Milford Sound may not be the first place that comes to mind when planning a dive trip. The term ‘Sound’ suggests it was formed when a river valley was flooded by the sea. However, Milford Sound is actually a fjord, carved out by the erosion of ancient glacial ice leaving behind a deep valley flanked by sheer rock faces, lush forest and majestic snowy peaks. Over time the deep valley was filled slowly by the Tasman Sea, bringing with it a vast array of life.
Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in New Zealand with an annual rainfall of 6,813mm, but it is also one of the most beautiful! Heavy rain rushing down the slopes through the dense vegetation brings with it a tea coloured tannin staining the top layer of the fjord’s water a dark brown. This fresh water ranges from two to six metres deep and, as you descend your eyes struggle to focus through the salty fresh water mixture. This cold blurry layer makes Milford Sound so unique to dive.
The dark tannin also filters out sun light which in turn creates the perfect environment for deep water species such as seven gill sharks and huge ancient black coral trees. The Piopiotahi Marine Reserve established in 1993 along the northern side of Milford Sound, has created a safe environment for marine life to flourish, and this is immediately obvious as you descend to be greeted by curious crayfish and friendly blue cod.
From a photographer’s perspective this is perfect as you can get super close to the subject without harassing them. Or, as I found, they might even start harassing you. If you are planning a photo trip make sure you bring both macro and wide angle set up – there is more than enough keep your camera busy with both!
Throughout the fjord there are a huge variety of dive sites but some of the most popular are Penguin Cove, Greenstone Point and The Triangle.
Penguin Cove is a popular and easy way to start the day with a sloping sandy bottom and plenty of marine life. Huge crayfish spill out of every crack and crevice, very much as curious about us as we are about them. Black coral trees reach high up with their delicate white branches contrasting poignantly against the dark water. Keep an eye out for curious dogfish and carpet sharks swimming around below too. The sandy floor soon drops away into a black abyss and you can continue along the steep rocky topography with endless black coral structures.
Greenstone Point is located at the mouth of the fjord, a steep wall dive with an abundance of life. Schooling kingfish and butterfly perch hang in the current with bright red, hard coral structures reaching out from the precipitous rocky edge. Yellow zoanthids envelope entire rocky areas with carpet shark eggs nestled amongst the black coral tree branches, eggs which can often reveal a partially developed shark foetus, absolutely mesmerising to watch as its tiny gills beat into life.
The Triangle dive site is located deep within the fjord and less affected by ocean currents that otherwise help flush out sediment. The build-up of debris in the water column acts as a sun shade, blocking out light and creating a great environment for seven gill sharks. But unfortunately we did not encounter any of them this time though we did get to see one of the largest black coral structures in the entire fjord, about the size of a large car. There are also plenty of other dive sites to explore: swim through schools of blue moki at Moki Reef, watch millions of crayfish at Cray’s Crack and hang out with friendly octopus at Dale Point. The dive guides on hand point out unique creatures such as the warty nudibranch or spiny sea dragons. And keep an eye out for curious fur seals and the pods of dolphins cruising by.
A guided tour to one of the many magical waterfalls fills out our interval time, along with an ice cold glacial shower! Milford Sound has everything, above and below the water, more than just a dive trip, but an experience wholly unique to New Zealand.