New Zealand’s Doubtless Sound

by Andrew Penniket. Photography by Andrew Penniket

You don’t need a degree in Spanish history to get excited about Doubtful Sound, in the heart of Fiordland, but it may surprise many people to learn that the Spanish were the first Europeans to explore this area aboard the Descubierta, back in 1793. The only reminder of this brief and exotic phase in New Zealand’s history is a handful of Spanish names scattered over the chart – Bauza Island, Malaspina Reach and Espinosa Point (the only Spanish names on any New Zealand map). But don’t go expecting any lost galleons and treasure chests – they were only there for a day!

Fast forward nearly 200 years and what the Poor Knights Islands were to diving in the 60s and early 70s, Fiordland has been in the 80s and 90s – exciting, unexplored and with strange new species at every turn.

Even today Doubtful Sound is one of only two fjords accessible by road, (if you ignore the hour long scenic trip across Lake Manapouri followed by another one hour scenic drive over Wilmot Pass). This extra obstacle has kept Doubtful quieter than the tourist icon of Milford Sound but with around 170 kilometres of coast within Doubtful Sound, some six major arms and more than 16 islands, it’s pretty easy to find peace and solitude. Oh, and I forgot to mention that at 30 km long, Doubtful Sound penetrates further into the mountains than the Poor Knights are off the coast!

I first heard rumours about the diving in Fiordland in 1976 but it wasn’t until 1984 that I made it below the cold dark surface. On my first dive my buddy (who prefers I don’t give his name) managed to lose a fin, a mask and depth gauge on his giant stride entry. This was my first experience of a basic Fiordland fact – it’s very, very deep. If you drop something you don’t get it back! Sculptured by a succession of glaciers the fjords have the classic glaciated U shape with near vertical sides and large flat bottoms (not that you get to see them – in places the fjord reaches over 300 metres deep!). Finning along the cliff face dropping into the gloom far below is about as close to the feeling of flying as you can get.

Anyone who has read about diving in Fiordland will have heard of the bizarre affect of the freshwater that floats on top of the denser saltwater in the fjords. Due to an incredibly high rainfall this freshwater layer can be anywhere up to 10 metres deep and its dark tea colour, due to staining from leaf litter and alpine peat bogs, makes diving here a spooky experience. At first appearances, with precariously rooted trees crowding the waterline, you feel like you are about to jump into a mountain lake. The shock of cold freshwater on your face only adds to the confusion and then after a few metres of this weirdness one suddenly drops through an oily looking mixing zone, into a warm and colourful sea with cliff faces of purple coralline paint, strange cup sponges and the inevitable welcoming committee of spotty wrasses. The contrast between the snowy peaks and drab forest above and the sight of spectacular bright red corals and fish below never fails to amaze me.

My first dive in Doubtful was from the Department of Conservation vessel, the Renown, then skippered by Lance Shaw. With 25 years of diving Fiordland under his weight belt, Lance knows Doubtful better than anyone and although he had told me about giant coral trees, nothing could have prepared me for my first glimpse. Like a ghostly apparition, a huge white tree, festooned with orange soft corals and pink sponges, emerged from the darkness. Like a magic wand, my torch beam cast a band of colour wherever I waved it. And at four metres in height this tree was no Poor Knights shrub! Coral trees (also known as black coral on account of their black semi-precious skeleton used for jewellery) are very common in the fjords, where they grow out from the cliff face, filtering plankton from the passing current.

Nowhere else in the world do such numbers of such large coral trees live in such shallow seas. This is just one of the features that makes Fiordland genuinely unique – there is no other word for it. Er, well there is actually – it’s called Deep Water Emergence. Many other creatures besides coral trees occur shallower in the fjords than anywhere else. The phenomenon of Deep Water Emergence is probably due to a number of factors – the darkness which excludes kelp that would normally live here, the lack of a swell and the close proximity of very deep water. In effect, the fjords are a window on the depths.

We soon learnt however, that not all of the fjords are such wonderful windows. Some sheltered back-waters are muddy and decidedly average but with careful reading of the landscape above, you can soon predict where to find superb dives. Anywhere beneath the biggest cliffs have usually been swept clean by falling trees or land slides, such as those set off by the ferocious earthquake there last year. The best locations are at points jutting into the fiord, especially around the islands and it was to one of these that Lance took us for an early dive.

At 25 metres the south side of Elizabeth Island is like an exhibit in a living museum of evolution – clusters of strange Brachiopods dangled from overhangs like ripe peaches. These weird creatures look like cockles but are really quite unrelated to molluscs and more closely related to bryozoans! Fiordland has the greatest diversity and concentration of brachiopods anywhere in the world. Nearby was a cluster of cold-water corals – fans of red and white hydrocorals that are so delicate the faintest brush of a misplaced hand or fin could break them. Diving in Fiordland is really like the proverbial bull in the china shop and requires extra care with buoyancy control to avoid any damage. Some of these corals are very slow growing and may be 50 –100 years old, so careless diving can have far reaching damage.

This was clearly brought home to me several years later at another incredibly beautiful location. In those days it was known as The Gut – not nearly as appealing (although easier to say) as the official name – Te Awaatu Marine Reserve. Wedged between Bauza and Secretary Islands and force feed by several knots of tide race, The Gut is one of the most exciting (and if you’re not careful – dangerous) dives I have ever encountered. It’s deep, dark and in the teeth of a very swift current at anything but slackwater (and sometimes that doesn’t even happen).

We dropped down the cliff onto a large sandy plateau at 20 metres. Here were creatures I had never seen before – a meadow of what looked like soft feathers about 300 mm tall and gently swaying in the undersea breeze. These sea pens are strange members of the anemone family and like many of the species in Fiordland, normally only found at great depths – beyond normal diving range. Also on this meadow I subconsciously registered that the juvenile blue cod appeared a bit different – they seemed to have more striking markings, but I thought no more of it. It wasn’t until a couple of years later when filming sea pens at The Gut, I was watching one of these cod out of the corner of my eye when suddenly a genuine blue cod swam up and settled beside the other cod! I did a massive double take and then a couple of weeks later, after searching fish guide books, concluded it was a yellow cod Parapercis gilliesi – a deep water sister species of the blue and normally found in the 100 – 200 metre range on the edge of the continental shelf! Deep Water Emergence rules okay!

After finning goggle-eyed across this field of sea pens the main objective of the dive gradually materialised – at 40 metres depth, a rocky reef covered with a carpet of very bright yellow zooanthids (colonial anemones) and clumps of red hydrocorals. What a sight – a brawl of delicate colours in the depths. Some years later I was shocked to see the largest fan of red hydrocoral here – a massive 300 mm frond – broken off and lying on its side on the reef – apparently knocked off by a careless diver.

The depth and distance of the reef out from the cliff face meant we could only spend a few minutes here before turning round and battling back cross the swift current that was attempting to drag us out to sea. The Gut reinforced for me the hazards of diving in Doubtful Sound. Because of the height of Wilmot Pass, any person suffering a case of bends/DCI must be flown by helicopter out of the fjord by way of sea , then south right around the bottom of the South Island and eventually all the way to Christchurch –a distance of several hours and hundreds of kilometres!

Despite its isolation Fiordland is coming under increasing pressure from fishing, especially charter boats catering for ‘recreational’ fishing. Now, each year thousands of fishermen and divers descend on the fjords where they take large numbers of blue cod, groper, paua, crays and scallops. This and the impact of more vessels and more tourism and more commercial fishing has prompted calls for some protection of the fjords. Proposals by a group, the Guardians of Fiordland’s Fisheries and Environment, aim to reduce the daily take and also include marine reserve proposals but the size of these is considered inadequate by many people (for Doubtful Sound it’s less than 5% of the area! The debate continues…)

Without doubt however, Doubtful Sound is one of the best dive locations in New Zealand with a huge choice of dive sites and, because of the many arms and islands, there is always somewhere sheltered to dive no matter what the conditions (it has been known to rain and blow on occasions). And a major bonus of diving in Doubtful Sound, thanks to the freshwater layer – no washing your dive gear at the end of the day! Hasta la vista.

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