The end of the Milford Track, New Zealand’s famous 34-mile “Great Walk” would be a wonderful place to linger if it wasn’t buzzing with sandflies. The crisp sea air and views of peaks descending directly into a deep fjord is a landscape photographer‘s dream. And after four days of backpacking from the shores of Lake Te Anau through avalanche “slips” and over a snowy mountain pass, the sight of Milford Sound was a welcome one. But this spot, where the trail dead-ends into a crude dock, is aptly named “Sandfly Point”, and after a quick hero selfie, I hustled into the hikers’ shelter to await a boat transfer across the Sound. An hour later, we were deposited back into the relative civilization of Milford and my smelly hiking companions boarded a bus to head back to Queenstown for hot showers and cold beers. But I hadn’t had enough of this place and stayed behind. I had plans to cool off and take a load off my feet, literally, with two days on and under Milford Sound’s icy waters, scuba diving and kayaking, sandflies be damned.
Milford Sound is not actually a sound, strictly speaking. It is in fact a fjord, as this region’s Anglicized name, “Fiordland” suggests. Instead of an ocean inlet, the 4,000-foot mountain walls were carved out by glaciers, which finally broke through to let the Tasman Sea flood in. The resulting cirque of peaks, steep walls and waterfalls are a coffee table book come alive and a magnet for photographers, who come in throngs to frame Mitre Peak across the water at sunset. Excursion boats leave the harbor hourly bearing hundreds of snap-happy tourists who brave the notorious wind and rain of Milford to take pictures of Stirling Falls, the resident populations of fur seals and penguins or, if they’re lucky, the schools of dolphins that sometimes frequent the Sound.
I swam closer and saw a massive octopus shimmying along the wall, its well-camouflaged body pulsating to match the dappled sunlight that filtered down.
Milford Sound is one of the rainiest places on earth, receiving over 22 feet of precipitation annually, evidenced by the coating of moss and vines that grows on just about anything that doesn’t move along the Milford Track. Given its rainy reputation, I was pleasantly surprised to find my dive day dawn without a cloud in the sky. As I suited up on shore, the sandflies were out in force, nipping at any exposed skin and hovering in a cloud around my head, defying the toxic coating of DEET I had bathed in only an hour earlier. Shimmying into a seven-millimeter neoprene wetsuit is never a pleasant or quick task, but the relief it provided from the biting insects inspired me, and I donned the hood, leaving only my eyes and nose exposed.
Diving in Milford isn’t exactly tropical vacation diving; the 45-degree water requires a thick exposure suit and a lot of lead in your belt. The advantage of this of course is that if you’re hearty enough to do it, you’ll have the whole place to yourself. There isn’t a row of dive shops there to choose from, either; Descend Scuba Diving is the only game in town, and their specialization in this niche diving shows in their knowledge and skills. As I swatted bugs away, skipper Lance and his partner, Simone, calmly loaded tanks in to the 21-foot Pacific Runner, their purpose-built dive boat, and soon we were motoring out onto the glassy Sound, a light breeze doing away with the sandflies.
We reached our dive site and Lance cut the boat’s engine. The thousand-foot depth meant that anchoring or mooring is impossible here, so Lance would stay onboard the boat while Simone and I dove. He helped me don my tank and escorted me to the transom. We weren’t far from the fjord walls, and as I cleaned my mask, on a nearby rock shelf I saw a fur seal sunning itself. It eyed me, this clumsy creature, as I stepped off into the water with much noise and splashing. Simone soon joined me and we let out air and descended together.
Milford Sound presents a unique problem to divers. To get out of Milford requires a drive through several mountain passes and through the historic Homer Tunnel, the road reaching an elevation close to 3,000 feet. Making this ascent from sea level soon after diving can cause rapid expansion of compressed nitrogen in the body’s tissues, resulting in decompression sickness, known more poetically as the “bends”. Therefore, it is recommended that divers spend a night in Milford before heading back to Te Anau and Queenstown. There really is only one option: the Milford Sound Lodge, a cluster of chalets, hostel-style rooms and a cafeteria that is mere steps from the water. It’s a pleasant place to decompress.
In the narrow Sound, all that annual rainfall has nowhere to go, and so it adds a 15-foot layer of freshwater that forms on top of the saltwater below. Passing through the halocline where freshwater gives way to the heavier salt, the water becomes hazy until it gives way to the darker layer. This unique feature causes species of fish and coral to grow at shallower depths than they would elsewhere, tricked by the darker water here. The most famous species is the black coral, which sprouts from the rock walls like massive trees, its ghostly white living tissue defying its name.
Simone and I descended to 100 feet and slowly kicked along the wall, peering into crevices, where massive lobsters lurked, seemingly unafraid of my camera’s bulbous dome. Starfish clung to the sheer wall, which dropped disconcertingly into the abyss below us. Sound carries well underwater and I could hear a strange barking sound coming from somewhere in the middle distance. It was a fur seal, swimming just out of my vision, no doubt eyeing us but staying out of sight. The colony of fur seals here is much smaller than the huge population that lives outside the Sound on Stewart Island, where it is a favorite food of New Zealand’s great white sharks. There have been rumors of shark sightings in Milford and as I peered into the green gloaming, I shuddered at the thought. But we would see none today, and even the seal remained invisible.
We angled up to shallower depths as we followed the wall. Lance was following our bubbles from the boat above and just below the halocline, I spotted what looked like the rock wall itself moving. I swam closer and saw a massive octopus, shimmying along the wall, its well-camouflaged body pulsating to match the dappled sunlight that filtered down. I paused for some photos, gave a last look around and ascended through the haze to emerge in bright sunshine. Simone was pointing at the rock in front of us and looking back from its perch was a penguin. This was the Fiordland crested penguin, endemic to this region only, and quite rare to see. The black-and-white birds come ashore here to breed and lay their eggs. The tiny bird watched as I kicked over to the dive boat and heaved myself out of the water.After a second dive, Lance angled the Pacific Runner back to the harbor as Simone and I dried off and sorted dive gear. The tour boats were just heading out for their first photo excursions of the day and I felt a certain smugness that I had seen a part of Milford Sound few others would see. That smugness evaporated as we neared shore and the swarm of sandflies welcomed us back. Goodbyes were brief as I left Simone and Lance to tidy up the boat and I walked up the road to my hotel. Tomorrow I’d be back on the Sound, but on the surface in a kayak; for now, a cold bottle of Pitch Black Stout and a basket of fish and chips had my name on it.
The next morning, I rented a bright yellow sea kayak from Roscoe’s Milford Kayaks and slipped into the cockpit clad in thermals and rain gear despite the uncharacteristic sunshine that turned the sky an unfiltered blue. With a small group, I paddled out of the protected inlet into the Sound itself and from water level felt the full impact of the sheer rock walls surrounding me. Having paddled in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, I’ve always enjoyed the juxtaposition of mountains and ocean, but here, the mountains literally drop straight into the sea with no buffering shoreline. Paddling close to the wall, the sloshing of the waves threatens to bash the kayak into the mountainside, and looking up is a vertigo-inducing endeavor. We skirted the shelves where fur seals lazed in the sun; occasionally one would slip into the water to investigate us from a safe distance, but most couldn’t be bothered besides opening an eye to watch us pass.
Crossing the Sound, our guide shouted and pointed to the near distance; large fins could be seen arcing out of the water heading directly towards our cluster of boats. Dolphins. I fumbled with my camera and managed to fire off some shots as the school passed directly beneath us. I managed to look down into the clear water just as one six-footer rolled on its side and looked back up at me. The magic of the moment was disrupted as we noticed the huge tour boat bearing down on us in hot pursuit of the dolphins, eager to score some photos for its passengers, with little regard for us pesky paddlers. We moved to safety as the big boat cruised past, a voice echoing off the rock walls from its PA system and the boat’s wake threatening to topple our small fleet.
We continued to paddle out towards the mouth of the Sound and the open ocean beyond, skirting under a few of the towering icy waterfalls along the way. As we got further out, the fjord widened, the waves got bigger and the wind grew strong as it blew at us with less obstruction. Finally, we crossed over to the other side and headed back in to safety, once again in the shadow of the mountains. As we paddled back to the beach I marveled at the fact that I had just seen seals, dolphins and penguins in this spectacular natural amphitheater, all during a four-hour paddle; I was glad I stayed the extra two days, and now I looked forward to a warm cup of tea rather than a beer.