Doubtful Sound, Fiordland

Discovering Fiordland: Doubtful Sound

by Ross Armstrong


This is the third and final article about our trip to Fiordland, and looks at our time in Doubtful Sound. However, before we sailed up the coast from Breaksea Sound, Lance stopped to show us the seal colony on Breaksea Island. Lance explained how he was involved with the ambitious and pioneering Department of Conservation project to rid the island of rats. After a great deal of effort from many people, all the rats were eradicated and the island is now a refuge for the native birds of Fiordland.

The sea was very calm for the trip up the coast and a possible sighting of a whale had our skipper up the mast on lookout duty for the remainder of the voyage. There were no other sightings, and we reached Doubtful Sound in the late afternoon where we anchored for the night in The Jail at Shelter Islands. We were down to the last few days of our holiday and I was keen to get another dive in. I decided to do an evening dive before dinner. When I was ready, Alan took me over to a nice shallow area, where he suggested that I make my way along the wall and he would pick me up in 45 minutes. The dive site was about ten metres deep and consisted of a rocky reef with seaweed and sandy patches. The area was like a nursery with a lot of juvenile fish about, including banded wrasse, girdled wrasse, spotties, red banded perch, terakihi, and butterfish, plus a large number and variety of triplefins. On the sand I found a different species of flounder called a witch, but it scurried off.

My attention then moved to a feather duster worm. I had noticed that the feather duster worms here seemed more tolerant of my presence and would remain open for longer, thus providing better photographic opportunities. However, I would not have believed just how tolerant they could be. A small variable triplefin decided to have a closer look. Swimming in, the triplefin settled on the gills of the feather duster worm, which bent slightly under its weight but did not retract. I could not believe my eyes, and quickly took a photo to record this unusual behaviour.

As the light began to fade some of the nocturnal fish like bigeye were beginning to stir, while the daytime fish began finding shelter for the night ahead. Dusk is a busy time on the reef as the change of shift between day and night occurs. I was quietly watching the activity in front of me when I heard Alan motoring over in the car – Lance’s name for his aluminium tender. It was time to leave the fish and get back to the others and my evening meal.

In the morning Lance took us out to try and find a Fiordland crested penguin. These very rare penguins only come ashore in late January and early February to moult, and in July to breed. We slowly motored around the Shelter Islands looking at the bird life, including terns and little blue penguins. Thanks to John’s keen eyesight, we spotted a crested penguin resting on the rocks, and Lance let us go ashore and quietly climb up on the rocks to get a better view. The next stop was another attempt to snorkel with seals, this time at the seal colony on Nee Islands at the entrance to Doubtful Sound. The sea was still very calm and on the way we were intercepted by a pod of common dolphins. After a brief joyride on the bow the dolphins departed and we were left to get ready for the seals.

The conditions could hardly have been better. There was not a cloud in the sky, no wind, and the sea was very calm. On the rocks dozens of seals basked in the morning sun; many more frolicked in the water. We quickly donned our gear and listened as Lance briefed us. We decided to snorkel, as we were going to dive The Gut later that day and wanted to keep our nitrogen levels down. The visibility was about 15 metres. Below us the kelp-covered bottom provided shelter and sustenance for banded wrasse that weaved in and out of the fronds, ignoring both the seals and us. A dark shape of a seal flew past at the edge of visibility and was gone.

As we got closer to the rocks we got our first real look at a couple of seals in the water. They were hanging upside down with their big eyes watching us, giving the appearance of swimmer’s goggles. We both realised this is what we had witnessed when we saw the rear flippers of seals protruding from the surface around seal colonies. The upside down position provides a great vantage point to watch what is going on. A quick flick of their flippers and they were underwater and gliding about effortlessly, twisting and turning like a complex gymnastics routine. Their speed and manoeuvrability was awe-inspiring, and such a contrast to their slow and awkward movements on the rocks. When they swam, trails of bubbles would stream behind them.

They were obviously curious about us and would do lightning-quick runs straight at us and veer away at the last moment. Sometimes they would open their mouths as they approached. Once I glimpsed a blur fly past from behind me and saw a stream of bubbles rise up between my legs. Whether the seal actually swam between my legs I can’t say for sure, because it all happened so fast. Diane had one swim straight at her mask. At the last second she closed her eyes and prepared for the impact. But there was no impact, and when she opened her eyes the only evidence of a seal was a trail of bubbles rising to the surface. We were both out of film when Lance arrived in the car. He was getting everyone out of the water, and I knew something was up. My over-active imagination could think of only one reason to get people out of the water around a seal colony. I was in the boat in a flash. However, I was wrong – a boat had called up in distress down on the coast and Lance was going to see if he could help.

When everyone was back on board the boat was buzzing with excitement from the seal encounter. Each person recounted his or her experiences and it was probably the highlight of a very full trip. We realised now why Lance was disappointed with our earlier attempt to swim with seals in Dusky Sound. By the time we reached the boat that had made the distress call everything was under control and they did not require our help.

Taking advantage of the unusually calm conditions, Lance decided to show us the ‘Desert.’ This is an area of sand dunes at the mouth of the Coal River. Here we saw yet another aspect of Fiordland National Park that made us question the typical mental image we had arrived with. Back on board, we headed back to Doubtful Sound for our final dive of the trip. Tomorrow was our last day and we would be travelling back over the Wilmont Pass in the afternoon, which made it inadvisable to dive in the morning. Our last dive would be at The Gut, the only marine reserve in Doubtful Sound and the second in Fiordland. The other is in Milford Sound and covers an area of 690 hectares. By comparison The Gut is relatively small, covering an area of 93 hectares. The Gut is one of the few places where divers can view sea pens. The sea pens at The Gut are a different species from those we saw in Preservation Inlet, and this is a deeper dive with the sea pens in about 32 metres. Sea pens need currents to thrive, and the narrow gap between Bauza and Secretary Islands provides just such a place.

Lance gave us very precise directions on how to find them. He also told us to continue across the sandy sill where the sea pens were to a small reef. We followed his instructions and found the reef easily. It was a riot of colour with masses of yellow zoanthids and red coral decorated with crinoids. Diane found a couple of the beautiful Jason mirabilus nudibranchs. Unfortunately, evidence of the advanced nature of the dive lay scattered about the bottom in the form of broken red coral. The combination of the depth and the current does not make this site very suitable for inexperienced divers, and it is sad and ironic to think that we divers are accidentally damaging an area we have designated for protection. All too soon we had run out of bottom time and had to head up.

Above us we could hear the throbbing of Breaksea Girl’s engines and Lance motored about waiting for us. A large and friendly trumpeter joined us as we worked our way slowly back up the wall. A few black coral colonies clung to the walls in the shallows, but we had seen better examples on other dives. Lingering in the shallows, we were reluctant to surface, knowing this was our last dive in Fiordland. Eventually we did have to surface. After putting our gear away we sat down to a large meal of roast lamb from Alan and Jean’s farm while Lance motored up to Shoal Cove. We had a very early start planned for the morning, as Lance wanted to take us up the tributaries of the Camelot River. By early, I mean 5:30. I always thought there was only one 5:30 in the day and it occurred well after lunchtime. However, it seemed that we needed to get up at this time to catch the high tide.

After a couple of pieces of toast we got into the car and quietly motored over to a tributary entrance. The early morning light was beginning to seep into the fiord. Everything was very still and quiet as Lance nosed the car up to the shore. A short walk took us to a waterfall, but the lack of rain had reduced it to a trickle. Lance talked about the bush and identified a number of the native trees and plants for us. His knowledge comes from years spent in and about Fiordland and a real passion for the region. Lance explained the damage done by introduced deer and how the hunting of deer had helped the forest to begin to regenerate. We returned to the car and ventured further up the tributary. The stillness of the morning produced beautiful reflections on the water surface. Although we could have happily explored the tributary for hours, time and tide wait for no one. With the turn of the tide the water level began to fall and we had to make our way back out to Breaksea Girl.

Lance had one more potential activity planned for us, the possibility of swimming with dolphins. The previous attempt in Dusky Sound had been not very successful and Lance was interested to see if the Doubtful Sound dolphins might be more interested. The early morning developed into another superb sunny day and we quietly relaxed and soaked up the beauty of the scenery while Lance motored back to Doubtful Sound. He steered Breaksea Girl into Crooked Arm and soon we sighted dolphins. The bottlenose dolphins of Fiordland are the southernmost pods in the world. Research has shown these dolphins have evolved to handle the cold water by becoming fatter and having smaller pectoral fins than other bottlenose dolphins. Both characteristics are better suited to a cold environment.

Another adaptation they have made is that, unlike other bottlenose dolphins that mate all year round, the Fiordland pods time their mating to ensure they give birth over the warmer summer months. Several of the dolphins left the pod and came over to ride on the bow waves. Watching from the bow we could see the dolphins jostle for position below us. Every so often one would peel off and return to the pod. Lance told us to get ready if we wanted to try and swim with them, but only Andra and Ericka took up the offer. The rest of us were tired from the early start, or maybe we had already had our fill of adventures for one trip. Andra and Ericka were rewarded for their efforts with a close encounter with several dolphins that swam over to observe these awkward and noisy swimmers. Leaving the dolphins, we continued to work our way up Doubtful Sound in time to rendezvous with the coach at 2pm.

Everyone on board sat around in quiet reflection, realising their holiday was almost over and remembering all that had occurred over the past week. An often-repeated comment was how lucky we had been with the weather, the marine life and everything. Then, just when we thought it was all over, we encountered a sunfish in Hall Arm! This was the first time Lance had ever seen one in Fiordland. Once again, Fiordland showed us that we should expect the unexpected. In closing, Diane and I have to say that we had a wonderful trip on Breaksea Girl, enjoyed great company and were looked after superbly by Lance, Alan, Jean, and Ruth back in the office. We have now experienced Fiordland and better appreciate what it has to offer. But mainly we realise that we have just had a glimpse, and accept there is so much more we have yet to discover. Would we go back? In a moment.

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