Preservation Inlet – Fiordland

Discovering Fiordland:

Preservation Inlet

by Ross Armstrong

Getting ready for our first dive in Fiordland, I reflected on what our skipper Lance Shaw had just told us. ‘This is not a recognised dive site – don’t expect too much.’ Lance had ed a sheltered bay at the entrance to the Isthmus in Preservation Inlet. It was an ideal place for our fellow divers John and Carl to get accustomed to bulky wetsuits and practise buoyancy control before diving any of the top sites; in doing so, Lance was looking after their safety as well as that of the delicate marine invertebrates we were here to see.

Diane and I had wanted to dive Fiordland for years, ever since seeing photos taken by friends who had been there. From our home at the other end of the country, we had driven 2000km and spent a day sailing to get here. We brought with us very high expectations, and I was concerned that we might be expecting too much and end up disappointed. Now Lance was telling us not to expect much at all. He was almost apologetic before we had even got in.

We snorkelled from the stern of Breaksea Girl towards the shore, gave each other a final OK and began our descent. Below us the sediment-covered gently sloping bottom of broken rock and shell appeared. Visibility was about 13m, but I could not see any of the black coral colonies Fiordland is renowned for. What I did see was fish, and a lot more than I expected. Blue cod, ranging from small juveniles to large adults, would come up close to investigate us, their curiosity evident. We saw more blue cod on this dive than on any of the others. As we travelled further north their numbers reduced and on some dives we did not see any at all. Spotties were also abundant and seen on every dive as they fossicked about the bottom looking for food. Propped up on their pectoral fins were large Jock Stewarts, or sea perch. These fish reminded me of the scorpionfish at the Poor Knights, and were ideal photographic subjects, allowing divers to approach very close.

Further inspection of the bottom revealed a variety of triplefins, including mottled, blue-eyed, yellow and black, and scalyheaded, and a large variety of invertebrates, most of which were new to us. Small white sea-urchins were plentiful, while the normal sea-urchins (kina) were huge compared to those we see in Northland. Sponges, worms, anemones and starfish took up most of the available space, but the highlight for us was the large tube anemones. We had seen photographs of these spectacular anemones before but I had assumed they were rare. They live on sediment-filled ledges and were quite numerous on some dives. Long tentacles billow out of their thick round tubes and gently sway in the current like smoke from a chimney. Further exploration revealed three small black coral colonies with a Jason mirabilus nudibranch living on one. All too soon it was time to return to the boat, where an enthusiastic John and Carl told us about the black and red coral they had found on the other side of the bay. Lance listened to our excited descriptions of the dive with interest, and said that if we enjoyed this dive we would be blown away tomorrow.

My concerns about having too high expectations were beginning to disappear. When we had decided to go to Fiordland, several of our friends recommended Breaksea Girl, a 25 metre steel ketch owned by Lance Shaw and his partner Ruth Dalley. As Fiordland Ecology Holidays, they offer trips to Fiordland and New Zealand’s subantarctic islands. Ruth recommended their seven or ten day trips which visit a number of fiords; as all the fiords had something different to offer we would get a better overall appreciation of Fiordland if we visited several. We took her word for it, and were glad we did. Ruth and Lance’s trips are designed for minimal impact on the environment: no fishing is allowed, and their diving is non-extraction.

Fiordland Ecology Holidays offer a range of dedicated and non-dedicated dive trips. There were no dedicated dive trips available at the times we could go, but Ruth assured us that we would learn a lot more about Fiordland on a non-dedicated dive trip, with the opportunity to get ashore to enjoy bush walks and visit historic sites. Again her advice was proven correct. Being on a non-dedicated dive trip meant that we had fewer dives, and although we could have got more in by choosing to miss out on shore trips, these were often too interesting to pass up. We decided to treat the trip as an exploratory voyage that would help us to plan future holidays.

I had formed a mental picture of Fiordland: steep mountains plummeting straight into the fiords. While this was true, we were to discover that there was a lot more to it. I had never realised how large Fiordland is – all the other national parks of New Zealand combined would fit inside its boundaries. There are 15 main fiords, with an average length of 21km, and a coastline of 1872km – longer than the distance from Cape Reinga to Bluff. Preservation Inlet is the southernmost fiord. The surrounding mountains were less steep than the other fiords we visited.

Prior to our dive at Isthmus, we went for a four hour return bush walk to the lighthouse at Puysegur Point, which Lance described as New Zealand’s Cape Horn. The track, originally used to bring provisions to the lighthouse, was well made. On our way back it rained heavily – the only rain we had during the week. This was unusual; Fiordland is a rainforest area and you can expect rain. The official reason for the lack of rain was the La Nina weather pattern, but we knew the real reason was that Diane and I had each purchased an expensive pair of waterproof leggings for the trip. On the way back from the lighthouse we took a track to the beach where Sealers #1 and #2 Creeks meet the sea. This track is less developed than the main track, but is clearly marked. It was well worth the extra time.

The beach is as picturesque as anything I have ever seen – surrounded by bush, with beautiful rocky outcrops and golden sand. It was the last thing we expected to find in Fiordland. Both creeks were shallow, but the water was stained a dark, tea-coloured brown by the tannin from the forest leaf-litter. The tannin-stained fresh water is one of the main factors for the uniqueness of the marine ecosystem of Fiordland. The mountains of Fiordland receive a tremendous amount of rainfall, up to seven metres a year. Most of this rainfall ends up in the fiords. As it makes its way down the mountains and valleys, the fresh water takes on the tannin colour we observed in the Sealers Creeks. When it reaches the fiords it forms a layer of green-brown fresh water on top of the clear seawater, a layer which averages about five metres but has been recorded as deep as 16 metres. This fresh water layer significantly reduces the light levels in the seawater below it to the equivalent, at ten metres, of 70 to 100 metres depth in the open sea.

The low light levels allow light-sensitive marine animals such as black coral, red coral and sea pens, which are normally restricted to deep water, to flourish. Diane and I were about to witness this on our next dive at Strawberry Fields in Long Sound. We wanted to go to Preservation Inlet to photograph the sea pens that occur there as shallow as 25 metres. There are five species of sea pens within diveable depths in Fiordland, all of them normally restricted to 600 metres or more. Sea pens are a type of soft coral that live by filter feeding, and thrive where there is a current to provide a steady supply of food. Much of the diving in Fiordland is on sheer vertical walls carved out by glaciers, which drop away several hundred metres. However, the two dives we did in Preservation Inlet had gentle sloping sediment-covered bottoms.

After our cameras were passed to us we swam the short distance to the wall and followed the slope down. We encountered the first sea pens in about 14 metres and continued from one to the next until we reached a depth of 18 metres, by which time we had plenty of photos and decided to head back to the wall. Here our attention switched to the huge abundance and variety of invertebrates. As with our previous dive there were a number of tube anemones and a variety of colourful patterned starfish. Here also were red coral, another beautiful deepwater coral that occurs in Fiordland. What first appeared to be a small black coral turned out to be a pale yellow gorgonian fan with a brown and white spotted snakestar (Astroceras elegans) entwined in its branches. This snakestar lives exclusively on gorgonians. We did find a few small black coral colonies on this dive, but we would see much bigger species during our dives in Dusky Sound.

Working our way back up the wall we encountered the small strawberry sea cucumbers for which the dive site is named. Yet another deep water species, there were masses of these scarlet sea cucumbers just below the fresh water layer. Lance was right when he said we would love this dive, and we did not have anywhere near enough film to photograph all that we saw. We could easily have had a dozen dives there and still not seen it all. Before we left Preservation Inlet to head north we had a couple more shore trips. One was a bush walk at Sandy Point close to Strawberry Fields. The other was a visit to the site of some early mining from late last century, and the remains of an old smelter built on the site in the early 1900s. During our trip we would see and learn more about the important part Fiordland played in the early history of New Zealand. Dusky Sound, our next destination, was where much of that history took place.

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