Exploring Milford Sound (New Zealand)

by Kevin Bone

Rolling lling backwards into the rather dubious looking muddy brown water required an element of faith; the water was fresh but perhaps not as bad as reputation would have led me to believe. This and other surprises were yet to come.

No sense hanging around in this chilly brown surface layer, so I signalled to my buddy and we began our descent.  Initially I can’t focus in the blurry freshwater layer, even my gauges become hard to read, then after three or four metres my face and hands start to feel warmer and the visibility improves dramatically – we have come through the freshwater into the twilight zone of the seawater.  I check my buddy and we shine our lights down into the green waters that make Fiordland so special.

While still getting our bearings, a group of dog sharks fly by; four at first, then eight (or was that four again?).  They’re fast and even with my camera preset on manual, I have trouble capturing them on film.  These sharks are great and seldom seen in the shallows like this, but there’s something else we’re searching for.

I have told my buddy to look out for floating sticks and, sure enough, floating sticks we find. In an unusual habitat for Milford, a slopping sandy bottom shrouded by sparse kelp, the very rare, deepwater, spiny sea-dragon is spotted.  Although it’s clearly trying not to be seen, our torches show this two foot long ‘brown stick’ to really be bright orange – we try not to blind the wee beastie and trust its acute eyes will adapt quickly to the unaccustomed light. Still, my buddy found it first so the can of Speights goes to him – bugger.

As we carry on, the bottom becomes more bouldery – great habitat for butterfly perch, marble fish and scarlet wrasse. Jock Stewarts study us from every vantage point.  Great to photograph, but one flash of the strobe and they’re away.  The girdled wrasse are almost tame, bravely taking on their reflection in my mask – but my camera can’t focus that close!

Almost without us noticing, the boulders are gone and Milford’s trademark wall plunges 100m or more down.  So sheer in fact that our bubbles are running across the face of the wall, sometimes knocking against starfish and sea cucumbers, dislodging them from their precarious positions.

My buddy points out a maroon worm wrapped up inside the coral; these are starfish coiled up around the delicate white branches where they are protected by the stinging polyps that make up the black coral colony.  There are also yellow ones and even a spotty/striped one.  As I check my gauges I realize it’s already time to move up but the dive is far from over yet. In one of the deep crevices at eight metres I find the legendary Fiordland crayfish, stacked on top of each other – hey, maybe these marine reserves work, but it means no crays for tea.

At five metres, just below the murky freshwater, a blue cod is getting friendly with the camera port and right on the freshwater margin is a thick band of eleven legged starfish.

The starfish are lurking down here, waiting for the tide to rise so they can have a good feed on the thick band of mussels above.

Eventually, my buddy gives the thumbs up and to the surface we go. The sun’s broken out from behind the mountains while we’ve been down – Milford’s not a bad spot at all.

Information: The northern shore of Milford Sound from near Cemetery Point to Dale Point is a marine reserve (Piopiotahi marine reserve).  Milford Sound is accessible by road 1 1/2 hours drive from Te Anau.

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