As the first trickles of water snuck their way into my super thick wetsuit, I felt a shiver travel all the way up my spine as I bobbed on the surface. Yes, this would be the coldest water I’ve ever dived in.
Giddy with excitement, I could barely take it all in. Milford Sound, the most iconic fiord in New Zealand, was a place I had been to many times on my travels here. I’ve cruised, kayaked, flown (fixed wing and helicopter) hiked, and even driven to Milford Sound in an Aston Martin.
But yet something was missing; there was one aspect of Milford I had yet to tick off my Fiordland bucketlist: scuba diving. And I had never seen it from this perspective before, with only me head above water, looking up at the endless mountains.
Now, to be fair, I don’t think anyone comes to Milford Sound and gives one thought to getting into that water. Not even a toe.
Far from inviting, beyond its jagged beauty, the fiord actually looks a bit dark, cold, and kinda creepy (from the surface). In fact, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to picture dinosaurs living beneath the ripples. After all, this part of New Zealand was the last bastion of many creatures thought to be extinct. And by creatures I mean birds. Which, funnily enough, are related to dinosaurs.
But I seriously digress.
Guys, there are not dinosaurs in Milford Sound (wink wink).
Wracking my brain as we boated out into the middle of Milford, I truly can’t remember the first time I heard that scuba diving here was a real thing. All I can say is that for the longest time it’s been on my big New Zealand list to dive there myself.
Every time I heard whispers of how incredible the diving was there, I would make a mental note and file it away. One day I would make this a reality.
Many of my old school Wanaka friends and South Island locals have long known the wonders of diving in Fiordland, heading down on boy trips in the boats and helicopters and checking out their craypots.
While it is far from the tropical, warm dives I’d done from Bali to the Maldives to Thailand, diving in Milford Sound is not really a casual “hmm, want to go for a dip” kind of dive. You kind of really have to want to do it to make it happen. There aren’t dozens of operators elbowing each other for the opportunity to take you down beneath the sea, only one.
You have to want it.
And guys, I wanted it.
Scuba Diving in Milford Sound with Descend NZ
And that’s how I found myself using plastic bags to squeeze myself into an 8mm thick wetsuit on a beautiful summer day in Milford Sound. Why oh why did I eat that burger, fries and shake the night before?
Ok, suck it in, Liz, you can do it. Diet starts tonight.
Seriously, the thing I always hated the most about diving was the wetsuit part, and why I prefer to five in places like the Maldives where the water temp is 30 degrees celsius and as warm as a bath.
But once it was on, it was on, and we were ready to roll, piling into the back of the Descend Dive boat, and making our way out into the fiord.
I was giddy with excitement at the possibility of seeing Milford, such an iconic part of New Zealand, from an entirely new perspective. We zoomed all the way up and back down the fiord in the early morning, as potential dive sites were pointed out to us.
I’m far from an expert diver, with only my advanced open water certificate under my belt, though I had dived all over the world. It was new for me to wear such a thick wetsuit, not to mention gloves, booties and a hood, but you need it for the 14 degree water.
You also have the option of diving in a drysuit or doing a course.
Part of what makes diving in Milford so spectacular is that the water is several degrees colder on the surface, and man when you step off that boat for the first time and get a facefull of the freshwater on the surface, boy it wakes you up!
Why does that matter, enquiring minds wish to know.
Milford happens to be one of the wettest corners of New Zealand, receiving almost seven meters of rainfall every year.
As the fresh water runs down to the fiord off of the steep mountain cliffs, it is colored darkly by the tannins from the plants creating a layer of a few meters of dark freshwater on the surface. Combined with the shade created by the steep surrounding mountains, it tricks normally deep dwelling sea life into living much shallower than it normally would, like black coral. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
What is really cool as the darker freshwater on the surface is colder, and as you descend the first few meters, you can actually see a weird blurry line where it transitions into the warmer saltwater. And its fun to bob back and forth in between the layers. Or if you’re me, you hang out in these top two meters for en embarrassingly long time as you try to figure out compensating for such a buoyant wetsuit before descending further.
Wait, who peed next to me?
Nope, it’s just the temperature change.
Milford is home to some incredible cliffs to dive along, and Descend has about a dozen dive sites they regularly dive in that are incredible.
The Piopiotahi Marine Reserve in Milford Sound is incredible and one of the best places to dive and stretches for 16 kilometers along the northern side of the fiord from the town out to the Tasman Sea.
Established in 1993, it protects one of New Zealand’s most unique ecosystems.
Here seals, dolphins, sharks, rays, crays, cod, nudibranchs and all manner of creatures thrive beneath the soft waves.
As you dive you have the chance to see over 100 species of creatures, and that’s what surprised me the most. As soon as I was underwater I was blown away by the vibrancy and life beneath Milford.
Far from the gloomy atmosphere I was imagining, it was blue and colorful and alive. My old pictures here don’t do it justice. It was clear and blue, not bright but easy to see still. It wasn’t murky or gloomy at all.
We were given dive torches to use as well, and though I’ve been night diving before, this was a totally different experience.
Once I was below, following Simone, one of the owners of Descend, I was mesmerized by life I could see here, it was so much more than I imagined.
It almost looked tropical.
We descended along the walls, marveling at the biggest crayfish I’ve ever seen, bold and huge, they had no fear of us as they poked out of their dens to get a look at these bubbling black (and in my case, ungraceful) humans.
It didn’t take long for us to get a glimpse of the legendary black corals that inhabit Milford Sound.
Normally these black coral trees (which, BTW, are actually white) grow at depths of 100 meters or more, far deeper than any recreational diver like me could ever experience. But because of the dark rainwater on the surface combined with the shade from the steep mountain walls in Milford, they can be seen at much shallower depths.
At 10 meters below the surface, you begin to see this ghostly coral trees. Bright white and seemingly fragile, they grow out from the walls of the mountains, seemingly waving at you in the gentle currents.
This alone makes diving in Milford Sound worth it. Nowhere else in the world can you have this experience with black coral.
Milford has a great diversity of dive sites, with something for everyone and every level, and you can even do intro dives there or complete your courses. If I had more time, I would love to learn how to dive in a drysuit.
I’m hooked now on what chillier waters have to offer.
So mesmerized by the first experience, I almost couldn’t believe it when it was time to make our way back above the surface for our first interval.
I had withheld all liquids since the early morning in the vain hopes I wouldn’t have to pee and therefore have to pull down the wetsuit (or worse, pull it back up) but like most women I know, I was dying to go as soon as we resurfaced.
How, body, how?! I didn’t even have a coffee!
We warmed up with cookies, lunch and hot liquids, but the strong New Zealand sunshine played a big part.
As we had to wait above the sea for our surface intervals, as our body safely gets rid of the nitrogen. We then had the opportunity to get up close with one of the iconic waterfalls, swimming out to land and walking beneath the spray.
Though it wasn’t long before it was time for round two and to see what more Milford Sound had to offer us lucky few.
Around half a million people make the journey to Milford Sound when visiting New Zealand, mostly for a quick boat cruise. Few bother to stay the night, and a tiny fraction ever get a glimpse at the world beneath the water.
Plan to stay the night in Milford to avoid the altitude of going over the high alpine pass on the Milford Road back to Te Anau.
Now I can heartily say that diving in Milford Sound is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in New Zealand.
Unique and unforgettable, I’d squeeze back into that wetsuit in a heartbeat.
Have you ever heard of diving Milford Sound? Would you do it? Share!