camera and I were rugged up and I stayed dry (as did my camera) and warm for the time it took to take these photos. Being out in conditions like this always makes me feel really alive and energised.
A deep low, a couple of fronts and a blast of cold air from Antarctica
While the winter solstice in Australia was on 21 June 2020, the coldest part of winter around Apollo Bay always seems to be late August. The sea temperature is coldest then, and deep lows and cold fronts such as we experienced in recent days are common.
Below are the usual portents and omens which are always enjoyable reading for those interested in the weather. They are a clarion call to do many things, including making sure there is enough dry kindling and chopped firewood to ensure the open fire can burn continuously during such a cold spell. This weather pattern brought snow down to 500m across many areas in western Victoria which don’t normally see snow.
Photographers’ Eyrie at Hayley Point
There was a lot of water moving at Little Henty Reef
There have been much bigger swells in this area. But the deep low centred in the southern ocean south-west of Tasmania and its associated storms still created enough energy to bring sizeable groundswell to the Apollo Bay coast and beyond. As the low moved through the area, the wind eventually swung around to the south-west. But on the day these photos were taken the front had yet to pass and the wind was from the north-west. Such a wind is offshore for the waves arriving at Little Henty Reef which means the waves are shaped perfectly and groomed by the wind with giant manes of white water blowing back as they break.
This sequence of four images shows the stages of a wave first appearing in the large crescent shape dictated by the reef contours just north of Little Henty Reef, then peaking, breaking and finally crashing over the shallow reef with a perfect dark aqua barrel even on this gloomy wet and windy day. These photos were taken between squall lines.
The light and the texture of the ocean surface changes when it rains
Heavier rain darkened the day and the mood of the sea
Brief sunny interlude late in the day before the next squall line
Images from a couple of recent swims
Winter in Apollo Bay is not all storms and big swell. These photos were taken with my ageing GoPro at Marengo a week or so ago. It was a cold sunny day with not much wind. There was no swell to speak of. Conditions allowed me to swim about 500m north from the small bay at the southern end of Mounts Bay into the more open bay (and back again). There are many occasions when such a swim is imprudent or dangerous. This day was neither. The ocean was at rest. The underwater visibility was also very inviting. The water was cold and clean. I was the only person in the water and Liz was the only person on the beach.
Apollo Bay Harbour
As noted in some previous posts, on days with big easterlies, or when the bay and Marengo are not inviting for one reason or another, there is nearly always the harbour. Clean relatively sheltered water can usually be found here.
Incidental beauty around Apollo Bay
Onion weed on the left. I was disappointed to learn that this delicate and understated but beautiful little plant was not called something more prosaic like ‘the deferential dew drop’ or ‘the reading light’. I was also disappointed on Googling this species to be directed first up to a site informing me ‘how to get rid of onion weed’. This plant apparently has no friends. On the right is a flower called ‘blossom’ (my research on this flower was brief).
I think I will stick to declaring beauty wherever and in whatever I find it, unburdened by unhelpful knowledge.
Grevillea, and king protea (before opening hours).
Disclaimer: I am not a formally qualified botanist. In fact, as a gardener, my skills end at mowing bold spirals in my front lawn.
Winter on the shores of the ocean at Apollo Bay is a time of open fires, strong winds, big seas, cold fronts, cold oceans, cold swims and driving rain. It’s a wonderful season to be in this wild and remote part of the world.
Winter Ocean Swimming at Marengo
I woke up to blue skies, a light offshore wind and no swell this morning. I measured the sea temperature at Marengo at 11°C. On July 6 I measured it at the same spot at 14°C. Late August is typically when the ocean is coldest at Apollo Bay. I have never measured it below 11°C here and in recent years it has not dipped below 12° in winter.
A perfect day for a solo swim at Marengo with my iPhone 8 in its trusty waterproof housing.
Solo Swim at Marengo
A Harbour Swim at Apollo Bay
When both Marengo and the bay at Apollo Bay are either not safe or not suitable for swimming, the local harbour offers an alternative. I have swum here when it was rough with a howling northerly coming straight in the harbour mouth. I have often swum here when big easterly seas pound the local beaches, as the eastern side of the harbour water is calm in such conditions in the lee of the breakwater. I have swum here when it was so dirty from dredging that the visibility was zero and the dirt clung to my face and wetsuit after I had left the water. I have swum here when it was dirty because it was rough. On one such swim, in relatively shallow water, I encountered one of the large resident stingrays. We gave each other a fright. Stingrays are not uncommon in the harbour. Finally, I have swum here in the black of night, during a 100 day challenge for which I had to swim at least 1000m every day for 100 days. The only option on one particular day was the harbour after dark. That was not an enjoyable swim and I have no plans to repeat it.
But the day these photos were taken, the harbour was picture perfect. The water was clear, calm and various shades of blue and green. It may have looked like a tropical paradise, but the water temp was 12°C and the air temp less. But it was still a very pleasant swim.
Lorne Pier after Sunset
The sun had set as I was driving through Lorne, and the fading light on a layer of cumulus cloud on the eastern horizon beyond the Lorne pier demanded a few photos.
A black and white version and a version with variation of the actual pastel colours. An experiment I won’t persist with.
The next two shots have are the colours I saw. These photos vary in the number of surfers present, and in the inclusion of the tree and headland on the right in the second image. I like these, and if I were submitting them to a surfing magazine, there is no doubt the paddling surfers would add to the appeal of the picture.
But this image was my final choice. I like the balance of the opposing lines of the small wave and the jetty, and the clouds were also a little more detailed and vibrant here than in some of the other shots I took. I like the simplicity of the shot. It has very few elements.
Early Evening Storm Cloud over Bass Strait
The Coastal Eucalypt Forest
I have long wanted to swim around the inner reef at Little Henty Reef in the Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary. The reefs are not far offshore from Hayley Point at Marengo. The weather and sea conditions here are unsuitable most of the time for such a swim. However, the weather and ocean omens were pointing strongly to early Monday 29 June being a good time to go – and indeed it was. A large high pressure system had parked over the state and stayed for a few days. Monday dawned with the ocean in repose, a cloudless sky and not a breath of wind – cold winter perfection.
The 12 hectares of protected ocean in the sanctuary contain two reefs, and a rich profusion of marine life including a colony of 100 or so Australian fur seals on the outer reef. The protected area is about 750m long and 200m wide. Its southern and eastern areas are subject to big surf and strong currents as they are fully exposed to huge swells from the Southern Ocean. The north-western portion of the sanctuary is more protected, and the smaller reef there semi-encloses a little bay inside Hayley Point. I have swum in this bay a lot with my swimming friends, but there are nearly always tidal currents and often strong rips immediately to the north in Mounts Bay. In big swell the shore break in Mounts Bay can also be something to contend with. There are many days when even the little bay is not suitable for swimming.
Some of the underwater beauty of Little Henty Reef is shown in an earlier post on this blog, written after my first snorkelling swim there earlier this year: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/01/13/my-first-underwater-look-at-little-henty-reef/ On that occasion I snorkelled along the protected western side of the reef.
Little Henty Reef at Apollo Bay
The image above of the Garmin swim track superimposed on a satellite photo of Little Henty reef (not representative of actual sea conditions on the day of the swim, but showing the mix of waves and currents the place can produce) shows the route swum yesterday. The right turn across the reef back into the little bay was at the southern end of the exposed rock of the reef on the half tide. It was shallow where we crossed the reef at the southern end, and we had large bull kelp fronds brushing our wetsuits as the sea gently surged against the edge of the reef.
The swim around Little Henty Reef on 29 June 2020
L to R: me, Mike. Eastern side of the inner reef. Photo taken by Nadine Lyford.
Swimming past the prolific bull kelp areas on the eastern side of the reef. Photo below taken by Nadine Lyford.
Back in the little bay.
Image on the right: bumped into swimming friends Michelle and Vicki who were also enjoying the winter perfection at Marengo on one of their regular morning swims in the bay. Some of my Apollo Bay swimming friends recently did a swim around the inner reef at Little Henty, and enjoyed it greatly.
This was neither a long nor a fast swim. But it was a memorable ocean swim. What a pleasure and privilege to swim in this pristine and wild corner of the Southern Ocean.
A remote Southern Ocean beach without a name on a rugged little bay on the west coast of Victoria. Sounded ideal. Was. Lizzie and I packed a good map, a picnic lunch, my wetsuit and snorkelling gear and the waterproof camera. We also carried a mud map drawn by a helpful local to assist us in finding this beach. Bit of a trek from where the road ended, but worth it. It was a wonderful few hours respite from the world notwithstanding that the sky was overcast, the visibility underwater wasn’t very good and the March flies were out in force living up to their calendar connection. While many landed on us in their usual annoying way, neither of us got bitten for some reason – a bonus we gratefully accepted.
Occasionally the ocean simply offers peace.
These photos were taken before breakfast this morning at Tuxion beach at the end of my street in Apollo Bay, Australia. A consistent surfable swell rolled into the bay from dawn to dusk.
I mentioned to a swimming friend who is married to a shark fisherman that I was planning to go snorkelling at Little Henty Reef. “Shark Alley!” was her response, albeit with a smile. Well, there is a seal colony (non-breeding) on one of the higher exposed sections of the reef. But surfers surf this reef, kayakers regularly paddle around it and there are often swimmers in the shallows. I have also heard that local snorkellers are happy to swim at this location. I asked around. I concluded it was a reasonable thing to snorkel on the inner reef, in appropriately calm conditions between tides. I see no reason why this water should be any more ‘sharky’ than the other places where I swim in this area.
The Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary is a short distance south of Apollo Bay. This protected area encompasses the Little Henty reefs and a total of about 12 hectares of ocean. It is rich in marine life. The reef furthest from shore is permanent home to a colony of about 100 Australian fur seals.
Little Henty Reef is at the southern end of Mounts Bay. Strong tidal currents and rips often surge between the reefs. These reefs are also the first landfall of big swells generated to the south west in the roaring forties. I have seen triple overhead surf on and around these reefs. Snorkelling can only be contemplated in low or no swell conditions, and ideally on or near a low tide. But calm water in this area is never still water. There are always currents of varying direction and force to consider carefully.
I often swim for an hour or more in the ocean at Apollo Bay for the pure enjoyment of it. I don’t feel cold after these swims because I wear a wetsuit. But I found it interesting that even though I wore my winter Patagonia suit on this summer snorkelling excursion, and despite not hurrying my time under the hot outdoor shower when I got home, it took me a while to warm up. I suppose I got colder quicker because snorkelling is a lot less active than swimming non-stop freestyle. I was not back to my normal operating temperature until after my battered flake, two scallops, min chips and a potato cake. Of course no other meal could even be considered after such a swim.
When swimming in southern latitudes near the 40th parallel (38.75°S to be precise), with or without a wetsuit, the hypothermia clock is always ticking.
Just for comparison, these photos were taken about three weeks ago at a location on the Little Henty reefs about 300m from our snorkelling location. This was not a snorkelling day. (For more photos of big swell breaking on and near these reefs, see the post on this blog titled ‘Summer Solstice Swell’, posted 24 December 2019).
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.