Diving in Milford Sound: A mystical diving experience in New Zealand
Milford Sound, also known as Piopiotahi, is a natural wonder located in the Fiordlands of New Zealand. Approximately 15 kilometres long, Milford Sound is nothing short of fairytale-like and oozes vibes of a prehistoric land before time. It’s no surprise the fiord was chosen as a key location to film The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The fiord is enclosed by vertical mountains like Mitre Peak at 1,690 metres, huge vertical waterfalls and lush, green temperate rainforest. But it’s not just the towering cliffs and stunning scenery that draw people to Milford Sound. There’s an incredible underwater world that awaits those who want to explore the world beneath the surface.
Diving Milford Sound is an experience that can’t be found anywhere else on earth. Below the surface, depths fall away abruptly, with the fiord’s deepest point at 265 metres. The sheer walls of the fiord offer impressive underwater topography and provide a home for a diverse range of marine life, including deep-water emergent black coral trees. Due to the landscape of Milford Sound and its incredible amount of rainfall, a thick tannin-stained layer of freshwater sits almost permanently on the surface. This thermocline of cooler water and poor visibility acts as a natural blanket over the underwater environment below. Sunlight struggles to penetrate this fresh water layer, hardly reaching the marine ecosystem below. The result; an incredible marine environment that is starved of light. In summary, an ecosystem typical of 200 metres is found within only 10 metres of water.
Arriving in Milford Sound, I was immediately floored by the incredible landscape that surrounded me. The view was mind blowing, but what was the diving going to be like? I’d heard so much about Milford Sound, including that it is one of the wettest places in the world! Typically, this is not an ideal scenario for diving; heavy rain equals runoff and poor visibility. But as I was quick to learn on arrival, this excessive amount of rainfall was the driving factor as to why diving in Milford is so incredible.
Floating on the surface in my dry suit, I looked around and laughed with my buddies that it wasn’t every day that you dive under a waterfall. Routinely exhausting our BCD’s and signalling our descent, we were immediately met with almost zero visibility as cold, fresh water hit our faces. The disorientation caused by poor visibility didn’t last long; within a few short metres, we broke into warmer, much clearer, salt water and we were welcomed to an underwater world that few get to experience.
Stunning deep-water coral trees, typically found in great depths, welcome you as you break the thermocline. White in appearance over a jet-black skeleton, black coral trees are a rare site these days and to experience them in such shallow water is a rare and delightful treat. No dive is ever the same in Milford, but on most dives, you’ll likely be greeted by crayfish, moray eels, octopus, stingray, nudibranch, dog or carpet sharks, and even the occasional seven-gill shark. If that’s not enough, Milford hosts over 150 different species of fish. The real lucky few may even catch a glimpse of a playful seal or a resident bottlenose dolphin. The diversity of marine life, extreme mountain faces, majestic scenery, and overall powerful presence was enough for the late Jacques Cousteau to rate Fiordland diving as “The last frontier” of underwater exploration.
Milford Sound deserves to be at the top of the list of the best dive sites in New Zealand. Not only does it have the most incredible and majestic topside scenery, but surprisingly it also hosts some of the most unique diving on the planet. I, for one, came for the topside scenery and walked away feeling like I’d just done “a one of a kind dive”.
Diving: Descend Diving www.descend.co.nz
Accommodation: Milford Sound Lodge www.milford-sound.co.nz
Getting there: There is sealed road access to Milford Sound. For conditions, see www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/milfordroad/.
All imagery and text ©Todd Thimios. thimios.com