Diving at Milford Sound

By Jason Heaton 28 January 2015
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The impressive annual precipitation of 9m makes diving at Milford Sound a unique experience.

THE LAST THING I saw as I deflated my buoyancy vest and descended was a sleepy fur seal watching me with one open eye from its sunny rock perch. I looked across at dive master Simone just as her head vanished under the water and I followed her down. Just under the surface, I lost sight of her, only the yellow of her tank visible through the freshwater haze, until five metres deeper, she came into sharper focus. It was as if I had suddenly put on a prescription dive mask. We exchanged “okay” hand signs and kicked deeper, into the eerie green depths.

Milford Sound, in the Fiordland region of New Zealand’s South Island, is one of the wettest places on earth, receiving nine metres of rain per year. While this prodigious precipitation makes for damp hiking on the famous Milford Track that ends on its shores, it also makes for some of the world’s most unusual scuba diving in the Sound itself.

All that rain settles on top of the deep cut of seawater that makes up the fjord. With nowhere to drain, the lighter freshwater forms a layer on top of the saltwater, creating a unique marine environment. Besides the hazy layer the freshwater creates, it also changes the undersea environment; species normally found much deeper grow at depths accessible by recreational divers.

Best known of these species is the inappropriately named black coral, which grows like a beautiful ghostly weed in 20m of water. Black coral normally grows at much greater depths, typically below 100m and is seldom seen by divers. But in Milford, huge bushes of the pale coral sprout from the sheer rocky sides of the Sound.

Blue cod and butterfly perch find protection among the branches and lobsters back into crevices in the shade beneath. We were diving on the marine reserve side of the Sound, which is protected from fishing. This means the lobsters are allowed to grow, and grow old, here. And they get massive; one monster we saw was nearly half a metre long. Without fear of capture, the “bugs” are friendly here too and some emerged from their lairs to explore my gloved fingertips with their probing antennae.

Diving at Milford Sound is worth the effort

When you think of Milford Sound, scuba diving isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. It’s the hiking, the kayaking or the sightseeing cruises. But I had travelled halfway around the world from my home in the middle of the USA and I wanted to experience it all. So after four days hiking the Milford Track, I stayed on and swapped my hiking boots for fins and a mask. Anyway, being weightless wouldn’t be a bad thing after trekking with a heavy pack for four days.

If you want to dive in Milford Sound, there aren’t a lot of choices. Its remote location, lack of lodging options and cold water keep all but the most intrepid divers away. But it’s worth the effort. I contacted Descend Diving, a Queenstown-based dive operator and the only outfit that runs dive trips in the Sound several days a week.

Since most divers don’t stay in Milford itself, Descend makes the five-hour round-trip, collecting its clients in Queenstown or Te Anau before making the jaw-droppingly scenic drive to the Sound, a trailer full of fresh tanks and a quiver of thick wetsuits banging along in a trailer behind.

Simone collected me at my hotel in Te Anau where I’d dropped my pack and spent a well-earned night in a soft bed after my hike. After the windy drive back to Milford, through the Homer Tunnel, we pulled into the marina at the Sound, where I saw Simone’s partner, Lance, readying the dive boat. We all worked quickly to load the boat and suit up for the trip. Milford’s notorious sandflies made sure our shore time was limited, ferociously biting my bare legs as I scrambled to wriggle into a 7mm neoprene semi-dry suit.

Once underway, the breeze took care of the sandflies and I settled in for the magnificent view that opened up in front of me. Iconic Mitre Peak stood sentinel over the Sound. The water was dead calm and it was a rare sunny day with bluebird skies above – a perfect day for diving.

We motored out past Seal Rock and into a sheltered cove which would be our first dive site. Lance would stay onboard while Simone and I dove and he helped us on with our kits. The thick suits, hoods and gloves we wore were a necessary evil here. Water temperatures rarely get above 15°C. I waddled over to the transom, gave my regulator one more test puff, and stepped into the blue.

Milford Sound home to big marine animals

In addition to its colony of fur seals, Milford Sound is home to a resident pod of dolphins, as well as a small population of Fiordland crested penguins, a species unique to the region. If you’re lucky, you can dive with all of them. I hoped that the seal I saw as we descended would follow us in; Lance and Simone had told me that often the seals will swim with divers, blowing bubbles and playfully nipping at their masks.

But not that day; the seals decided it was far nicer to soak up some rare sun than swim with humans. The sight of the seals inevitably reminded me of their most feared predator – the great white shark. A large population of white sharks roams the waters around Stewart Island, not 160km away. There have been rumored sightings of whites in the Sound but nothing confirmed. I put it out of my mind but did glance over my shoulder now and then.

Aside from the lobsters and schools of blue cod, it wasn’t a day for exciting marine encounters. Still, the otherworldly scene was spectacular. The smooth, vertical rock walls disappeared into the gloom below and looking up, I knew they ascended thousands of feet above the waterline. This wasn’t just wall diving, this was fjord diving; like nowhere else on the planet.

We had to keep an eye on depth gauges; with no seafloor as a reference, it was all too easy to keep descending. At one point, I glanced at my wrist to see we were at 30m and the cold water and depth brought on the first hints of nitrogen narcosis. Simone indicated it was time to turn around and head back up.

On our way up, I spotted movement on a ledge – a huge octopus clung to a rocky knob, its tentacles seeking purchase and its head pulsating with color. We paused to watch it for several minutes and the creature watched us with an oddly intelligent-looking eye.

My dive computer said time was up and we slowly drifted upwards. Back through the blurry freshwater layer we went – Simone’s figure was like a shimmering mirage – until my head popped into the sunlight. I blinked in the brightness and when my eyes adjusted, the first thing I saw was a curious penguin watching me from a rock. I spat out my mouthpiece and laughed out loud. Where else could you dive among seals, penguins, snowcapped peaks and black coral? Diving Down Under had turned my world upside down.

The Essentials

Diving: Descend Diving in Queenstown guides Milford Sound diving trips including transport from Queenstown, Te Anau and Milford Sound. See www.descend.co.nz for more information and a great video of diving at the Sound

Where to stay: Milford Sound Lodge offers accommodation options from tent and caravan sites through to shared dorms, cabins and lodges and luxury riverside chalets. Alternatively you can stay in Queenstown or Te Anau. See www.milford-sound.co.nz for details.

Getting there: There is road access to Milford Sound. For conditions see www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/milfordroad/