Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Exploring the Sound, Milford Sound

The South Island is known for its natural beauty. Pretty much you can throw a rock and hit a beautiful place, but certain places stand out and are celebrated even more. Fiordland (they don't believe in 'J's' over here) National Park is one of these places, comprising of mountains, temperate rain forest, serene lakes, red beech forest, gorgeous valleys, and of course, the fiords themselves. The two most well known and well touristed are Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound. Since Doubtful Sound was more difficult to get to and we had limited time, we decided to make the trip out to Milford Sound.

Now to say that it rains a lot in Fiordland would be an understatement. On the sea-side of the mountain range (where Milford Sound is located), they get 7.2 meters of rain a year! That's almost 24 feet a year!! That's 283 inches a year!!!! The day when we visited? Sunny and blue skies. Clearly have built up some karma. Either that or we have compromising pictures of the weather gods. :-)

We were able to grab a couple of spots on Real Journey's Nature Cruise, which was an hour longer and full of much more information than RJ's (and all the other companies') scenic cruises. The nature cruise had a naturalist/geologist on board giving a running commentary and answering individual questions and spent more time looking at all the sights.

Like in the Norwegian fjords, we found ourselves out on the water looking up at towering peaks. At its most dramatic, the glaciers had carved out a path that went down 900 feet below the water and stretched up 4,500 feet above our heads. It really was spectacular. The cruise continued out of the sound into the Tasman sea, where if we continued straight, we would have ended up a couple of minutes (those are subunits of degrees) south of Tasmania. Though it was a beautiful day there was an impressive swell as soon as we left the shelter of the Sound. As the passengers all held on tight to the rails, lurched across the deck at the whim of the waves, or focused on not throwing up (and happily Brian and I found ourselves only in the first two categories, not the third), I had new found respect for Captain Cook and the others who travelled those seas in search of new lands.

Despite the title of the cruise, we didn't see much in the way of wildlife (with the notable exception of a couple of fur seals that let the boat come right up next to them and then proceeded to show off), however the Sound is a fascinating and rare place in that area. Basically, it provides a deep water environment in much shallower water than usual. When the rain pounds the Sound, the water runs off the cliffs full of minerals and nutrients and soil and creates a murky layer on top of the salt water in the Sound. Sometimes this layer can be 18-20 feet deep (though when we where there it was much much less, as it hadn't rained in a week or so). This murky fresh water grabs all the light so that in the salt water layer it is DARK DARK. Thus you get a bunch of creatures that ordinarily would be much deeper living closer to the surface where they are easier to study.

It was a great day: beautiful weather, awe-inspiring scenery, informative commentary, a gorgeous drive there and back....definitely a recommended activity for those in the area.


oh...and besides, it provided us with the COOLEST. WATER. PICTURE. EVER

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