Tornado!

Exmouth lighthouse and towers
Whale Sharks!

I moved from Los Angeles to the Midwest about a decade ago and it was a culture shock from the beginning.  In Texas, barbeque is a bit of a passion a bit sport – they take their barbeque VERY seriously and I’d never seen so much food in my whole life.  The people talk with an accent (at least to my ear), they are much larger than on the coast (on the whole) and they are fiercely proud of their State and local identity.  I’d never seen State pride in California; to this day, when people ask me where I come from, I say “Los Angeles” rather than California.

Another thing that Texas has that Los Angeles doesn’t have is weather.  If I remember correctly, LA has 330 days of sunshine each year.  When it does rain, you know it’s coming days in advance.  Texas is a bit different and the local saying is, “If you don’t like the weather in Texas, just wait 15 minutes.”  I remember in the early 90’s we had the Big 4 in California: Earthquake, Fire, Riots and Floods.  While Texas does have hurricanes on the coast, the rest of the state has tornadoes and the occasional ice storm.  And the tornados do get a lot of attention.  Whenever the subject of tornadoes came up the old timers all had a story about this or that tornado that knocked down this town and that city.  But when I’d ask them how many of them had seen a tornado, few could answer that they had.

And for the last decade I looked and despite the insanity of it, I hoped to see a tornado one day.  I narrowly missed on in Denton in 2000 and another north of Denver, Colorado (of all places) in 2008.  But I’d never actually seen one with my own eyes.  I always wanted to see one.  It had been a Bucket List item of mine to take a trip with a tornado chasing group in the Midwest some Spring.  I thought to offer to pitch in for gas and take turns driving as I thought it would be a grand vacation to chase tornadoes and actually get to see one with my own eyes.

And in the most unusual of places I found myself standing on the shoreline waiting for a small boat to pick me up to take me to my Whale Shark diving boat.  We were in Exmouth and – despite the dicey weather – we were about to board a boat and swim with the world’s biggest fish.  The sea seemed calm enough even though cumulous clouds climbed ever higher into the sky (photo above).

And so we waited.

And we waited some more.

I grew bored and decided to take a walk in the nearby lagoon to see if I could see some fish.  After 10 minutes or so my travel friends called to me that it was time to board the little zodiac boat for our dive ship.

One young man was talking about a waterspout and I listened in a bit and heard him talking to his father.  I inquired and the boy said, “Yes, it was a tornado.  Did you see it?”  “Where,” I asked incredulously dreading his answer as my eyes scanned the horizon.  “Over there,” his father pointed.  He began to describe how a cloud came out of the sky in the shape of a funnel dropped down to the ocean and began sucking water into the sky.

@!#%@#%  !!!

You have got to be kidding me!  I’ve been looking for tornadoes for 10 years in Texas and one appears right in front of me in (of all places) Australia!?  I was beside myself.  I just couldn’t believe it.

We boarded the boat and I was very disappointed.  For a tornado to appear right in front of me and to miss it was something that would probably haunt me for the next two or three decades.  I lamented as we drove out to our boat and looked again and again the clouds expectantly hoping – but knowing – that I had missed the opportunity of a lifetime.  Andrea tried to cheer me up telling me that we would have a great day of Whale Shark diving ahead of us.  Of course we would have a great time but was so disappointed to have missed that tornado.

The clouds were still dark and ominous looking and they had a tint of green; living in the Midwestern United States for the past decade I’d come to learn that a green cloud is an indication of possible tornado action.  I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

We boarded the boat and we were fitted for masks and fins and then the crew gave us a safety brief.  We were showed where the lifejackets where, where the toilet was and what to do in case of emergency.  The last brief was the Whale Shark brief and it was explained that we had to stay at least 3 meters (9 feet) from the Whale Sharks at all times.  We were not allowed to dive under the sharks or get in their way.  We would be dropped into their path, we were to let them swim by and then we could swim alongside of them as they fed their way through these warm waters.

I had a difficult time paying attention to the brief.  I kept looking out to the cloud bank.  And then I saw it.  And I could hardly believe my eyes.

I struggled to get the waterproof box under my seat open and I ended up making some commotion that disrupted the shark brief.  But finally, I had my camera out and I zoomed in on.  And then I saw my first ever tornado.

I snapped away with my camera.  I was ecstatic.

The waterspout looked like it was about a mile away and I figure that the base of the tornado was about 80 to 100 meters wide.  All of the boat captains in the area steered away from the tornado and the boat’s photographer came over to the port side to shoot a few shots as well.  Eventually the tornado lessened and lessened until the funnel broke free of the ocean and then slowly disappeared back into the clouds.

I beamed with happiness and then turned my attention back to the Whale Shark brief.

And then, I saw another one of the starboard-bow of the ship out in the deep sea.  This one was much larger and the width of its funnel cloud was massive.  I couldn’t tell if it was 6 miles away and its base was over the horizon or if the bottom of the tornado was just obscured by some low ocean haze.  I watched this tornado brew and grow and then as quickly as it formed it diminished and then disappeared.  From start to finish it only lasted about 3 or 4 minutes.

Just a few minutes later, off the starboard side of the ship I watched as the bottom of the cloud layer churned out funnel cloud after funnel cloud.  Some swirled and faded and some grew into proper funnels and stretched down towards the ocean.  In this photo below you can see a few cloud funnels trying to stretch out of the clouds and on the right one funnel is growing in a long and thin black finger.  I watched as this funnel cloud churned and twisted like the whirlpool at the bottom of your bathtub as it empties out.

I zoomed in on this funnel cloud as it dissipated and you can see how this little twister dropped into a “staircase” pattern before petering out and vanishing into the sky.

About 30 seconds later I saw another forming behind the boat off of our starboard side.  If you compare the first and second photos you can see how a tornado cloud forms right off the bottom of this rain cloud.  This twister grew and as it approached the point where it would connect with the sea it also faded and then disappeared.

In total we had seen 7 or 8 twister clouds and at least 3 of them had touched down to the ocean.  The sky cleared a little more, the sun came out and we enjoyed a beautiful day of Whale Shark diving.  In one day I had seen two of the most amazing things on the planet: tornadoes and Whale Sharks.  I can’t think of how the day could have been better and as I look back on my life, this day had to be one of the top 5 best days of my life.

With the sun out the view of the Ningaloo Reef was sublime.  I shot a photo of the beautiful ocean at the Ningaloo,

and only 20 minutes later, in the same location as the photo above, Ian announced, “Look, another tornado.”  We all watched as this funnel cloud turned and twisted and tried to reach down the ground.  We couldn’t see behind the sand dune and we aren’t sure if it touched down but it was beautiful to watch.  By the end of the day we had seen at least 9 twister clouds and 3 or 4 of them reached the ground or the ocean.  I asked the boat captain if he had ever seen a tornado or water spout before and he said that he usually sees about one each season (he’s been a Whale Shark boat captain for 10 years) but that he had never seen 8 or 9 in one day.  I wondered how many other twisters we didn’t see while we underwater.

We soaked in the view and thanked our lucky stars for such a wonderful day.


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Exmouth lighthouse and towers
Whale Sharks!

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