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Fiordland is of course world famous for its deep and dramatic fiords. Viewed from above, the whole region looks fragmented by multiple fingers of ocean piercing the land, to the extent that it looks as though Fiordland is about to break away from the mainland into hundreds of islands, each with towering mountains.
The Fiordland Marine Area stretches from Awarua Point in the north to the eastern bank of the Waiau River in the south. The area totals 928,000 hectares and extends 22 kilometres into the Tasman Sea and includes the waters of the 14 fiords (called sounds) and 10 marine reserves.
The sounds are known as one of the wettest places in the world, so pack your waterproof just in case. When it rains in the fiords and along the coastline it really rains; on average 7,000mm a year. The mountains cry their tears in thousands of temporary waterfalls shooting down the sheer sides of the sounds. This makes the sounds an absolute joy to visit in rainy conditions and many a kayak guide at Milford Sound has pointed out to clients that it is more beautiful in the rain than when it is sunny.
Below is some more information on the sounds that are most easy to visit.
Milford Sound is of course the most famous sound, attracting up to a million visitors a year, but that's partly because you can drive there, 120km north of Te Anau on the Milford Road. It's stunningly beautiful however, stretching 15 km inland. Captain John Grono discovered it in 1812 (after Captain Cook had failed to spot it) and named it after his home town in Wales, Milford Haven. Lush forests cling to the 1,200m-tall cliffs in an amazing display of successful plant colonisation against all odds. Mountains are all around, including the iconic Mitre Peak. Penguins, seals and dolphins all live here, along with tasty rock lobster. The cliffs around the sound rise to 1,200 metres. There are two beautiful and permanent waterfalls in the sound, Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls, tumbling over hanging valleys high above. You can join a cruise in the sound or explore it by kayak.
The second-most visited sound is Doubtful Sound, accessible from Manapouri, and without question just as beautiful. It has three arms, making it feel a more intimate sound than Milford Sound. You really get up close with the forest and cliff edges. It is home to one of the most southern populations of bottle-nosed dolphins, which were previously in decline but which have since seen recovery in numbers. They are some of the largest bottle-nosed dolphins in the world, growing to more than four metres in length. To get to Doubtful Sound you catch a boat across Manapouri Lake, then a coach journey over Wilmot Pass. The greater isolation of the fiord makes it a particularly magical place, but it is easy to organise a cruise or kayak experience here too, and arguably it's easier to get to because you only have to drive to Manapouri rather than Milford Sound.
The third-most visited sound is Dusky Sound. This is further south than Doubtful Sound but can be visited by boat from Doubtful Sound. It is a very long sound at 40km in length, and is a breeding area for the rare Fiordland penguins.
Experience the sounds