The fiords of Fiordland
15 August 2016

Naming the fiords of Fiordland

Nestled inside Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site, which gives it similar status to the Grand Canyon and pyramids of Giza, Fiordland is home to a number of glacial fiords cut into the south-western cliffs of New Zealand. Most of the inlets are inaccessible, except with eco-tourism ventures or by air.

A fiord is a deep sea inlet within a steep valley. While Milford Sound (Piopiotahi) is the best known, there are a total of fourteen sounds. The names of the fourteen sounds are fondly recalled in an old ditty:

“Preserve your Chalk, it’s Dusky in Breaksea

And Dagg says it’s Doubtful if Thompson went round

But Nancy and Charles go to Caswell for marble

And George and Bligh to grand Milford Sound!”

The fiords, which have all been misrepresented as sounds, mostly bear the names of the European explorers who named them.

Port Preservation or Preservation Inlet was home of the first shore-based whaling station, rather ironically given that the whales were almost hunted to extinction and have only begun to return quite recently. Chalky Inlet is named for nearby Chalky Island, a predator-free wildlife sanctuary.

Captain James Cook named Dusky Sound in 1770. He befriended local Maori, who were believed to be Moa hunters, and traded with them. Dusky is one of the larger fiords and houses three islands in its mouth. Captain Cook also named Breaksea Island, and the name was extended to the sound.

Dagg Sound was named after the captain of a whaling ship in 1804. Doubtful Sound, which has a narrow entrance, is also chalked up to Captain Cook, who doubted he would get his ship out if he went in – so he didn’t. The lush, forest-cloaked cliffs have earned Doubtful the name ‘the sound of silence’. Thompson Sound was named by a sealer, after the owner of his boat, Andrew Thompson, while Bradshaw Sound bears the name of Richard Bradshaw, skipper of the surveying vessel Acheron.

The same sealer who named Thompson Sound landed Nancy with its name. Charles Sound bears the name of yet another sealer, ironic for what is now a wildlife sanctuary. Caswell Sound is possibly named after a Maori sealer who reportedly swam and walked from the inlet to Doubtful Sound after his boat was wrecked, to fetch help for the remaining crew. George is presumed to be the pilot of the Acheron. Bligh Sound is indirectly named after Captain Bligh of ‘mutiny on the Bounty’ fame. The shortest fiord, Sutherland, bears the name of the tallest waterfall, after Donald Sutherland, a Milford resident, in 1883. Finally, ‘grand Milford’, named for a town in South Wales.

The inlets, now protected and largely free from predators, are home to a stunning range of fish, birds, seals, whales, dolphins and marine and land based plants. The area which was once a hunter’s paradise has become a wildlife nirvana and a natural wonder of the modern world.

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