Kiama Dawn of Death

On 16/05/2010 my photography mate Peter and I headed down to Kiama for some dawn seascape photography.

Beyond the famous Kiama blow hole is a basalt rock headland extending a fair way out and affording some spectacular views from a reasonably high distance from the water.

The conditions that morning were somewhat deceptive.

That weekend, the swell had been quite large, and it had been reported on the news the previous day that teen solo sailor Jessica Watson had returned to Sydney in big seas.  Her little boat was being thrown around even in calmer waters.

On the morning of our shoot, the tide was nearly in.  The swell was a good three metres by my very rough estimate.

I photographed this image from the headland past the blow hole:

Image: Kiama Dawn of Death

Kiama Dawn of Death

It was mere moments after the capture of this image that a very large wave pounded the side of the cliff below and sent a positively huge surge of water up and completely over me.

At the time of impact I was changing a filter, and the ocean was in my sights.  All of a sudden, I saw what was coming, and within seconds I recall a wall of water descending upon me from a great height, almost as if I had stood under a waterfall.  The force of the water was so strong that it nearly knocked me over.

The filter went flying, and both me and my camera rig got completely drenched.  There was not a dry inch on me, and I was stunned by what had just happened.

I was completely caught out by the ocean, and it was an exercise that essentially cost me $4,000 in destroyed equipment, and could have cost me a whole lot more than money.

I earlier said that the conditions were deceptive.  We had been shooting on that cliff for a while, and had seen the ocean and the sets of waves rolling in.  In my image, a look at the rocks on which I was standing shows that there had been no recent contact with water.  We were reasonably high up from the water (10-15 metres by my estimate), so the conditions, despite the large swell and near-full tide, seemed safe.  I spend a lot of time by the ocean, and I certainly did not feel I was taking a risk being where I was at that moment.

I sure got it terribly wrong!

I think I was hit by what people call a "rogue wave".  The ocean's waves have typical cycles, with a larger set of waves coming in every so often.  Every 30-40 minutes or so, there can be a much larger wave.  Possibly a combination of a reasonably large wave and a faster-moving large wave converged and produced the "rogue" wave which hit me.  My recollection was that I was not directly hit by the wave; rather that the cliff face sustained the impact and what hit me was the splash.  Certainly it had a lot of force, as it nearly threw me off balance.

Such is the power of the ocean, and every now and then it decides to show us humans how small we really are.  Peter was quite lucky, as he was also on the cliff, but was around 10-15 metres back from where I was standing.  He was going to head over to where I was; what great fortune that he did not!

After the incident, I decided to get the hell out of there.  The gravity of the situation did not really dawn on me (pardon the pun) at first, and my concern was for my gear rather than the fact that I could have been swept off the cliff and down into the tumultuous conditions below, where being pounded against sharp rocks by a large swell was a very real possibility.

Within a short period of time, I knew my camera was written off, and my iPhone, which was on my belt and obscured by the jumper I was wearing, was also written off.  Miraculously my lens survived, and I also found my neutral-density filter which had gone flying out of my hands when I was struck.  It was on the rocks in the receding water a short distance away.

I was cold, wet, tired, shocked, and had a 90-minute drive home knowing that I would be up for around $4,000 to replace my dead camera and phone.

To give you an idea of the conditions that existed that day, here is another image taken earlier, looking out past the location at which I was standing when I was hit.

Image: Illawarra Fury

Illawarra Fury

To give a sense of scale and location, the place where I was located when I was hit was just behind the part of the cliff on the left side of the frame, much closer to the splashing water than the edge of the image.

By my estimate, the height of the rocks on the left from which the which the water cascades, is a good four metres.

That small, vertical protrusion from the distance cliff, silhouetted against the clouds, is a beacon, about the height of a human, if not taller.  It has been years since I have been out there, so I am only going by memory.  Suffice it to say, the splashes from the ocean were large!

It was quite a dramatic morning that could have been a whole lot worse.


  1. Canon EOS 5D
  2. Apple iPhone 3GS 32GB


  1. Me
  2. Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
  3. Lee filters and filter holder
  4. Flash card with images to tell the story

I came out on top after all, but it forced some thinking, and I was inspired to write an article on tips for safe seascape photography.

Hopefully my experience will also be beneficial to the people who read about it, and will remind them that the ocean is very big, and we humans are very small.

Published on Friday, 17th September, 2010.