Rugged up in a dry suit for Milford Sound

Deep water emergence: Scuba diving Milford Sound with Descend Dive

At the chilly, distant tip of New Zealand’s South Island, Fiordland National Park is home to some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes, perhaps none more breathtaking or better known than Milford Sound (Piopiotahi in Māori). Considered by many to be the 8th Natural Wonder of the World, sheer, densely-rainforested cliffs rise thousands of metres out of the sea as waterfalls carry icy freshwater back down to the glacier-carved fjord below. It is, simply put, unmissable.

Most tourists visit Milford Sound onboard a bustling passenger cruise or, for those with a bigger budget, a scenic kayak around the coastline. While either option is undoubtedly impressive, all of these travellers experience a single side of Milford Sound, that above the water line. In a fjord reaching depths of up to 500m, this is only a fraction of the story— beneath the surface, a lesser explored, shockingly vibrant underwater paradise reveals the magic of this protected marine area, home to species of sharks that predate dinosaurs and coral trees typically only found at 1,000m. I’m all about unconventional adventures in popular tourist destinations, so it was no surprise to find myself on the road to Milford Sound this morning, PADI certification in hand, for a diving experience to rival all diving experiences.

All the details: Descend Dive Milford Sound

Cost: Descend Dive is the only operator running dive tours in Milford Sound, charging $345 for 2 dives as a qualified diver (or the same price for tuition and a single dive as an unqualified diver). It’s a further $100 to upgrade to a Scuba Force Dry Suit, and considering the water was 12C this summer, I’d highly recommend it— it takes a bit of extra work to regulate your buoyancy if you aren’t used to diving in a dry suit (or in cold water), but the guides do a great job of helping and even take you out for a 10min practice before the first dive.

Getting there: The Descend Dive boat leaves from the Milford Sound Marina (right next to the kayaking tour departure point). There’s absolutely no mobile reception after you leave Te Anau, so you won’t be able to use Google Maps, but just follow signs to Milford Sound and then turn left onto Deepwater Basin Road right before you arrive (essentially the only turn coming off the main road).

Where to stay: There are a number of hostels and motels in Te Anau, the nearest town to Milford Sound, but if you’re in a campervan or tent camping, Cascade Creek is an awesome place to stay. This is the closest DOC campsite to Milford Sound, which means your morning drive will only be 45min rather than 2+ hours from Te Anau. It’s a large site with heaps of space (no bookings), $15/person for the night paid on arrival with cash.

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A big thank you to Descend Dive Milford Sound for inviting me to explore Piopiotahi Marine Reserve with them in exchange for an honest review of the experience. As always, all opinions in this post are entirely my own!

Hanging out in Milford Sound with Descend Dive

Setting off bright and early from our campsite at Cascade Creek, I arrive to Milford Sound Marina, the meeting spot for my dive this morning, with plenty of time to make a quick soup and hot choc before the Descend Dive truck arrives. I wait with one of the guides, Zach, for the remaining divers (and the big boss, Lance) to roll in, kit up, and hit the water, excitement bubbling over at the prospect of getting under Milford Sound.

It’s the middle of summer in NZ, but it’s snowed every day of 2020 thus far and the water is a crisp 12C, a far cry from the mid-20C seas I’m used to diving in. I approach hypothermia in even the warmest of tropical diving conditions, so I’m stoked to be snuggled up inside layers of warmth in a dry suit— on top of my own jumper, tights, and wool socks, I’m squeezed into a fuzzy fleece jumpsuit, cozy booties, gloves, and a suffocatingly snug hood (the only latex asphyxiation fetish I’ll ever post about on this blog, I promise).

The Scuba Force Dry Suit that I pull on last makes me feel like an astronaut, especially as all the divers around me kit up in standard (albeit very thick) wetsuits. Lance jokes that this is actually training for a Secret Space Force— and when I get my first look beneath the surface of Milford Sound, it feels all too true.

Today is about more than just underwater exploration, though. We cruise through the fjord— carved over millions of years by glaciers that flow and retreat like they’re breathing— and admire the soaring 2,000m mountains surrounding us as Zach, our resident marine biologist, identifies points of interest and attempts to convey the magnificence of this area en route to the dive spot.

Exploring Milford Sound with Descend Dive

Waterfalls carrying glacier water into Milford Sound

What makes Milford Sound such an incredible place to dive, beyond the fact that it’s a protected marine reserve overflowing with life that is all but endangered in neighbouring waters, is a concept known as deep water emergence. Thundering waterfalls carry silty, tannin-stained freshwater from the glaciers down into the fjord. Normally, this freshwater would just mix with saltwater from the Tasman Sea, but enormous glacier moraines under the water’s surface, formed by the bulldozing effect of glacier growth, prevent the tides and waves from stirring the liquids together completely.

The result is a layer of darker freshwater, anywhere from 1m to 15m, that sits on top of the saltwater and blocks light to the marine species below— plants and animals that could normally only live below 500m, depths inaccessible to divers, absolutely thrive in Milford Sound.

When Zach takes me out for a quick rehearsal dive in the dry suit, I can see this incredible natural phenomenon in action. We descend through a cloudy, sightless layer of blue freshwater, thick with glacier flour (ultra-fine particles that suspend and refract sunlight to create that characteristically opaque water in New Zealand), fall through a seemingly oily boundary layer, and finally emerge into a clear, ice-cold saltwater ocean with otherworldly white coral and neon anemones. Secret Space Force, indeed. 

Scuba diving Milford Sound

Only having logged 30-some dives, all in tropical water, I am somewhat unprepared for the challenge posed by not only cold water diving, but also the additional air spaces created when wearing a dry suit. I struggle to regulate my buoyancy as I descend through both fresh and salt water, rocketing to the surface like a runaway balloon on no less than two occasions, but I do eventually get a passable handle on my buoyancy under Zach’s patient tutelage. Before long, we are back in the boat, preparing for the real deal.

Accompanied by two other divers, a HK photographer with a very professional and somewhat intimidating underwater rig and a kiwi native looking to transition into commercial diving, we descend again through hazy glacier water and into the crisp saltwater below, this time reaching 20m as we explore the mock-deep waters of Milford Sound.

Black coral in Milford Sound

No matter the conditions, scuba carries an eerie peace— the need to conserve air slows all movements to a gentle flourish, the lack of sound creates a world that is solely visual, and the feeling of experiencing something typically reserved only for fish makes you feel slightly other-than-human. The ghostly white coral and dramatic drop-offs of Milford Sound only magnify these sensations, like you might just drift away and be lost in an endless sea of soundless blue. And you wouldn’t be totally mad about it.

Over the course of our two dives, we see electric yellow and neon green sea snakes wound tightly around white coral trees (curiously named Black Coral), carpet sharks prowling along the sand, and schools of silver fish flashing around our masks like NYE confetti. Foot-long New Zealand Rock Lobsters wave their antennae over our palms, reading our electrical signals to determine if we are friend or foe, gracing us with a gentle pet if we pass their invisible test of loyalty. 

Looking graceful and beach-ready in my dry suit

Our underwater adventure is broken only by a visit to a beautiful waterfall where we swim to the shore and brave the thunderous flow for a photo (although, admittedly not as brave when you’re wearing a full dry suit), and then we enjoy an extended scenic cruise on our way back to the marina. Our tiny dive boat gets us directly beneath the falls and right up to a pod of dolphins swimming across the sound, performing little flips for our enjoyment.

We even see a group of New Zealand fur seals, a species of sea lion, lounging on the rocks, basking in the beauty of their home. Considering the cost of a scenic cruise in Milford Sound, we all feel like we’ve scored the better deal on our intimate dive vessel, enjoying the best of everything.

Lance later explains to me the motivation for starting Descend Dive Milford Sound with his partner, Simone— to show travellers something special, share a little South Island magic. There was a dive company in the area several years ago, but Lance and Simone knew they could do more than just take travellers on an incredible adventure. The beauty of this marine environment speaks for itself, but he truly goes above to inspire a love for the ocean and a deeper appreciation for Mother Nature, showcasing Milford Sound as a tangible benefactor of cleaner living.

There is an entire universe beneath the surface of these waters, but it is Lance’s, and actually the entire crew’s, genuine passion for Milford Sound and the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve that really makes this an experience rather than just a photo op. Sooner than get lost in a crowd of selfie-stick-toting tourists on board a cruise, I’d dive Milford Sound again and again and again with Descend Dive, knowing each time would be something truly special.

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