Gossamer layers of clouds hung low in the sky as the last bits of a pink and yellow sunrise faded in the distance. Spectacular sculpted cliffs and slivered dribbles of waterfalls lined the entryway to this magical earthly place that Rudyard Kipling famously once called the eighth wonder of the world. We had arrived at Milford Sound, our first stop on New Zealand’s South Island. And oh, what a place to begin.
Milford Sound is actually a fiord, a narrow u-shaped inlet with only one entrance. Named after Milford Haven, Wales, it’s part of Fiordland National Park and World Heritage Site Te Wahipounamu, Māori for the place of greenstone. It’s considered the wettest spot in New Zealand, but on this late January morning, the skies were dry and clear and just about as perfect as you could dream up.
Herb and I had signed on to explore the area by zodiac and were assigned a 7 a.m. departure time. We joined eight other passengers and our driver Joe Cockram from Seabourn’s Ventures expedition team and headed out into the clear indigo waters. Sitting low on the side of the zodiac offered an extraordinary perspective of the surrounding grandeur. It was humbling and awe-inspiring and smile-inducing all at the same time and one of those experiences when you wish you could press “hold” for a long time.
Joe pointed out specific formations along the way, but mostly he let us just take everything in. He steered the zodiac closer to land to get photos of a fur seal lying in the sun and several baby gulls who were testing the water as well as their wings. And although these wildlife sightings were a treat to discover, I got the feeling that Milford Sound was more about embracing the entire environment than highlighting the sum of its parts.
We were cruising past the Milford Sound Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory in an area called Harrison Cove when Joe got word from another zodiac driver that a pod of dolphins had been spotted near the shoreline. Not wanting to miss a moment, we all grabbed hold of the zodiac rope lines as Joe sped to the dolphin sighting spot. Within seconds, about a half-dozen dusky dolphins appeared at the surface, gracefully arching their way along the water’s edge. We sat quietly until they disappeared in the distance, a chance encounter to be long remembered.
We passed Mitre Peak, a majestic Milford Sound landmark, and beautiful Lady Bowen Falls. Except for the other zodiacs and several local tour boats, we floated along by ourselves, enveloped in the stunning scenery that appeared around every turn. Our incredibly clear and calm day was a marvel, to be sure, but Joe explained that Milford Sound in the rain and wind takes on an equally memorable aura, with hundreds of temporary waterfalls joining Lady Bowen and Stirling, the two permanent residents.
That afternoon our ship left Milford Sound and cruised through Fiordland National Park. We were heading south toward Stewart Island, and it was almost sunset when we reached open waters. The day was ending the way it had begun, with wispy low-hanging clouds and a palate of pinks and yellows washing over an extraordinary corner of the planet.