Sometime close to dawn, we awaken permanently. It is utterly black outside. Jocelyn and I gather at our individual muster points. The anchor is hoisted and breakfast is served. Then, on the foredeck, the ship’s naturalist, Stu, begins to explain everything about the Sound.
Stu is a tan and handsome man with his head shaved with the exception of an untidy man bun. He wears two heavy spiral earrings. Joss suggests that we may see him on next season’s Black Sails. When he speaks, sometimes his speech almost gets tangled, but he sails right through. He segues from topic to topic with ease and humor and his New Zealand accent is easy on the ears.
We learn this – Milford Sound was discovered by a Welshman in 1812 and named for Milford Haven in Wales (also the town in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline). The Sound has many other Welsh-named features. From the ocean, the entrance to the Sound is not obvious: it doesn’t even look like an inlet. Captain Cook missed it entirely forty years earlier.
And this – The Sound possesses an unusual, possibly unique, aquatic environment; ten meters of fresh water rest on top of salt water. Fresh water pours into the fjord at an enormous rate, most obviously in cascades, and because it’s lighter than salt water, they don’t mix. Only two of the hundreds of visible waterfalls have permanent sources.
And this – The vegetation on the sides of the mountains looks thick and lush, but it hangs very precariously. There’s no soil to speak of, so the trees cling via a mat of root material. The long scars of bare rock are from tree avalanches.
The less you know about the Hagfish, the better.
The Mariner ventures out of the Sound and into the Tasman Sea. We feel the swells. The boat comes about and begins its slow journey back to dock. A light mist drifts over us. Here comes the rain. Stu sights a dolphin off the port side. Suddenly, I bet there must be a dozen of them pacing the boat, surfacing, diving, and surfacing again. Joss catches this on her phone: my camera is worthless. After the dolphins leave for more challenging sport, we spot fur seals basking. These are exiled young males, shunned by the alpha dudes. They bide their time and then they will kick the old dudes’ asses.
The captain slows and turns the boat into the spume of Stirling Falls, a splendid cascade that spills in veils and ribbons down the sheer face of the mountain. He brings the bow a dozen feet from the plunging water and the proximity is breathtaking. Serious rain is falling now, but no one notices until we pull away. Then, they scurry. Soon, the Mariner will dock and we will be on our way back to Te Anau. It’s only 9:20 in the morning. The trip has been exciting and rewarding, a highlight.
A welcome shower at Dock Bay Lodge precedes lunch, which precedes another boat trip, this time across Lake Te Anau to the Glowworm Caves. All month long – glowworms, glowworms, glowworms. Finally, we will see the little fuckers. It’s quite an assembly-line operation. The tour company sure knows how to achieve maximum throughput. The cave is cool, wet, and noisy and the glowing little critters put on a quite a show. Glimmer, glimmer.