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Why a visit to the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory is a must-do

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Why a visit to the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory is a must-do

Milford Sound is one of the most breathtaking places to visit in New Zealand. This huge glacier-carved fiord is famous around the world, and it only takes a quick glance to see why.

The most popular way to explore Milford is on a Milford Sound Cruise. From the water, you can look around and enjoy a 360-degree view of the fiord taking in the spectacular sights and impressive waterfalls. To put it simply, a Milford Sound Cruise is a must!

However, there are other activities you can do in Milford Sound such as taking a scenic flight or kayaking trips. These activities are well known and make for great add ons to your Milford Sound Cruise. But there’s also one more exciting activity (that many visitors aren’t aware of) and that’s a visit to the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory.

But what is the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory, and how do you get there? Well, I’m glad you asked because we’re going to answer all of your questions and shed some light on one of Milford Sound’s most unique attractions.

Milford Sound Underwater Observatory

Tucked away in the calm waters of Harrison Cove sits Milford Sound Underwater Observatory. From a distance, it looks like nothing more than a floating platform, but what you can’t see from the surface is the ten metre-deep chamber that lays beneath the waters of Milford Sound.

It takes 64 steps to descend to the round viewing chamber beneath the surface and once there, you can enjoy a unique view of Milford Sound.

But it wasn’t always this way, the Underwater Observatory was only built 25 years ago in 1995.

The construction project involved building the viewing chamber in 3 sections in Invercargill and assembling them in Bluff. Once assembled, the entire chamber was towed 380 kilometres through the open ocean before arriving at its home in the calm waters of Harrison Cove, Milford Sound.

The chamber was then sunk ten metres below the surface to form a new type of aquarium, one where we are in the glass cage and the fish are free to swim around!

This new concept and attraction was a way to preserve Milford Sound, teach people about its underwater ecosystems, and encourage sustainable tourism in New Zealand.

Unique Ecosystems and what you’ll see

Beneath the surface of the water in the observatory, you’ll see there are some very unique and friendly creatures that call Milford Sound home.

The ecosystems that live below the surface of Milford Sound are extremely fragile. These ecosystems are slow-growing but long-living but can easily be wiped out by human interference.

With the creation of the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve, Milford Sound’s underwater life will always have a home in Milford Sound.
From fish to interesting coral, here are a few things that are sure to impress you on your visit to the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory.

Snake Stars
Snake stars cling to black coral in Milford Sound and use the coral as protection from predators. To thank the coral for protection, the snake stars clean algae from the black corals forming a perfect relationship.
You will see lots of snake stars from the underwater observatory.

The rock faces of Milford Sound are filled with starfish roaming the area in search of shellfish to eat. These starfish are much larger than typical starfish and are often only meters from the underwater observatory.

Black Coral
One of the most interesting plant species that live in Milford Sound is black coral. This unique coral can live for over 300 years and grow to up to four meters tall. Black coral, which ironically is white in colour, is a living colony of tiny, white anemone-like animals covering a tough black skeleton.

It’s usually found at depths of around 50 metres, but in Milford Sound you can see black coral at as little as 10 meters below the surface. But why?

Milford Sound receives a lot of rain, and that rain runs into the fiord via rivers and hundreds of waterfalls. Along the way, the water becomes stained with tannins (the same compound that colours tea and wine) from fallen leaves until it becomes dark in colour.

This tea-coloured freshwater doesn’t mix with the saltwater from the ocean and this creates a dark freshwater layer on the surface and decreases the amount of light that penetrates the water below. This is known as deepwater emergence and creates a perfect environment for black coral to live.

So unless you plan on diving deep beneath the ocean, Milford Sound Underwater Observatory is your best chance to see black coral!

Sponges come in many shapes and colours. They eat by filtering the nutrient-rich waters in Milford Sound. By doing this, they slowly remove food from the water, capturing it with their porous cells.

Your guide will be sure to point these interesting animals out to you on your visit.

Other marine life you may see
In Milford Sound, there are many marine animals to spot from your cruise including seals, penguins and dolphins. However, it’s also possible to see these curious visitors beneath the surface at the Underwater Observatory! Of course, this isn’t a usual occurrence, but if you’re lucky enough, you might just get a pleasant surprise.

Choosing your Cruise in Milford Sound

Choosing the right cruise in Milford Sound is very important, but you can relax knowing that a visit to Milford Sound Underwater Observatory can be added to any one of our cruises in Milford Sound. Choose from a Nature Cruise, Encounter Nature Cruise, or Scenic Cruise with the added experience of a stop at our Milford Sound Underwater Observatory.

All these tours are great options, and we have lots of different cruise times available for you to choose from. Also, if you need a ride from Queenstown or Te Anau to Milford Sound then we’ve got you covered too with our Coach, Cruise and Underwater Observatory day trip.

From Queenstown or Te Anau
On our Coach, Cruise and Underwater Observatory day trip we’ll take the hassle out of your trip to Milford Sound. Simply meet us at one of the many pickup locations in either Queenstown or Te Anau (or get picked up right from your hotel) and we’ll take care of the rest.

We’ll stop at all the best spots on the road to Milford before you board your cruise to enjoy the stunning scenery. Then, our cruise will drop you at the Underwater Observatory for your tour before taking you back to the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal and then the coach will take you back to Queenstown or Te Anau.

If that doesn’t sound exciting enough, we also have tour options where you can add a return scenic flight or helicopter flight to your Queenstown tour package. This gets you back to Queenstown in under an hour via the most scenic route possible over the Southern Alps! If a scenic flight in Milford isn’t already on your bucket list, then maybe you should add it.
Make it the ultimate adventure – add a kayaking tour.

We’d hate to give you a severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out) but there’s actually one other way to round out your Milford Sound adventure and give you the ultimate experience – and that’s by adding kayaking to your cruise and Milford Underwater Observatory visit.

Our kayaking trips leave from the underwater observatory in Harrison Cove. This means you can enjoy Milford from above, on, and below the surface. Kayaking is perfect for all ability levels, our purpose-made loading platform gets our kayaks into the water with you in them for safe and easy entry and exit.


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