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 ocean at Apollo Bay is cool in summer and cold in winter. This is exactly how a group of ocean swimming locals like it. They swim all year round and have been doing so for many years. There are about 20 swimmers in total and on any given day at least a few of them (usually more) will meet at ‘the wall’ for a short swim or a longer swim as the mood takes them. The swim goes ahead in most weather and sea conditions, save for those brought by very strong winds from the east or thereabouts. Photos of such conditions are in an earlier post at: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/10/28/easterly-seas-at-apollo-bay/ . There is always a convivial post-swim catch up over coffee at one of the local cafes.
Portrait of a King Parrot
There is no smooth segue between the topics ‘ocean swim’ and ‘king parrot’, save perhaps for saying just that. So, moving right along and seeing we are now discussing parrots, this juvenile male king parrot landed on the verandah rail at my house and looked at me through a window as I sat reading the newspaper. He hopped around and stared straight at me, as if beckoning me to come outside. I fetched my camera and went outside and he walked along the verandah rail to a position close to me. He was utterly unfazed by being near me. In fact he was much friendlier and more relaxed than the magpies which visit me quite regularly.
He was a most sociable and cooperative subject for this impromptu portrait sitting.
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:
This morning on my ocean swim with friends at Apollo Bay a wild dolphin appeared in the water very close to us and a remarkable encounter followed.
Sue saw some dolphins up close near the harbour wall. The next contact was when a single dolphin surfaced right beside Michelle and Mary about 150m offshore and 300m+ north of the wall where we entered the water. I swam across 30-40m to join them upon hearing the exhilaration and excitement in their voices at what they had just experienced. The dolphin disappeared momentarily then surfaced again right beside Mary and greeted the three of us. Then Sonja and Vicki joined us, and a series of unhurried wonderful audiences with this dolphin followed. Susie was doing a longer swim, but joined us and saw the dolphin up close on her return leg. The pattern of the encounters was simple. The dolphin would disappear after spending time with us, the pod of swimmers would briefly resume swimming north, and the dolphin would reappear and repeat. Eventually it didn’t reappear, and we think it may have gone out to sea a little to feed. By this stage we were 450-500m from the wall. The return swim seemed effortless, mainly because my thoughts were consumed with what we had just experienced.
Wonderful aspects of this dolphin choosing to swim with us included seeing it in smooth and powerful motion at much less than arms’ length from us. Each of us experienced the dolphin surfacing, porpoising and diving with effortless power and verve at very close quarters.
A couple of times the dolphin swam directly beneath me at a distance of a metre or so, and rolled on its back as it glided past me. The visibility underwater wasn’t great. But I could see enough to have no hesitation, despite needing a breath, in leaving my face in the water until it swam out of visual range. It surfaced right beside me at one point and I saw its whole head and blowhole out of the water at very close range, as well as its back and dorsal fin. The front of its head was lighter in colour than its body, which was various shades of grey. There were scuff marks on its body and dorsal fin which were no doubt a unique record of this creature’s life in the ocean. The texture of its skin could easily be seen – it looked solid but smooth and rubbery. The water flowing over and around its body flashed in the sunlight. The swimmers were reasonably close together when this was occurring, and the speed and agility of its movements without touching any of us was exhilarating.
A memorable moment, while I was swimming, was when it approached me from directly behind without me being aware it was there and appeared directly beneath me at speed and without a lot of separation. I lifted my head and looked forward. It surfaced right in front of me at that moment and rose out of the water at speed in a beautiful porpoising arc. To see this manoeuvre while in the water directly behind and close to the dolphin was thrilling. The white water of its wake was streaming over its body. It then circled back and joined us all again.
But the remarkable and unique aspect of this dolphin so actively and intimately engaging with us was that at various times it swam right up to each of us and just stopped, looking directly at us with its nose and head partially out of the water. Its blowhole was out of the water and clearly visible. The back of its body was submerged. Its tail flukes were under the water. Its dorsal fin was partly out of the water, and its pectoral fins were motionless by its side underwater. We could look into its eyes. I did not hesitate in embracing the irresistible self-deception of seeing a smile in the fixed curved line of its closed mouth. The dolphin was not swimming or moving much at all. It just floated there, as if checking us out one by one, face to face at a distance of a foot or so. This did not occur fleetingly. It was relaxed and deliberate. Most of us were appraised by the dolphin more than once in this manner. These unusual up close and personal encounters lasted longer than I expected, then the dolphin would turn and swim or dive away.
I was moved by this unique experience even though I have swum with dolphins before – see the couple of paras under the sub-heading ‘The Awesomeness of an Ocean Swim with Wild Dolphins’ in an earlier post at: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/03/21/a-few-things-that-havent-changed-recently/
That this wild and highly intelligent creature would, entirely of its own volition, choose to interact with a handful of us as it did, was a great surprise and a great privilege.
I have no photos of the dolphin to share. On reflection, I am glad I simply enjoyed the experience we had, rather than the different and decidedly inferior experience of taking photos of the dolphin up close. The words above merely record that together with my swimming friends, today was the day we met a wild dolphin in its ocean in an unhurried way, on its terms. But there was something wonderful about it which elevated the experience far above my pedestrian description. Rarely have words so failed me in sharing an experience.
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.
Persistent easterly winds in the area can vary in strength from gale force (see my previous post on this blog at: https://southernoceanblog.com/2020/08/10/gale-force-easterlies-at-apollo-bay/) to lighter winds with sea fog and mist (see an earlier post on this blog at https://southernoceanblog.com/2017/11/20/rain-from-the-east-three-days-at-least/). The winds of recent days were less than gale force but consistently in the 25-30 knot range – strong winds.
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.
Spring arrived as if a switch had been flicked. The air is warmer, the sun is brighter and the ocean somehow no longer looks wintry. Well, at least that was how it looked before the gale force winds arrived.
All these photos were taken in the first 7-8 days of spring 2020.
A morning ocean swim under a clear blue sky
A cold front passes over Apollo Bay
We woke to near gale force winds this morning. A cold front was approaching and the north westerly wind increased in strength as it got closer. I timed my morning swim to coincide with the arrival of the front. Cloud cover increased and the wind slowly backed around from NNW to NW and eventually around to the W. It progressively eased as the front moved through and headed for Melbourne and eastern Victoria.
Some ocean swimming markers
Most of my ocean swimming is done between the Apollo Bay harbour wall and points north. Some trips are one-way, but mostly they are out and back swims. The Tuxion beach steps, the wooden lookout structure on the dunes and the surf life saving club building are frequently used distance measuring and/or turning points. The following three images show these locations. Use the slider to better locate these reference points.
These photos (and a few others in this post) were taken with my GoPro camera on a dull day while rain was falling. The GoPro (or at least the model I have) excels in bright light but not otherwise. Apologies for the lack of clarity, especially on the magnified parts of these three photos.
Rain drops, not spray from a breaking wave
Silver gulls at Peterborough
The mature silver gull has bright orange bill, legs and eye rings. These birds were juveniles. The colour of the legs etc on these birds has been faithfully reproduced in these photos.
A calm, golden evening at Apollo Bay
Gale force winds ahead of another cold front
This cold front brought very strong winds to Victoria, especially along the coast. Close isobars, steep pressure gradient, stronger winds, wind blowing anticlockwise around a high and slightly angled across the isobars to the outside of the system etc etc
I measured the wind at Pt Bunbury at 41 kts (76kph). This is a Hall wind gauge used by hang glider pilots. It is calibrated in knots and is quite accurate. It can be used as shown to measure wind speed. Alternatively, it can be used (and I used it in this way) as an airspeed indicator when attached to the base bar of the hang glider.
Winds at just 2000 feet above means sea level were calculated by one of my weather apps to be over 50 knots (92kph). Many locations at elevations of this order and above experienced winds of this strength and more on this morning.
The wind was of sufficient strength while I was trying to take a photo of the wind gauge, that on more than one occasion I was blown back and had to take a backward step to stay upright. When the wind speed doubles, its force increases four fold, when it triples, the force increases nine-fold etc. So this 40 knot wind compared to a 10 knot wind had 16 times the force. It felt like it.
An ocean swim after the wind eased
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
On the second weekend in August 2020 a high pressure system paused for a few days as it made its way eastwards over Victoria. There was a strong low off the south east coast of the state. The isobars over the state got closer and the wind got stronger producing two days of easterlies above 30 knots with gale force gusts at times. This was followed by a further two days of progressively abating easterly winds. The driving rain and low cloud that usually accompanies such a system were present, but just a little north of the coast this time.
The main beach at Apollo Bay faces directly east which means easterlies are onshore winds. Strong easterlies create rough seas with white water well offshore and right up to the high water mark on the beaches of the local east-facing bays. Such conditions are bad for boating and worse for swimming. I didn’t see any boats arrive at or leave the harbour over the weekend. I don’t swim in the ocean in these conditions. Apart from the general rough seas, the local rips and currents seem to go into overdrive in such conditions and there is a lot of water moving around in the 200-300m closest to shore.
The harbour is a good alternative in such conditions as the 475m long north-south aligned breakwater protects the harbour water immediately in its lee. During this period of strong easterlies I swam in the calm waters of the eastern side of the harbour but also tried another potential alternative I have considered for some time, the Barham River. A few GoPro snaps from that swim are included in this post.
Gale force onshore winds at Apollo Bay
Barham River Swim
The Barham River flows out to the sea just south of Point Bunbury at Apollo Bay. I have long thought it might be a pleasant swim along this river. I swam a lot in the Barwon River in Geelong as a boy, so the notion of swimming in muddy water with muddier banks doesn’t bother me. Of course, clear ocean water is far and away my first preference. The vision I had in mind for re-visiting river swimming was tranquil water as shown in the photo below, with the rich farmland on the fertile river flats and the distant foothills of the Otways offering a continuous series of calendar shots to my left and right.
Measuring the temperature after the swim (9.9°C). The course we swam as recorded by the Garmin watch.
High and Dry
Each receding tide during a period of strong onshore winds leaves a higher than usual volume of kelp, seaweed and other things that washed ashore. Bull kelp (also know as string kelp) and other brown algae and seaweed line the high watermark when the easterly winds blow.
These photos record two consequences of not keeping an eye on the tide charts and the approaching waves. They are related in that I was busy taking a photo of the pufferfish (or porcupine fish – one type of the large and varied group of puffer fish) and paying no attention to the sea when the incoming tide brought a small wave to my feet. Well, to my legs to be precise. The pufferfish appears to have come too close to shore in the 30 knot easterly to be able to resist being washed ashore and stranded.
Pufferfish contain a powerful poison called ‘tetrodotoxin’. It is said to be many times more dangerous than cyanide. It’s stored in their skin and internal organs. The spines are merely sharp and don’t contain the toxin. Touching a pufferfish is not a good idea. Eating one could kill you. They are found in shallow temperate waters world wide.
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.