About Milford Sound
Milford Sound (Piopiotahi) is a fjord located in New Zealand’s South Island, and is informally known as a contender for the 8th wonder of the world. It’s one of the most remote towns on earth and still manages to entertain ~1 million tourists a year. You realize just how incredible this feat is when you first go there. There is only one hotel in the area. There are two restaurants (one in the hotel) and very little housing. The 120 people who do live here are all working in the tourist industry, which is highly regulated by the government. The area is strictly controlled in order to maintain the natural wonder of Piopiotahi, a home the Maori discovered 1,000 years ago.
The dense rainforests, deep waters, and curious Kea birds make this fjord a particularly special place to visit. However, it’s visitors should always come prepared for temperamental weather. It rains nearly every day, and is often hit with gusts of wind up to 300km an hour at the narrowest part of the fjord. My boat captain said, “Everywhere else that’s a hurricane, but in Milford it’s just a storm.”. As you can imagine, the winters in Milford are quite the extravaganza. There is only one road in and out of Milford Sound, which means it’s a common occurrence for access to be cut off during avalanche season from June-November. Rain or shine, you’ll see tourists hiking, kayaking and taking boat tours around the fjord. There are also a lucky few who decide to explore what’s below the surface. And what they find there is fascinating…
Diving Milford Sound
Tyler and I had the wonderful opportunity to dive Milford Sound in late September- right before the high season which starts on October 1st. We anticipated diving in a dry suit, something we had done in Iceland a few years before. Upon arrival, however, we were given semi-dry suits (aka thick wetsuits) and were eaten by sandflies as we struggled to wiggle them up our bodies. Since we thought we were going to wear dry suits, Tyler and I stupidly left our swimsuits at home and came fully dressed in tight, winter attire. It was a great start. Sarcasm aside, the trip was definitely worth feeling cold.
Milford Sound is one of the most unique dive sights in the world. When you jump in, you’re surrounded by what seems like blurry olive oil. This is because there are two stratified layers of water in the fjord. The top layer is mostly fresh water from the constant rain and glacier runoff. The steep cliffs that surround the water are filled with trees whose tannin runs into the water and creates the blur you find in this layer. You don’t want to hang out here very long because it’s almost 10 degrees colder (46 Fahrenheit, 8 Celsius) than the layer beneath it. As you descend, you’ll find a warmer (54 Fahrenheit or 12 Celsius) saltwater layer which is clear green and full of life.
Milford Sound is special because the fjord walls block the sunlight from penetrating the water. This, mixed with the fresh glacier water, create a perfect environment for a plethora of Deepwater species, including the rare black coral. This soft coral, whose skeleton is black but is externally white, normally lives at depths of 100 meters or more. However, in this fjord you will see them at a shallow depth of 10 meters.
The black coral that grow here are 1-3 meters high. You don’t realize how incredible this is until you know that they grow very, VERY slowly. Imagine how fast your fingernails grow in a year, then slow that down by 2,000. This means the coral here are possibly thousands of years old!
If you dive closer to the dive center where the waters are especially dark, you may be lucky enough to run into a Jurassic shark with 7 gills and a top fin located near its rear. This shark is passive, but in the black waters, you can’t help but feel a bit scared.
The dive master told us that research divers often investigate Milford Sound. One day, two researchers were swimming side by side on one a routine night dive. For some reason, one diver kept bumping the other. He couldn’t see his friend, but after 5 minutes of being bumped, he finally turned to complain. (If you’ve dived in the past, then you know just how hard it is to get a good 360-degree view around your person.) Instead of his friend, he found the Jurassic shark sizing him up to see if he was worth eating.
If you dive here often, odds are you will spot the Jurassic shark and, even more fascinating, completely undiscovered species. Each time researchers dive here, they discover new life, giving Milford Sound its reputation as the last diving frontier. If you join Descend (the only diving company in Milford), you might be lucky enough to swim next to seals, dolphins or sharks. If you somehow make your way out of the fjord to the open ocean, you may even spot the occasional Great White Shark (something I happily learned about right before jumping in).
If you aren’t able to spot these species, you will still be mesmerized by the deep-sea polyps, big-eyed fish, and crayfish. The crayfish are extremely friendly here. If you are patient and hold out your hand, they will rub their antennule on you to “feel your energy” as our dive master put it. Be careful not to shine your flashlight on them because they’re easily blinded.
Overall, I highly recommend Descend’s tour. It’s run by a lovely couple who are experienced, fun and professional divers. You’ll have the best of both worlds, with the boat tour through the fjord and the dive tour beneath it. They will take you to waterfalls, seal spots, and you may even see a penguin. It’s worth every penny!