The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever (Jacques Cousteau; explorer and conservationist, 1910 – 1997).
Piopiotahi Marine Reserve occupies almost 700 hectares of the ice-carved fiord which makes up Milford Sound/Piopiotahi. As part of Te Wahipounamu (pronounced waa-hee- po-nah-moo) World Heritage Site, which covers a large area of the West Coast, Milford Sound enjoys a high level of environmental protection. The reserve provides a safe home to well over a hundred different species of fish, as well as stingrays, octopus, penguins, seals, sharks and dolphins. Diving, boating and other activities are strictly regulated to protect the natural environment.
As if the breathtaking beauty of Milford Sound wasn’t enough, there is a world of magic beneath the water. The towering mountainsides plummet into the sea to continue beneath the water, sheer cliffs of rugged rock adorned with gardens of swaying corals and shoals of colourful fish. Forests of rare black coral (which is actually white, and is a living marine animal, not a plant) grow like silvery underwater ferns. Seahorses, spiny dragons and starfish feed among the living fronds and crayfish occupy the cracks and crannies of the rock face. Deep sea invertebrates cling to the rocky walls of the fiord, with mussels, sea urchins and anemones as their briny neighbours.
While some of the underwater wonderland is visible from above, there are a couple of ways to see it up close and personal. The Milford Sound Underwater Observatory at Harrisons Cove is a wildlife experience with a difference – the people are contained while the animals are free. Ten metres below the water, the observatory provides a comfortable and unique viewing area to watch the fish and sea mammals and is a perfect place to view the world below the water in its natural state.
Recreational diving is also popular, despite the cold. Jacques Cousteau was a great fan of Milford Sound, and in remarking on it as ‘one of the ten best diving sites in the world’, he has left a legacy that sees plenty of people willing to brave the glacier-fed waters and don their scuba gear to see for themselves. They all say it’s well worth it!
World Heritage status ensures the beauty and mystery of Milford will be available for generations to come, and will remain one of the untouched wonders of the modern world.