Milford Sound is at the top of most people’s New Zealand bucket list, which is understandable. With Mitre Peak anchoring the landscape, easy accessibility via the Homer Tunnel and with plenty of great activities at hand, not to mention the world famous Milford Track. The entire Fiordland area is jaw-droppingly beautiful and wild, but much of it is inaccessible unless you have your own helicopter or plenty of time to navigate the coast by ship! Doubtful Sound, however, toes the line between being a true wilderness area, whilst relatively accessible. It’s a great alternative to Milford Sound.
About Doubtful Sound
Like Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is actually a fiord; formed by glacier activity (a sound is a large sea or ocean inlet larger than a bay, deeper than a bight and wider than a fiord). Sometimes called ‘the Sound of Silence’, there is a notable serenity within Doubtful Sound that contrasts with the busier Milford Sound. The fiord is rich in flora and fauna, with New Zealand Fur Seals and Fiordland Crested Penguins regularly seen on many of the small islets at the entrance of the fiord. At 421 metres deep, Doubtful Sound is the deepest of all the fiords. It’s long and winding with three distinct ‘arms’ and several outstanding waterfalls in the area from Deep Cove to the open ocean, a distance of around 40.4 kilometres.
How to get there
You can only reach Doubtful Sound by boat or air, so the journey is an adventure in itself! There is no direct road, so most people will drive or take a bus to Manapouri, a small town near Te Anau and about 2 hours drive from Queenstown. From there, they’ll transfer to a boat for a trip across Lake Manapouri, a bus over Wilmot Pass and finally onto another boat to cruise the Sound. It’s possible to see Doubtful Sound in a day, but we definitely recommend an overnight cruise for the full experience. You can jump on board the overnight Fiordland Navigator cruise as part of the 14-day Active Adventures New Zealand ‘Manuka‘ trip.
Things to do
There are many ways to experience Doubtful Sound – take a scenic flight, a day cruise or experience the Sound of silence on an overnight cruise. Once in the Sounds it’s possible to take a guided kayaking tour or a tour on a small tender craft, so you can explore all the nooks and crannies without disturbing the wildlife.
Our trip through New Zealand was a combination of hiking and a cruise on the Doubtful Sound. Our guides, Ken and Mel, were wonderful. They were not only our hiking guides, but our chefs at the end of the day. Our meals were exquisite!
– Kim Powell, March 2013
Things to see
Whilst on the boat or kayak you’ll have a good chance of spotting bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins and little blue penguins. For those who venture underwater on a diving trip, there is an incredible underworld below the permanent freshwater layer (5 to 15 metres thick). Stained by tannins washed out of the vegetation, the freshwater layer cuts down the amount of light entering the sea water, restricting almost all of the marine life to the top 40m. This band is calm, very clear and relatively warm – home to sponges, corals and fish of sub-tropical, cool water and deep water varieties.
Some of the better-known and most-valued native birds, that you’re likely to see, are the stately large wood pigeon (a sociable bird, especially when sated from over-eating); the mischievous mountain parrot, the kea; the bush-parrot, the kaka; and the mournful native owl, the morepork. Water birds are also numerous near rivers, lakes and wetlands. Some of the more common ducks that you will see are the Paradise, grey, shoveller and scaup (small and black). The blue duck is quite rare and favours streams that are abundant in boulders. Shags, gulls and oyster catchers are widespread. Hawks, fantails, tits, robins, bell-birds, grey warblers and silver-eyes are all a fairly common sight among the Doubtful Sounds.
Fiordland is also home to three out of the five species of kiwi, although they’re nocturnal so you’re unlikely to see one, but you may well hear one! Other flightless birds in Fiordland include the attractive looking kakapo, the weka and very rare takahe.
Remember that all birds within the Park are protected, as are native mammals, seals and bats.
Post a comment if you’ve been to Doubtful Sound and have anything to add!