Milford Sound is often cited as one of the places you really should dive in NZ. But it is a bit out of the way and is cool water diving, so the majority of the NZ diving population has probably not been there. Also, one side of the sound is marine reserve so the majority of the NZ diving population, who see diving as an extension of the hunter gatherer lifestyle, don't have free rein.
Milford sound has a few unusual features - the huge rainfall in the area means that the top layer of water in the sound is fresh with salt water below. This means that species that are often only found much deeper, colonise recreational dive limits - in particular black coral and spiny sea dragons (a sea horse relative).
I had a few days in the far south in mid February so decided to check it out. Tawaki dive run day trips to Milford from Te Anau so they were the obvious choice.
They require you to overnight in Te Anau (6am pickup) or Milford Soud (8am start) and have an hour of predive briefing the evening before in Te Anau (I am not sure how this is covered for those who join in Milford). I though an hour sounded a bit excessive and it verged on it. Milford is over a 1000m pass from Te Anau and as a result the dives are planned very conservatively. The assumption is that the dives are at 1000m and then an extra margin is added for the fact that the water is cool - it was 14C when we were there in mid Feb. The hour is taken up going through the waiver and explaining why the dives are limited to 18m and 30mins. And why, if you do a rapid ascent, or exceed the max depth, they may insist you don't do the second dive or even, worst case, leave you at sea level in Milford rather than taking you out over the pass. To be fair the final 15mins is looking at pictures of what you might see. Given the varied customer base they have - a lot of folk who have never dived in 7mm wet suits before, and the fact that the bottom is at 300m in places I can understand the caution. The tone is light rather than patronising but if you have not patience for that approach stay away. Also they have a no take policy so you can not even benefit from the side of the sound that is outside the reserve!
We had a fantastic sunny day for the drive in to Milford Sound. Milford has just been rated by New Zealanders as the no 1 must see destination in the country. While sunshine is fantastic it is perhaps even more impressive in rain when the hillsides just bucket water.
But what of the diving? The boat "sea dragon" is an aliminium pontoon style which was very satisfactory for the 5 of us diving (max 6 customers).The fist site was Purple Haze where the main attractions were black coral (which is white and tree like) and brachiopods which really excited one of the divers. He was a geologist who had used the fossils of such things through his career for dating purposes but had never before seen a live one - to this diver it looked a bit like an undersized shellfish but never mind! I enjoyed the white kina (sea urchin).
Greenstone point beyond the terminal moraine of the glacier that originally formed Milford, was more impressive for me. Fantastic black coral, red coral, gardens of golden zooantias finger sponges and an 11 armed starfish. There are places on the walls that rival the Poor Knights for the density and variety of life. But alas on neither dive was there a spiny sea dragon. A reason to return. Unfortunately there are no photos as my wee canon camera died before the first dive. The visibility on both dives was good - 8 -10m on the first and upto 15m on the second.
Conclusion - know what you are going to get - a guided pretty strictly controlled dive, but if you do it, enjoy it. I have been out on the Sound before, but the crew were excellent in finding stuff and knew stories I had not heard before. Milford is a NZ icon and the chance to spend a day on the water with 5 others rather than the couple of hundred on the big boats is worth it and that is even without getting wet.
This report has been published on SDNZ with the expressed permission of the author, Alison Taylor.
Alison - alijtaylor - has just joined SDNZ today - welcome Alison!