Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Diving, Milford Sound and Sand flies


Much of New Zealand is infested with the Black fly (A ungulatum) commonly known as the sand fly / namu and the West Coast Rain forest is particularly infested with this Dracula of insects and Milford Sound is the worst place we have been to for them. This little pest (a size of about 2 mm would be a good guess) will make your life a misery if you give it the chance.

Some people attract sand flies more than others (it possibly depends on their natural smell) and it also depends on what colours they are wearing – black, red and blue are more attractive to sand flies than white, yellow and green.

Male sand flies live off the sap of plants, female sand flies live off humans!. At dusk and dawn in particular, they are looking for a blood protein to help produce their eggs. Their saliva contains anti-coagulants that help keep the blood flowing once they have bitten you and after two minutes, they leave (feeling full) leaving a wound which the anti coagulants then make itchy. This seems to be at its height on the second or third day.  I have found that if the wound has a “good bleed” it calms down a lot and rapidly starts to repair.

In 1774, Captain James Cook was in Dusky Sound and recorded in his diary “..wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching….

There does not seem to be a guaranteed method of protection against these blighters. We try to cover up as much as the heat allows and have found Bushman to be an effective repellent for most of them (we bought this as a pharmacy near Auckland Airport having asked the salesgirl what she used). Anti-histamine tablets also reduce the effect of the itching and we have an electronic bite zapper (officially called a “Bite and Sting Relief Click-It”) from Boots which is very good after you have been bitten and at £5.49 is a great investment.

However no matter what you do, when you are not looking they sneak up and bite – mosquitoes give out a high pitched whine as they approach, sand flies are totally silent. Everyone you meet has their own “particularly effective remedy / repellent which you should try” and all have met the “biggest sand flies in the New Zealand, far bigger than those you have met so far”. The person who does find a real deterrent / repellent / remedy / cure will quickly become a millionaire.

Milford Sound below and on the surface

Milford Sound is on the list of Top 10 dive sites in the world, not sure why but it is certainly an interesting place to dive.

The Sound is really a Fjord but because of the high rainfall, the water in the Fjord is a browny fresh water later on top (2 to 5 metres in depth) and then salt water underneath. This is because the less dense freshwater which runs off the mountains becomes stained by tannin and other organic matter. It then floats on the salt water (which comes into the sound from the Tasman Sea) and acts as a light filter because of its discolouration. With much less light penetrating the seawater layer, a 10m depth in the fjord is equivalent to 70m in clear sea. As a consequence, marine life which is dark adapted lives at much shallower depths.

For divers, the effect is that when you enter the water, it is very cold (6c is normal on the surface) and it is also very cloudy with visibility around 1 or 2 metres. You descend through this

cloud (quickly !) to get to the clearer and warmer saltwater layer underneath where visibility can be up to 30 metres although it is dark. This video attempts to show going down through the layers and the transition takes place at about the 30 second mark.

Divers in Layer Bo9undary

This picture is taken from just beneath the boundary layer – the divers legs are in the salt water later and their heads in the freshwater - hence the graduation in visibility. It is not a dramatic change but a gradual change over a depth of a few metres. Diving in it is an interesting experience because it is so much clearer (but darker) beneath the fresh water layer.

So on one of the very few days when it does not rain in Milford Sound,  two dives with Tawaki Adventures as the dive company is called. Departure is from a rather unprepossessing gravel foreshore because the local fisherman seem to hate tourists and will not allow anyone else to use their piers.

Dive Boat-1

Because the water is so cold, we wear two piece wet suits, hoods and gloves and therefore significant weight – 16kg for me (my naked weight is around 7 kg). The fresh water layer is very cold (6c) and the sea water layer is warmer (at least 13c so my dive computer will later tell me) and the instructions are to get deep as soon as we have done our weight checks to keep warm.

The first dive is at Penguin Cove, so called so because Penguins live there but they are asleep when we dive. Unfortunately due to equipment problems with one of the group, we are hanging around on the surface in the cold layer for 30 mins before we can go deep. Go deep is really a misnomer since dive depth is restricted to about 16m for decompression reasons. Although we are diving at sea level, if something went wrong and we had to get to a decompression chamber, the nearest chamber requires either a long drive including going over a pass at 1000m or a flight at a higher level neither of which are appropriate if you need to get to a chamber asap. So dive time and depth are both restricted just in case something goes wrong and you are firmly warned that you must wait four hours between your last dive and leaving the Sound for your blood to degas.


The bottom is dark and covered with dead wood and for someone used to the Red Sea, there are not a lot of fish about and because of the darkness, not a lot of kelp. What we do see however is interesting:


possibly a nudibranch,


some coral growing on coral

Star Fish

a starfish and below, a lot of black coral (have you noticed it is really white?)

Black Coral-2

Black Coral-1

Black Coral

apparently 20% of New Zealand’s Cray Fish (aka Red Lobster) come from here and we find a few large specimens


apologies for the picture quality but the light was poor and they were partially illuminated in a high powered torch at the time.

Fish 2

Fish 1

There are also some normal fish lurking in the gloom.


My Dive Buddy (who has better eyesight than me) also saw some Seahorses. There was also a seal which made a very fleeting visit.

The second dive was at Seal Rock – so named because of the sleeping seals usually found there.

Seal Rock

The actual dive site shown below is just past the rocks (shown above) upon which the seals bask in the sun and rest between their dives.

Seal Rock dive point

When the diving is over, the Dive Boat makes a visit to a nearby waterfall so we can wash our wetsuits. Bridewell Falls comes straight down off the mountainside

Bridewell Falls

Jungle to pool

and you get to it by fighting your way through the forest and the sand flies at the base of a mountain.

Waterfall Close Up

Then it is a jump into a freezing pool of water to wash off. All in all, an enjoyable morning diving in some challenging conditions in a new environment.

Milford Sound on the Surface

The standard view of Milford Sound which most tourists see is that from one of the numerous “cruises” which sail up and down the down – they are so frequent that you have a choice of two or three an hour. Although I had travelled the whole length of the Sound in the morning, I did not see

Milford Sovereign

much above the surface so a cruise was the logical solution.

We were not certain if it would be “awesome” (the word used by everyone you talk to about the Sound) – it was.

Sadle valley opposite terminal

The view from the terminal shows what is to come,

The Sound exit viewpoint

with rows of mountains off to the horizon,

Sound View

this view looks towards the exit of the sound.

Bowen Falls
Bowen Falls Close Up

To one side of the sound is the 160m Bowen Falls named (in 1871) after the wife of the Governor General of New Zealand.

The Sounds entrance

This is the view seen from the Tasman Sea as the boat turns around at the entrance to the Sounds - truly magnificent.

One of the highlights on the way back is a close encounter with another of the great sights of the Sound - the 155m high Stirling Falls.

Suspended Valley and Stirling Falls

They emanate from a Suspended Valley (so it was described to us)

Approaching Stirling Falls
Falls from distance

and Boat Captains play a game of getting as close to them as they can without sinking the ship (in fact the Dive boat I was on sailed under and through them in order to wash the boat). And so you get closer

Closer to SF-2

and closer

Getting Closer

and closer, everyone getting covered in the spray.


We were told that Maori women believed that 5 minutes standing naked under the falls knocked years off your face

Closer Still-1

We had no naked women on the boat but plenty who were hoping that there would be some effect even though they had kept their clothes on!

We were lucky that when we were there, it was not raining- much! Milford Sound is well worth visiting as is taking one of the numerous cruises on offer.

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