New Zealand’s most popular destination is undoubtedly Milford Sound. The rain forest and dramatic cliffs leading into dark, ominous water gives it a sense of mystery. Being one of the wettest places on Earth, it can be difficult to catch this beauty on a clear day. However, its uniqueness is visible even at the cloudiest of times. A rainy day means less visibility but more beautiful waterfalls. I was fortunate enough to visit Milford Sound twice while in New Zealand. Once was to scuba dive the mysterious cold water, and the second time was to take a traditional boat tour. Both visits had their own charm and Milford Sound is certainly a treasure that everyone should experience.
Diving Milford Sound
After extensively reading reviews, my buddy and I decided diving Milford Sound was worth the price tag. One blogger had reported it in his Top 3 dives! Descend Scuba Diving is the only dive charter in Milford Sound, so the options are limited. We were at the boat slip by 9am and were given 7mm wet suits, a thick rash guard, a hood, gloves, and boots. It was such a gloomy morning that I unknowingly couldn’t see Mitre Peak looming in the background. The sand flies tried to bite every part of my body the wet suit did not cover, namely my face and hands. So far it wasn’t the most exciting start to the dive trip.
Milford Sound is known to be cold, but the visibility decent, and marine life interesting. Regularly diving in San Diego meant I was used to the cold, but learning the water was 55F in February made me suddenly yearn for my customized 7mm wetsuit and hooded vest. Being a cold wimp, I told the guide I would likely cut the dive short and ascend before everyone else.
There were eight people on the tiny boat and the skipper made the men get into the water first. Women get cold faster, and as soon as I jumped in the water I knew this would not be a long dive. It was the coldest water I’d ever dived in. The hood didn’t stay under my wet suit and the cold water cruelly rushed down my back. I hurriedly gave my buddy the OK to start our descent and wondered why I ever agreed to do this.
There is a layer of murky fresh water for about 15 feet until the water turns to clear(er) salt water. I had read that visibility in the salt water was 30-50 feet. Even though San Diego diving is the definition of poor visibility, I was definitely expecting better visibility than 15 feet in Milford Sound. Between the cold and poor visibility I did not enjoy the first dive.
There was a chance the marine life would make up for everything else, but that was sorely lacking as well. Apart from a few fish, sea urchins, and small black corals, there wasn’t much to see through the murky green water. I managed to complete the dive but climbed into the boat quickly to put on some warm clothes. The skipper passed out a large block of dark chocolate which I eagerly took. I’d try anything to warm up.
Depth – 71 feet
Temp – 57 F
Time – 39 minutes
Vis – 15 feet
Our surface interval consisted of lunch (wraps and fruit) and a boat tour around Milford Sound. The fog was just starting to lift but everything still looked ominous in the gloom. A small pod of dolphins rode our wake as we looked at the many beautiful waterfalls surrounding us. There were still 30 minutes left in our surface interval and the skipper dropped us off at a small cove with a lovely waterfall.
This was the best part of the day. Typically when people take a boat tour of Milford Sound they are not allowed to go ashore. Since this was such a small boat we were part of the lucky few who got to explore the Eighth Wonder of the World on foot.
It’s a short 3 minute walk to the waterfall and because of the morning rain it was flowing at full strength. We were encouraged to get a “glacial facial” and walk under the waterfall in our wet suits. Since I was already cold I opted out of the “glacial facial” and instead sat on the edge of the waterfall admiring its power.
It was time for the second dive! There was a gentleman who wasn’t good with air and we agreed to ascend together when I got too cold. The dive was very similar to the first in terms of visibility and excitement. However, we did see one of the largest known black corals. It was very interesting but you can only stare at one piece of coral for so long. We continued on but there wasn’t much to see and I started to get cold.
I signaled to my new dive buddy and he confirmed it was time to go up. We made our ascent and saw a dogfish shark. Score! At least there was one cool critter here in the freezing waters of Milford Sound. The other divers were in the water for another 10 minutes (BRRRRR!). How could they stay under for so long? After putting on warm clothes it was time for more dark chocolate and hot cocoa. I was cold, but by the time the other divers came up I was finally comfortable. They had not seen anything else during the rest of the dive.
Depth – 68 feet
Temp – 53 F
Time – 30 minutes
Vis – 10 feet
One poor woman came up shivering and did not get warm even after the boat had docked 20 minutes later. I understood the desire to stay down as long as possible, because chances are you will only dive Milford Sound once. That being said the diving was not worth minor hypothermia.
I wanted to love diving Milford Sound. It seems the ultimate diving bragging right to say “I dove Milford Sound!” Instead of bragging, the conversation usually goes like this:
“Where’s the most interesting place you’ve ever dived?”
“Milford Sound? Woah that’s cool! How was it?”
“Probably in my top 10 worst dives ever. Honestly I don’t remember much since I was so cold”
Sure, Milford Sound is the most unique place I have ever dove. That does not mean it is one of the most interesting dives I’ve ever done. I will honestly say I did not enjoy diving Milford Sound, as evidence in my dive entry. “The only memorable thing was how f$!&ing cold I was.” However, with all the 5-Star reviews out there, I feel it was my fault for not liking the dive. Maybe my expectations were too high or I was too distracted by the cold water. Whatever the reason, I will never forget how freaking cold it was!
Milford Sound Boat Tour
After diving Milford Sound and it being too cold and foggy to enjoy my surroundings, I was excited to give it a second chance. One month later my friend flew into Queenstown and I once again made my way down the beautiful valley to Milford Sound. What a change from last time! There was not a cloud in sight, the sun was shining, and it was a perfect 25C. Mitre Peak was so prominent that I simply did not understand how I “didn’t see it” the first time.
We chose Mitre Peak Cruises among the dozen other tour providers in Milford Sound. The cruise was super informative and the smaller boat made it easier to get closer to the sights. Several waterfalls were flowing and the boat even went directly under one of them. I got soaked but it was worth it! Check out the video below to see what Milford Sound is like on a gorgeous day. And if you’re looking for another Fiordland experience read about Kayaking Doubtful Sound!
Interested in Visiting Milford Sound?
Where to Stay
Looking at a map Queenstown seems just a short distance from Milford Sound, but it is a 4 hour drive. It is also a 2 hour drive from Te Anau, the closest “big” town. I would recommend either staying in Te Anau or Milford Sound because driving from Queenstown makes for a very long day.
Te Anau has a lot to offer. There are restaurants, lots of accommodation, and a grocery store. It is a two hour drive but it’s cheaper to stay here than Milford. Milford Sound is more convenient but there are limited accommodation options. I booked two dorm beds at Milford Lodge, one month in advance, and got the last beds. It is also expensive at $40 per person. There is no place to buy groceries in Milford Sound so bring all your food with you. Milford Lodge has a restaurant but it’s pricey and closes early (although the eggs benedict is pretty good).
How to Get There
There is only one road that goes to Milford Sound; Highway 94. There are plenty of tours leaving from Queenstown and Te Anau if you want to sit back and let someone else drive. Since the road is windy and I get carsick, it was better for me to rent a car. I’m very glad I did because there are a million places to pull over and take pictures. If you’ve seen the new Alien (Covenant) you will recognize all the fields, forests, and streams too.
Which Boat Tour?
This is completely up to you. There are many tour operators that go out of Milford Sound, all ranging in size, length, and amenities. Some offer lunch, some stay overnight, some leave for sunset, and some have ecologists. I wanted a smaller boat than the massive ones I’d seen on my dive trip, and one that went all the way to the ocean. After making comparisons I booked with Mitre Peak Cruises. It’s a smaller boat with free coffee/tea, and the commentary is very interesting.
How to Dive There
This is a cold dive! As much as it sucks to lug dive gear out here I would suggest going the drysuit route (if you can). Or at least bring a hooded vest because the charter only supplies basic hoods. I still remember the cold water running down my back (AHHHH!). Drink as many hot beverages as possible, be prepared for poor visibility, and be mentally prepared that it’s going to be cold. Also, the road leading to Milford Sound is nearly a mile high. Booking overnight accommodation at the Sound is recommended because of the altitude change.