Diving in Milford Sound - Apr 2006

Background

Few visitors to Fiordland are aware that below the tideline there is another world with its own fauna and flora. Much of the uniqueness is caused by the light-absorbing fresh water layer that restricts algal growth and allows deepwater or light avoiding species to become established in shallow water. Below this freshwater layer the sea water is calm, very clear, and relatively warm, with annual temperatures of 11-15°C. This narrow temperature range throughout the year permits subtropical forms to exist.

Black coral is known to occur at a few offshore islands of New Zealand, usually in depths greater than 45m, but has been found in abundance in the waters of Fiordland from a depth of 5m. Red hydro-corals are found from a depth of 15 metres. The saucer sponge and the large tube anenome, usually considered to be a deep water species (100-200m depth) are common in water less than 20m deep in the fiords.

Approximately 160 species of fish have so far been recorded by divers within the surface 45m of the fiords. Warm water species include splendid perch and blue-dot triplefin. Cool water species include copper moki, trumpeter, banded wrasse and pigfish. Species usually confined to deep water (100m plus) include sandpaper fish and spiny sea dragons.

 


Avg visibility: 10m

 

Our diving experience

We met Dave, the dive instructor, from the Tawaki Dive for a briefing the evening before the dive trip to Milford Sound. Dave was a big and very cheerful guy and used to be in the army. There were three other girls going on the same trip. Two of them were from the Ministry of Tourism to audit various tourist operators around the country. This sounded really interesting to us. Since we were traveling round the country, we did not bring any of our own gear. They had everything for rental and that was not a problem. We had a very thorough briefing about the following day’s dive program and what to expect and encounter.

We had an early morning pick-up from Tawaki Dive at 5:55 a.m. outside our motel in Te Anau. Dave was the driver and dive guide for the day. It was a two-hour drive down the windy but scenic Milford Road to Milford Sound. As it was still pitch black, the driving wasn’t easy at all. May be it wasn’t that bad to Dave as he would have known every corner of this road by heart. The skipper, Evan, was also very helpful and cheerful. We packed our breakfast the night before and ate it on the way to Milford Sound. The sky started to light up when we were nearly there, when we saw the ghostly appearance of the snow-capped mountains all around us.

We went on board our diving boat at Deep Water Basin. There was a small changing room on the shore equipped with toilet and hot shower facilities (although the showers were dribbling a bit). The air temperature was 14°C, while the water temperature was a “warmish” 15°C! We’ve only ever dived in tropical waters, and the cold water was a real concern for us. I’ve emailed to Sarah (at Tawaki Dive) before coming here, enquiring for information and expressing my concerns for the cold. She was very reassuring and encouraging. It was not as freezing as I’ve anticipated, but nonetheless, I couldn’t say that it was comfortable at all. Even the dives were short at only 30mins each, I was still shivering all along the second dive, not having totally recovered from the cold experience of the first one.

We had two dives all in the morning. Since some part of the Milford Road sits on an altitude of 1000m, it was necessary to have a few hours rest after the completion of the last dive before returning to Te Anau. Also because of that, we were only able to reach a maximum depth of 18m. Even with two pieces of 7mm wetsuit, the cold water still sent a great shock to me on impact. The fresh and salt water interface felt really like a fuzzy thermocline layer. May be it had not been raining too hard before; I just went through the layer very quickly without realizing it too much. With the super thick outfit and tons of weight (21lbs on me and 27 lbs on Peter!) to keep me down, I felt very difficult to move around. It was quite dark below the water surface, like that of a sunset dive. Everything underneath, including all fishes and the corals, looked really unfamiliar. The colours were not as brilliant as that of the tropical waters, but the species looked very amazing and bizarre.

We dived at the Triangle and the Penguin Cove. Alright, we didn't see any penguins nor seals playing around, but the wildlife down there are no less abundant to keep me feeling surprised. Their names and shapes and appearances looked very unfamiliar at all - black coral trees (some very large), marblefish, oblique swimming triplefins, banded triplefins, dog stewarts, spiny spotted dog shark, lots of butterfly perch and blue cod, Taraki (apparently a deep sea fish and very tasty!), telescopefish, biscuit seastar, eleven arm spinny star, snakestar, strawberry anemones, daisy anemones, tube anemones, golf ball sponges ...... Wow! Of course I didn't know these species, Dave went through with us later. There were also lots of kelps and lots and lots of crayfishes - I've never seen so many in one dive, they're just fearless and like armies of the sea.

Dave and Evan had done all their best to keep us warm and comfortable on board. We were too stiff to get back on the boat, and they literally dragged us up and took off all the gear for us. After the first dive, they made us put on windproof overalls, fleece hats and gloves, and it was such a treat to have hot soups. They also poured warm water down our wetsuits!  I felt pampered like a child. After we warmed up a bit, Dave took us for a beach walk to explore the Bridal Veil Falls. We also had a cruise round Milford Sound, where we saw other tourist boats that were cruising there as well, before we did the second dive. I felt really privileged to be on a small boat like this. We were away from all the other tourists, and could really enjoyed the serenity of Milford Sound.

After the dives, we got changed again at Deep Water Basin and had lunch at a nearby restaurant. Dave recapped with us what we encountered during the two dives, and explained more about the underwater flora and fauna in the Fiordland. When we on our way back to Te Anau, it was so cool to see a rainbow over the glacier mountains, just near the Homer Tunnel. We also stopped over the various scenic spots like the Chasms and the Mirror Lakes. Dave spotted two keas (NZ mountain parrots) on the ground. He was obviously expecting them and threw a stuffed kea at them. He said that unfortunately these keas got used to being fed by tourists with all sorts of junk foods that they stayed there all the time. On our way back, Dave and Evan also checked on the stoat traps that were set alongside the road. Stoats were introduced into New Zealand many years ago in an attempt to control the population of rabbits and rodents. Unfortunately, they turned their eyes on the easier catch of the eggs and youngs of the native birds (many of which don’t fly at all) and had a devastating blow on the birds’ population. The Department of Conservation had declared the stoats as pest, and hence there are all these volunteer works to help control them.

Although I didn’t enjoy the coldness of the dives, the whole diving experience was really great and unique. May be the presence of the auditor girls also had something to do with the overall super service; but, no, I don't think so. They're such a good bunch of people; they love their work and the environment, and I believe that they would try to make everybody happy and appreciate the beauty of the Fiordland no matter what. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who visits here. You no longer have to sign up for the Milford Sound Day Cruise – this one gives you everything you want and more!

Avg water temp: 14°C

Avg depth: whatever you like

Max. depth: 18m

Getting there:
by boat

Warning : care must be taken after diving as a drive to altitude is necessary on leaving Milford