I almost can’t believe it, but I’m finally going to dive at Milford Sound! It was something I was really hoping to do, but was getting foiled at every turn. First, the accommodation booked up 2 months in advance, so I’d have to bus in and risk altitude sickness, only none of the buses would get me in on time to meet in the morning. Finally, I emailed the company to ask if the first bus (that got me in 15 minutes late) would be enough. To my delight, it was, and I could easily make it there and back to Te Anau via the Tracknet Bus. I would be risking the altitude (and signed a waiver accepting that) by not staying in Milford overnight, but the company made a point of staying within safe parameters anyway.
I’d bought my early ticket through Naked Bus, so it was only $10, while the trip back was $50, but that was well within expectations. What I didn’t expect was just how awesome the Tracknet Bus would be. After picking us up, the driver (Liz) pointed out mountains and general icons along the route, and about an hour in, stopped at the Mirror Lakes to let us see them in their glory.
She was just as great when we were in Milford Sound, pointing out and naming every mountain we passed. The really good thing about these buses is that they’ve been designed with high windows so you can look out and appreciate just how huge this area really is.
We also got stopped at the Homer Tunnel for seven minutes. This is the tunnel that men had to carve out of the mountain as it was too tall to put a road over. It looks like a tunnel into Hell – it’s dark and wet and very eerie.
Course, for the seven minutes we were waiting I didn’t know this, and entertained myself with the kea that love to hang around this area. They’re very mischievous, known to move traffic cones and pick rubber and windshield wipers off the waiting cars. They’re fearless and more than a little adorable.
Li is kind enough to drop me at the bottom of Deepwater Basin Road, and I’m finally introduced to Simon and Jesse, the guides for the day. They’re part of Descend Dive, the only dive company to offer trips to Milford.
Since they don’t have a building, the wetsuits are laid out on tarp for us to change into, although there are public showers if we so choose. Since this is a cold-water dive, we need to be prepared – and are kitted with socks, boots, a 7mm wetsuit, gloves, a hood and two vests. I’ve never been so heavily dressed to go underwater.
Around 10am, when everyone’s ready, the boat arrives with our Skipper, Lance. It’s not a big boat, so we’re warned only to bring a small bag on board and leave everything else in the locked truck. Finally, we make it out on to the water.
We’re heading to the edge of the fjord – where it opens into the Tasman sea, but while we’re speeding along, we stop off at a few places, including the impressive Sterling falls (one of the few permanent waterfalls In Milford) and one of the two seal rocks. Once we’ve reached the edge of the fjord, we turn back and drive a small ways to an area called Penguin Cove.
What makes Milford so special (and one of the reasons I wanted to dive here so badly) is due to its water layers. Since its attached to the sea, it’s full of saltwater. However, due to the sheer amount of rain that falls here, there’s an additional fresh water layer on top – anywhere from 3-10 metres worth. This layer gets stained with plant life, giving it a greenish tinge…and makes the saltwater layer below appear darker and deeper than it is. This means you can find plant and fish species who normally live at 200m+ living at 20, and it’s full of life you would normally never be able to dive with.
Our first dive spot isn’t Milford at its most exotic – but it’s a good section to see the fusion of sea life and fjord life interacting since it’s so close to the ocean entrance.
This is also the first time I’m introduced to the new BCD’s that Descend Dive use. Since it’s a marine reserve, they’ve gone for a design that’s very compact – no floatation on the front, the air hose is tightly strapped to the shoulder, and the regulator is wrapped around your neck like a noose while the emergency one hangs from an elastic strap on your neck. For a good chunk of the first dive, I’m just trying to get used to the new setup.
Descending through the freshwater layer is really weird. Because it’s so full of plant life and other residue, it has an almost oily visual to it. It’s very strange when you get midway and half of your vision is clear but the other half is foggy. You can even see pockets of freshwater deeper just due to the blurry spots.
It’s dark. Not so much that you can’t see, but we each have a torch we turn on as we get deeper. Most of the ground is brown, with some patches of kelp forest, which later gets replaced with a handful of white coral when we get deeper. This is a deep-water species that kind of looks like a white fir tree (the name ‘black coral’ comes from its black skeleton), and normally lives around 75 metres down.
By far the most prolific fish is the butterfly perch, which has shoals everywhere, but we also spot a handful of crayfish, nudibranch and rockfish. There’s also several shark eggs spotted on the black coral, although we never spot mum and dad.
Thanks to the temperature of the water, everyone gets close to their limit at around 30 minutes, and at 40 minutes we get back on the boat, where there’s hot drinks and chocolate to help us warm up. We also get some great woolly hats to help us keep our heads warm.
We can’t go underwater again for another 90 minutes, but as divers, we can do something most people can’t. One of the permanent waterfalls (Bridal Veil Falls) is on an island, and inaccessible by cruise boat – you need to swim to it.
And since the only people who swim in Milford are divers…(grins).
We have a dive bomb contest off the boat ramp, and wave to the tour boats heading past before swimming over to the island shallows.
This is a very spiritual place for Maori, and it’s clear very few visit because the path is anything but clear. You need to step carefully over piles of driftwood, push back plant life and duck under trees in order to make it in. But it’s so worth it – the falls are beautiful.
I’m the first to head into the water, and chase after someone when they decide to brave the waterfall itself. The water is ice cold, and I can only endure it for about 10 seconds before my body forces me to flee or risk losing an ear.
When we make it back to the boat, we stop by the second seal rock, which is teeming with the critters, and pull into an area known as ‘Crayfish Crack.’ The name makes perfect sense once you’re underwater, there are crayfish EVERYWHERE. The wall is teeming with them – almost crawling over each other for space.
Unlike the last dive, this is mostly a wall dive with a lot of butterfly perch and rockfish dotted around. Although the highlight of the dive was definitely spotting this guy – a carpet shark hanging around a ledge.
It was another 40-minute dive, and when we headed topside, Lance took us to another waterfall, and let us get a nice, up close and personal view of it by slamming us into the falls themselves.
Overall, it was a great day. Would have loved to see some more wildlife, but it was a great first cold dive – would totally recommend Descend Dive if you want to do something really different in NZ.
By the time the boat made it to shore, and we got showered and out of our suits, it was 4pm. So, I grabbed my bag and headed for the visitor’s centre. The Tracknet bus doesn’t leave till 5, but it’s still a good 20-minute walk to the centre. When I’m there, I spot a Stray bus and some familiar passengers. Lolly’s bus is here, and are just coming back from their cruise, so I have a chance to say hi. Too bad I didn’t know earlier – I could have joined up with them now instead. But then I remember I would have had to carry my entire bag, and I wouldn’t have had any time to recover. Will just catch up with Lolly when it’s time to go to Mt. Cook.
Underwater photos provided by Descend Dive as part of my diving package.