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NZs Doubtful Sound

NZ's Doubtful Sound - a Fiordland ecoadventure - ecotourism in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
International Travel News,  May, 1997  by H. Deon Holt

"Bring your rain gear, plenty of insect repellent and twice as much film as you think you'll need," Ruth Shaw advised when we phoned to ask rendezvous directions for our ecoadventure in Fiordland National Park, "Exploring the Secrets of Doubtful Sound."
Lesser-visited sibling
The advice proved essential during our 3-day/3-night expedition aboard MSV Breaksea Girl, Lance and Ruth Shaw's 65-foot, ketch-rigged motor sailer. Mother Nature frequently reminded us why New Zealand's Fiordland is so lush and why pesky sand flies have been the scourge of travelers there since Captain James Cook first described them in 1773.
Our cameras found subjects ranging from mountains of waterfalls and verdant rainforest to frolicking dolphins, basking fur seals and endangered penguins.
Each year, fewer than 30,000 visitors make it to Doubtful Sound, compared with the 250,000 who tour its better-known, more-accessible sibling, Milford Sound. While Milford has overnight accommodations and can be reached by air, tour bus and rental car, just getting to Doubtful was an adventure.
We took a rental car to a boat to a bus to Breaksea Girl, with a sub-subterranean detour en route. It was worth the effort.
Side trip to the sound
The adventure began in Manapouri where we parked the rental car and boarded a large, enclosed catamaran operated by Fiordland Travel, the only commercial day-tour operator on Doubtful Sound. After a 45-minute cruise the length of Lake Manapouri, a shuttle bus was waiting to take us on a unique side trip before continuing to our vessel.
In low gear all the way, the bus descended a spiraling, 1.2-miletunnel to a granite-walled cavern deep inside a mountain - the West Arm hydroelectric power station's generator hall. Virtually all underground, the station uses lake water to drive its seven immense turbines, producing power for an aluminum smelter 100 miles away.
The water gushes into Doubtful Sound at five million gallons per minute through a 6-mile-long tailrace tunnel. The level of Lake Manapouri is maintained within its natural range nearly 600 feet above the sound.
Leaving the power station, the bus climbed through thick forest on a winding, unpaved service road built in the early 1960s to bring construction equipment and supplies to the plant from a sea-level boat landing. Beyond 2,208-foot Wilmot Pass, we were back in low gear again for the steep (5:1 grade) descent to Deep Cove at the head of Doubtful Sound.
Skipper Lance Shaw had a lunch of hot soup and salad waiting when his latest eco-holiday troupe arrived.
After luggage was stowed and appetites sated, he briefed us on safety guidelines and shipboard protocol before getting Breaksea Girl underway. ("No smoking inside. Volunteers are welcome in the galley and about the vessel; gives us more time to share what we know about this magical place.")
Origin of the name
As we motored westward, heavy clouds shrouded peaks that soared to 4,000 feet above water level. Steady rain had turned mountainsides into walls of water whose near-vertical plunge began somewhere beyond our view. Rain falls more than 200 days each year in Fiordland, where it can be measured in feet rather than inches - nearly 30 feet annually at Deep Cove.
Skipper Shaw told us the prevailing winds are northwesterly (heavy rain) or southwesterly (showery). "We have clear weather on those occasional days when the wind shifts to the east," he noted.
Captain Cook named this - New Zealand's deepest fiord - Doubtful Harbor because "It would certainly have been highly imprudent of me to put into a place where we could not have got out of but with a (easterly) wind that we have lately found does not blow one day in a month."
A glass-enclosed "sun room" aft on Breaksea Girl's top deck doubled for dining, wet-weather viewing and a staging area for the divers on board. The oversized wheelhouse included a galley and diner/lounge. Outside, the cabin roof extending over the walkway helped keep our busy cameras dry.
While motoring through Crooked Arm, we saw steep, rocky "shoots" where mountainsides had been stripped of vegetation by tree avalanches, each triggered when a single tree became top heavy in the thin soil and dislodged high above.
These surfaces regenerate quickly in the wet climate; new mats and cushions of lichens, mosses and liverworts act as moist beds for shrub and tree seedlings.
"Sound of Silence"
The rainfall had stopped when Skipper Lance anchored Breaksea Girl for the night in peaceful Snug Cove at the head of First Arm.
"You've seen posters describing this as the 'Sound of Silence,'" he said, explaining how Fiordland Travel has turned an ecological disaster into a tourism slogan.
Native birds have been decimated by stoats. Farmers brought this member of the weasel family to New Zealand from England in the late 1800s to control rabbits. The scheme was unsuccessful, but stoats soon invaded forests throughout New Zealand - an example of a solution creating new problems.
Life aboard ship
First mate and galley chef Ruth Shaw served up one of her hearty meals we enjoyed during the 72-hour sojourn. The menus included baked New Zealand lamb, roast chicken, Polish sausage, casseroles, salads and special desserts.
Breaksea Girl was named after Breaksea Sound, one of several fiords the Shaws visit on eco-holiday trips.
They also host longer (one to 2-week) research expeditions to New Zealand's subantarctic islands: the Aucklands, Snares, Antipodes and Campbell. Rated Class 8, their boat is licensed to sail up to 200 miles offshore, which includes all of New Zealand's territorial waters.
Accommodations aboard the vessel were basic: double and upper/lower single berths with privacy curtains plus two marine-style toilets and two showers shared by 12 passengers and two crew.
Life along the sound
After a hot breakfast on day two, we set off in search of dolphins, sailing past steep rainforest - tangled vines, tall tree ferns, towering podocarp conifers and silver beech trees. Puffy clouds clung to mountains like balls of cotton. Here and there we glimpsed a peak pointing skyward through the mist.
A pod of 60 to 80 bottlenose dolphins, ranging up to 12 feet long, lives year-round in the calm waters of Doubtful Sound. At the junction of Doubtful, Bradshaw and Thompson sounds, the water all around us churned with their antics.
As the vessel cruised in lazy circles, several glided effortlessly below the bow - occasionally rolling on their sides to look up at the dolphin-watchers above.
Later we saw our first endangered species. A pair of rare Fiordland crested penguins watched us watching them on a rocky shore below the forest. These penguins have a distinctive yellow stripe of tufted feathers above each eye. Excellent swimmers, they're considered to be the "masters of underwater flight."
Rewarding anchorages
With Breaksea Girl anchored off Secretary Island, the six divers aboard donned wetsuits to explore life in the chilly water. Heavy rains maintain a constant 15-foot layer of fresh water throughout the sound, yielding a remarkably diverse underwater world.
We joined other passengers for a "shore excursion" via the aluminum dinghy - a strenuous 20-minute hike up steep rocks and into a thicket of tangled vines with a canopy so thick the absence of sunlight didn't matter.
Our reward - a Fiordland crested penguin rookery with five adults and two chicks. We watched in silent fascination from a dozen yards away.
A bush walk near the mouth of the Camelot River in Bradshaw Sound produced a spectacular "hidden" waterfall.
Nearby, Shaw showed us another endangered species, Tannes tmesipteris. This prehistoric, fragile, lacy fern was known only in fossil form and was thought to be extinct until it was recently discovered in Fiordland growing aboveground on the hard tree fern Dicksonia squarrosa.
Wildlife observations
Approaching the mouth of Doubtful Sound, Breaksea Girl began a gentle roll as we met surge from the Tasman Sea. The skipper slowed the vessel near a large flock of seabirds, pied shag cormorants, settled on rocky outcrops that were strewn with glistening kelp. Some species of waterfowl have survived the predatory stoats.
Hundreds of Fiordland fur seals jostled for position on a granite islet just offshore. We watched a noisy bull chase several interlopers back into the water.
Karsten Schneider, a dolphin expert from Berlin, Germany, joined Breaksea Girl for our last 24 hours on board. A Ph.D. candidate at Otago University in Dunedin, Schneider has been studying the dolphins of Doubtful Sound for 1 1/2 years. New Zealand Television is filming a documentary on his research.
Small groups joined Schneider for dolphin observation sorties aboard his outboard Zodiac. He described one research project: correlating dolphin sightings throughout the sound system with surface water temperatures at different times of the year. He found that the dolphins give birth during summer in Crooked Arm where the sound's warmest waters occur.
We perused Breaksea Girl's guest book while motoring back to Deep Cove for the bus-to-boat-to-car shuttle. One entry summed up our sentiments: "Thank you for opening not only our eyes but also our hearts to this beautiful and magic world."
The bus driver stopped on Wilmot Pass to give us a last look at majestic Doubtful Sound far below. Outside the bus window, a vivid green kea, the world's only alpine parrot, nibbled on blooms of a fuchsia tree - a final mental snapshot for our Fiordland memories.
RELATED ARTICLE: If you go - some trip-planning pointers
Lance and Ruth Shaw, operators of Fiordland Ecology Holidays, host 3- to 14-day cruises on their 65-foot motor-sailing vessel, Breaksea Girl. Sailing year-round, they cover all of fiordland and New Zealand's subantarctic islands, emphasizing nature, conservation and research.
Lance Shaw was employed by the New Zealand Department of Conservation as ship's master for the research vessel Renown for 12 years. He has 15 years' diving experience in Fiordland specializing in research and underwater photography and has worked with scientists and filmmakers in many fields.
Ruth Shaw has had 20 years' experience with boats and holds a commercial launch-master's license.
Breaksea Girl accommodates 12 passengers and two to three crew members in single and double berths. Sails augment diesel power for open-ocean cruising whenever wind conditions permit.
The vessel is equipped with a 12-foot aluminum dinghy with full-length buoyancy and reinforced deep-yoo hull designed for rocky shore landings in rough seas. Weight belts, tanks and air are provided for divers.
The 1997 schedule includes 3- to 6-day trips in Fiordland with diving and guided sea kayaking options plus longer scientific charters with marine biologists. The Shaws offer spare berths on the scientific charters to ecotourists who serve as research assistants.
Trips aboard Breaksea Girl cost from US$125 to $150 per person per day, including transfers from Manapouri, all meals and linens. Vegetarian and special diets are accommodated.
Air New Zealand offers daily service from Los Angeles to Auckland, connecting via ANZ Link to Te Anau-Manapouri. United and Qantas also offer daily service from Los Angeles to Auckland. High-season, round-trip fares from Los Angeles to Fiordland begin at $1,750.
We arranged our trip as part of a 3 1/2-week "top to toe" New Zealand homestay program through Home at First, P.O. Box 193, Springfield, PA 19064; phone 800/523-5842.
You may contact Fiordland Ecology Holidays at One Home St., Manapouri, New Zealand; phone/fax 011,64-3-249-6600, or e-mail Sailing schedules and further information are available at website - H. Deon Holt
COPYRIGHT 1997 Martin Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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