The experience at Milford Sound can sound like a big tourist trap with the many visitors all boarding the similar boat cruise. It was an experience we had to settle for during our first visit to the famed fjord when weather canceled our original plans. To my surprise, the natural aesthetics of the sheer rock faces and tall waterfalls among the moody clouds was more than enough to overcome the tourist crowds on these cruises and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience that day.
It only added to my desire to return and see the wonderland from below. Fortune would have it, a couple of diving spots opened up for Mark and I and I would get my wish the second time around.
This is the fifth entry of our Australia and New Zealand trip series covering our dives in Milford Sound and our subsequent stay in Queenstown. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.
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travel to Milford Sound
Milford Sound is accessed by a winding highway 94 through Fiordland National Park, the section is known as the Milford Road.
The highest point of the road is Homer Tunnel at 3,100 ft (945 m), which was originally hand dugged.
Our trip picks up at the Henry Creek Campsite (DOC, google maps) just past Te Anau. Looking to avoid the early morning traffic into Milford Sound, we started driving around 6:30 am even though our dive time was around 9:15 am. We reached Milford Sound with plenty of time as the estimated time from Te Anau was 2 hours, which was good since it took us a little bit to find the right parking lot (google maps) at the Milford Sound Marina on Deepwater Basin Rd and not the cruise terminal turnaround. Should you need a ride, local shuttle service from Te Anau to Milford Sound and other spots along Milford Road is Tracknet (we used them on our previous visit to Milford Sound). However, you might have some luck hitchhiking since Milford road is pretty busy with tourist traffic.
The marina is shared by kayaking groups also and most arriving at the marina will be for that. After using the bathroom here, breakfast, and a nap, it was time to meet up with the Descend Diving crew.
other activities in Milford Sound
The primary reason most make the drive is to see Milford Sound itself and majority will see if from one of the many cruises. On our first visit in 2016, we went with Southern Discovery because they were one of the only companies that stopped at the Milford Discovery Center & Underwater Observatory, which was a floating building that had an observational area submerged down into the water.
The pro-tip of avoiding the crowds is to hang out at the back of the boat rather than the front, you’ll still see the same views.
diving Milford Sound with Descend Diving
The boat is part of the reason they are limited to 9 divers a day. Should you find less divers, they have as smaller 6m Maitland Powercat.
An unique aspect of diving in Milford Sound is how cold the water is, even in the summer. It can be around 11 °C (52 °F). As such, Descend Diving supplied us with plenty of neoprene in the form of a 9mm full body wetsuit, a 3 mm vest, neoprene socks, gloves, and boots. It was plenty tight and took us a bit to get everything on, having a buddy helped. They also have drysuits available and can go through the certification process to use them. If you have some extra cash or gets cold easily, I’d highly recommend that route.
All of their rental equipment (included in the cost, except drysuit) are top notch and probably some of the best I’ve dove with through my 55 dives to date. Our diving equipment included a dive computer, steel tanks, Scubaforce backplate wing style BCD and high quality regulators, spg, Jetfins, and handsfree lights.
The steel tanks address the added buoyancy with all the neoprene we were wearing. And that brings me to the last aspect of cold water diving, that is the buoyancy control needed for the dive. The dives here require pretty strong buoyancy control, because of how pressure changes neoprene and the dive sites being mostly along a wall without a bottom. The guides were great, however, with accommodating and helping everyone of all skill levels.
Lastly included in the dive was plenty of hot drinks, snacks, and a sandwich lunch.
After suiting up … rather squeezing into our suits, we boarded the boat and headed out. I would highly recommend using the bathroom beforehand because it is not easy to get out of the suits and they rather that you don’t pee in them.
dive 1 – Penguin Cove
Once we were on board, Simone took us through the entirety of Milford Sound all the way to the Tasmanian Sea. This allowed the guides to go through our briefing and tutorials regarding the Wing BCD. The word was that the visibility wouldn’t be great. Our group was lead by Cam and we were a group of four with Mark, Jorris (a solo diver), and myself. Our first dive site was in Penguin Cove,
just around the corner from Seal Rock, where adolescent seals sunbath. The first dive site started with us descending to a ledge for us to get use to the buoyancy. After that, we continued along the wall until half tank before turning around and ascending slowly to safety stop depth.
dive log stats – dive 54
- date: 2020/1/4
- depth: 66.6 ft (20.3 m)
- duration: 43 min (40 bottom time, 3 minute safety stop)
- air: 220 bar to 60 bar
- weight belt: did not record
- dive guide: Cam
The initial descent was quite interesting in Milford Sound due to one of its unique features. In the sound, freshwater drains from the surrounding mountains and sits on top of the salt water. The freshwater here is brown because of the tannins dissolved in it from all the plant life. This layers could be from 1 to 5 meters and is completely opaque. For us, this meant we were pretty much blind in our initial descent.
What this means for the wildlife is that the salt water below is much darker than typical at shallower depth. This tricks fish and coral alike giving us a higher possibility of seeing wildlife we typically wouldn’t see. The main attraction is the Black Coral (wikipedia), which we saw right away. The Black Coral actually looks white, their skeleton is actually black and how they derive their name.
After the initial five minute assessment of our buoyancy, we started to follow the rock wall and we just saw a field of Black Coral. Good buoyancy was also very important so we don’t bump into the fragile Black Coral, which has no innate protection against abrasion. Between the cold water, darkness, and eerie looking white of the Black Coral, it felt a bit haunting.
Among the coral, there were some typical red coral and smaller fish hiding under them.
We didn’t see too many critters otherwise, just lots of Black Coral. After a 3 minute safety stop we were picked up by the boat.
Bridal Veil Falls
During our two hour surface time, we were feed lunch and snacks. The boat pulled up next near Fairy Falls and we were given the opportunity to swim for a forested area below the rocky walls of the Fjord. The forest area was a good place for a pee break, but also lead to Bridal Veil Falls.
Sure, what’s a little bit more cold water.
dive 2 – Dale Point
Once we returned to the boat, it was time for our second dive. Dale Point was located at the mouth of the Fjord and a bit more advanced site with just rock walls we’d follow. We we drift dive from the sea into the Fjord.
dive log stats – dive 55
- date: 2020/1/4
- depth: 72.5 ft (22.1 m)
- duration: 37 min (34 bottom time, 3 minute safety stop)
- air: 220 bar to 85 bar
- weight belt: did not record
- dive guide: Cam
As we descended, we zigzaged a little along the rockwall. There were much more critters here as we saw a lobster (crayfish) chilling in a crack in the wall.
A fish found us particularly interesting as we went and proceeded to boop us. I guess personal space doesn’t mean anything down here.
Next we crossed path with a shark. There are 3 kinds of sharks here: Dog Shark, Carpet Shark, and Sevengills Shark. Cam said we saw a Dog and sevengill, but I can’t tell which is which since I was in the back of our pack. I think this may be the Sevengill Shark.
Continuing along the wall, we came to a groove of Black Coral and found several more critters hanging around.
First came the Rockfish,
then the Dog Shark… I’m guessing.
Toward the end of our dive, we started to ascend to safety stop depth. There seemed to be a little more light here as we could see the red of the coral here.
This was also where I got a cramp in one calf and then the other as I was trying to stretch the first one out. I don’t know if my fellow divers noticed me flailing around during our safety stop, but my buoyancy control was a complete mess and I popped up to the surface. It was good that was the end of our dive anyways.
cruising Milford Sound
As I was getting into the boat, I spotted some bottlenose dolphins around us. This was enough to pull everyone out of the cabin and away from their warm drinks.
We spend a good amount of time after this cruising around looking for them, a benefit of a small boat rather than a large tour boat. One dolphin did come within an arm’s reach to our boat while surfing the wake.
Mark though we were definitely in the Truman Show (IMDB) at this point, the coincidence dolphins just as we surface. We closed out our excursion with a visit to Bowen Falls before heading back to the docks.
Above the water, Milford Sound provides from world class aesthetics and the views here may be better during a moody and rainy day than a blue bird one. This was the case during our first visit as the recent rain meant more waterfalls cascading down the sides of the mountain. It is enough to overcome the seemingly tourist trap of the large tour boats. So our new experience with Descend Diving affirmed and added on to that since we were now in a smaller boat with the freedom of cruising to better vantage points at the discretion of our boat captain. It was also fun to chase the dolphin pods.
Below the water, the diving experience was unlike any I’ve had during my diving career to this point. The combination of the low light and the eerie Black Coral created an haunting feeling. Even through the low visibility due to the recent rains, we were able to see a couple sharks, lobster (crayfish), and several different species of fish. It was indeed an unique experience.
The only negatives are how cold the water is here. I would recommend getting the dry suit training if you already struggle with body heat typically. That adds on to the already costly excursion. However, the crew of Descend Diving and the gear they provide are top notch and worth the expenditure. I would gladly return and pay for it again the next time I’m in the area.
post dive dinner in Te Anau & vanlife
After changing out of our wet gear and we were headed back to town. We decided to meet up with couple divers in Te Anau for drinks and dinner. On our way, we saw a couple of Kea messing with the cars in line for the Homer Tunnel. You have to watch out for these guys as they love pecking at tires and any rubber found on cars.
As expected the drive was busy with us tourists all heading back from Milford Sound. We took one stop at the view point down the Hollyford valley. The Hollyford track (DOC) was a backpacking option for us during my initial planning.
When we returned to Te Anau, the place we gathered was Redcliff Cafe (tripadvisor). Being the #1 ranking restaurant in Te Anau at the time and the day being saturday, all the reservations were taken up. However, we were able to order some appetizers and drinks from the bar and chill outside. What we had of their food was very good, though a little pricey.
Te Anau, being a small town, didn’t really have a place for us to stay reasonably for the night. So Mark and I decided to head out for Queenstown. We would have a hotel and rest day in Queenstown the next day while setting up for our next adventure on this trip, the Rees-Dart Track (next post). It was supposed to be rainy anyways, so that lined up well with our planning. For our housing on this night, Mark was ok with sleeping in the back of the SUV again at some pullout or campground between Te Anau and Queenstown.
Before we left town, we stopped by FreshChoice in Te Anau as I remember they had a good selection of dehydrated backpacking food at a decent price, something we didn’t always find at New Worlds. Then still being a little hungry, we stopped by the local fast food in Mainly Seafood (tripadvisor). Everything was heavily breaded and they’ll charge you extra for more sauce, but I guess it was filling… in the overly greasy way.
After driving a couple of hours, we ended our day parked at the Devil’s Staircase Lookout Point. We were a little worried that the place was a little to open to the road, but no one bothered us through the night. I guess it helps we are in a regular SUV and were completely self contained.
Te Anau is definitely a town worth staying at and I wrote about it in my report during our previous visit. I almost prefer it to the busier and more tourist Queenstown.
During our entire trip, we spent a total of 2 nights and roughly under 2 days there, one before our backpacking adventures of the Rees-Dart Track (next post) and one after. Housing wasn’t particularly cheap in the town, but there are several hotel redemption options. We ended up using 25k IHG points (Frequent Miler RRV – USD$142 value at USD$0.0057 per point) for our first night at the Holiday Inn and 30k Hilton Points (Frequent Miler RRV – USD$135 value at USD$0.0045 per point) on our second night.
Downtown Queenstown is a busy center with plenty of good food, tour vendor, a DOC information center, and shops with not a lot of parking. Personally, I found the city a bit too touristy. The mix of well off individuals visiting for the resort life and party backpackers (the travel kind) isn’t my typical crowd. However, I did enjoy our food experiences here very much during our stay.
Speaking of which, we ended up visiting 3 different restaurants of the many here during our entire visit. On our first day, we went looking for breakfast/lunch before we could check in to the Holiday Inn since our “wildcamp” the previous night wasn’t far from Queenstown. We decided to go for the big one in Fergburger (tripadvisor) and their best burgers in the world (CNN). We arrived at the burger joint around 9:30 am and only waited about 20 minutes for our order. Between Mark and I, we split 3 different burgers and they were very good burgers. Out of the 3, I thought their namesake Fergburger was the best in comparison to the Sweet Bambi and Little Lamby. It was definitely worth dropping in, just maybe not at regular times when their wait can be much longer.
For dinner on our first day, we headed to the hole in the wall Taco Medic (tripadvisor). While the tacos are a little expensive and the wait can be long, they are good tacos.
After our backpacking trip, we visited our last restaurant in Queenstown. Looking at tripadvisor now, I’m both a little surprised and not surprised Fogo Brazilian BBQ experience is ranked number 1 in Queenstown. The food was as good as any of the Brazilian BBQ I’ve had around the world but didn’t stand out among what I’ve had before, but of course all you can eat meat hits the spot after hiking. It was why we went after all being there right when they opened.
Lastly, our new friends also talked about a hole in the wall place where you can carry out a leg of lamb and that’s all they do. Unfortunately we didn’t find the time to visit Pedro’s House of Lamb (tripadvisor), so that will have to wait till next time.
Of course like all cities I travel to, by no means have I come anywhere close to fully experience what the city has to offer. This is especially true for Queenstown where we merely pit stopped to eat and set up for our adventures. I am positive given more time, there are plenty of beauty you can find in Queenstown.