Doubtful Sound New Zealand

Doubtful Sound

The stormy spring weather let up a bit Friday, and I took a full-day tour of remote Doubtful Sound. There were about 40 people in our group and the guides were good communicators and powerhouses of information. We departed Te Anau at 8:30 a.m. and took a shuttle bus to Lake Manapouri where we cruised for about an hour until we reached the west arm of Doubtful Sound near Wimot Pass.

Wilmot Pass
Manapouri Hydroelectric Power Station

After a short briefing we boarded a small bus and headed underground through an access tunnel to the machine hall of the Manapouri Hydroelectric Power Station. The station’s generating units are in a cavern excavated from rock 650 feet below the surface of Lake Manapouri. It was a unique experience. Engineered and designed by my former employer Bechtel, the plant began operating in 1971 and is an important power source for the South Island.

Helena Falls
Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound.

Next we boarded another shuttle for a 15-mile trip across Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound. At Deep Cove we boarded the Tasman Explorer to spend 4 hours on the water in beautiful Doubtful Sound. We were the only boat on the sound, and it was amazingly peaceful! The boat had two tiers and the place to be was outside on the top deck. It was glorious! I took tons of photos but my little digital camera could never begin to capture the beauty. The sound is extremely isolated and surrounded by rugged steep mountains covered in dense sub-tropical rainforest and waterfalls.

Malaspina Reach

One interesting note – formed by glaciers Doubtful Sound is actually a fiord and not a sound. It was incorrectly named by English and Australian fishermen. Another bit of trivia – Doubtful Sound was the setting for filming Lord of the Rings.

Fiordland Crested Penguin
Helena Falls and Browne Falls

Doubtful Sound is in the same region as the smaller but more famous and accessible Milford Sound which I visited yesterday. Doubtful Sound takes second place as New Zealand’s most famous tourism destination. It has four arms and several large waterfalls, including Helena Falls at Deep Cove and Browne Falls. Access to the sound is either by sea or by the Wilmot Pass road from the Manapouri Power Station. Most areas of the sound itself are only accessible by sea. The road network in the area is sparse or non-existent, as is the human population.

Doubtful Sound
Charles John Lyttelton Description

Charles John Lyttelton, 10th Viscount Cobham, Governor-General of New Zealand wrote about this part of Fiordland:

“There are just a few areas left in the world where no human has ever set foot. That one of them is in a country so civilized and so advanced as New Zealand may seem incredible, unless one has visited the southwest corner of the South Island. Jagged razor-backed mountains rear their heads into the sky. More than 200 days of rain a year ensure not a tree branch is left bare and brown, moss and epiphytes drape every nook. The forest is intensely green. This is big country – one day peaceful, a study in green and blue, the next melancholy and misty, with low cloud veiling the tops… an awesome place, with its granite precipices, it’s hanging valleys, its earthquake faults, and its thundering cascades.”

Doubtful Sound
Fresh and Sea Water

Doubtful Sound has two distinct layers of water that scarcely mix. The top layer is fresh water, fed from the high inflows from the surrounding mountains and stained brown with tannins from the forest. The second layer is cold, heavy, saline water from the sea. The dark tannins in the shallow fresh water layer make it difficult for light to penetrate so many deep-sea species grow in the comparatively shallow depths of Doubtful Sound.

Manapouri Power Station
Bottlenose Dolphins

“This fjord is home to the Doubtful Sound bottlenose dolphin one of the southernmost population of bottlenose dolphins. The Doubtful Sound bottlenoses formed a very insular sub-group of only about 70. None of them departed or entered the Sound during a multi-year monitoring period. Their social grouping is thus extremely close, which is also partly attributed to the difficult and unusual features of their habitat, which is much colder than for other bottlenose groups and is also overlaid by the freshwater layer. Recently (2000s), there is growing concern that the population is in significant decline, with calf survival rates having halved, as well as being noticeably lower than dolphins in captivity or in other New Zealand environments. The reasons for this are unclear, though increased tourism or the freshwater discharge from the Manapouri Power Station are potential causes.

Browne Falls
Other Wildlife

Other wildlife found in Doubtful Sound includes fur seals and penguins (Fiordland crested and blue), and several  rare whales – Southern Right, Humpback, Minke, Sperm, and some Giant Beaked. Orca and Long-Finned Pilot Whales are also found in Doubtful Sound. The waters of the sound are home to various sea creatures, including many species of fish, starfish, sea anemones, and corals. It’s best known for its black coral trees which occur in unusually shallow water for what is normally a deep water species.”

Fiordland Crested Penguin
Ata Whenua Shadowlands

A film called Ata Whenua Shadowlands features Fiordland and is playing at a theatre in Te Anau. “Ata Whenua – Shadowlands is a nonverbal film featuring the landscapes of New Zealand. Shot in the southwest corner of New Zealand, known as Fiordland, Ata Whenua has images of the landscapes and animals of the region through a range of seasons and extremes. The images are beautiful, crystal clear, and set to an impressive soundtrack.

Doubtful Sound

Ata Whenua brings its viewers a rare glimpse of the wilderness of Fiordland National Park. Few people get to see this beautiful but remote national park. The film takes you on a journey, showing you sites you would never normally see.

Fiordland Crested Penguin – Birding NZ

The images from Ata Whenua are stunning. Moody dawn shots of misty fiords shot from a helicopter as it glides along show a region few have seen or will ever visit. Scenes shot above the cloud base give a lovely effect.”

Sue in Fiordland



During our tour we saw fur seals and Fiordland crested penguins but no dolphins or whales. The scenery was indescribably beautiful. Doubtful Sound is one of my best memories of New Zealand – an amazing place to behold.


  1. Kor Kiley

    Hi Sue, very well written description of Doubtful Sound. Did you, by any chance, have a bus driver named Rex for the bus ride from Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove? He was a lovely and very entertaining guy!

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