Doubtful Sound, Fiordland
Whilst Milford Sound is at the top of many people’s New Zealand bucket list, Doubtful Sound is not to be overlooked. Doubtful Sound toes the line between true wilderness area, and relatively accessible. It’s a great alternative to the relatively easily accessed Milford Sound, where Mitre Peak anchors the landscape, and there are plenty of activities available, 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!
About Doubtful Sound
Like Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is actually a fiord; formed by glacial activity (a sound is a river river valley that has been flooded by the sea, whilst a fiord is a glacial valley). 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 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 in depth). 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 around Doubtful Sound.
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!
Where do I start?! New Zealand had been number one on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, and it didn’t disappoint. Don’t wait another moment, if New Zealand is the dream, find a way! The ‘Manuka’ trip was beyond any expectations I could have dreamed of! Yes it was physical, but our amazing guides Claire and Jess kept me going and the accomplishment and the views were always worth it. I have memories that will last a lifetime, best money I have EVER spent. Trust me, don’t wait! Go!
June Vidrine, Active Adventures New Zealand ‘Manuka’ trip, March 2017