Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 3, 2009

The Sweet Sound of Doubtful

Amidst the sensory overload of life in the fast lane and the voices of doom telling us that our planet has gone to hell in a handbasket, one can tend to get a bit discouraged these days.

So let me tell you about one real and quintessential refuge from excess on this once lonely planet. Doubtful Sound, in the heart of New Zealand’s Fiordland — in the south-west corner of the South Island — is a sublime destination that is the antithesis of the morning rush hour, of the flash and trash of prime time.

The ubiquitous Captain Cook

Captain James Cook visited this cragged coastline in 1773 and his quick assessment of this particular inlet caused him to name it Doubtful Harbour because he reasoned, quite correctly, that the prevailing westerly winds would make it difficult, if not impossible, to sail ships like The Endeavour back out. For great sailing ships requiring favourable wind conditions and room to manoeuver, this would indeed have been the case, but for modern minds in search of another kind of haven, there is no doubt as to Doubtful’s qualities and singular attributes. It should be noted as well that somewhere along the way throughout time, another misconception about the nature of this watery refuge occurred when it was named Doubtful Sound. It actually is not a sound — a narrow stretch of water created when a valley is flooded by rising sea levels — but is instead a fiord, carved by the gargantuan and dogged labour of a retreating glacier.

A New Zealand Zen moment

Suddenly as we come over the pass, we come face to face with Doubtful Sound. The view is breathtaking and engages all the senses. From this height we gaze in awe at the depth and expanse of the fiord, truly understanding for the first time the scale and dimensions of our ultimate destination. And from this perspective it is visually quite accessible; the sensation is quite marvellous, quite enticing

The fiord that fills our entire field of vision is 40 kilometres in length and over 400 metres at its deepest point. When a chain of volcanos shattered Fiordland 500 million years ago, the sediment layers that had been hardened by the earth’s deep heat and pressure fractured and were thrust up from the earth’s floor.

The resultant rocks, however, were submerged under the sea. It took another 40 million years of awful shifting tectonic force, 20 ice ages, and one monumental glacier to carve out Doubtful Sound..

According to Maori legend, the demi-god Tu-te-raki-whanoa shaped Doubtful with his ko or digging stick and working assiduously from south to north he sculpted long meandering inlets and towering cliffs, all the while singing a powerful karakia (chant). As the great walls shattered and acquiesced to the god’s labours, great waves of sea water flooded in creating a deep body of water, untroubled by the raging waters beyond. Tu-te-raki-whanoa fashioned a geological marvel as well as an enchanted shelter from the turbulent sea.


At Deep Cove — the place names are simple and precise — we board the Commander Peak for a three hour cruise through this stunning geological phenomenon and primeval experience. Doubtful, in contrast to the more popular, theatrical, and better known fiord, Milford Sound, is less frequented by humans. Except for a small research zodiac and a couple of rock lobster boats, we are the only vessel on the Sound. We become part of its moods, at times peering out at its beauty through rain, other times proceeding vaguely and uncertainly through its mists, occasionally revelling in piercing blue skies and shimmering tannin-stained water. The dense forests on the high granite cliffs funnel the annual average of 5200 millimetres of rain through the vegetation into the fiord creating a top layer of fresh water that is between three and four metres deep, a layer of “dark tea” that like a coloured lens restricts the amount of light entering the water. Marine life is in turn restricted to the top 40 metres; below is darkness.


Floating on the surface of the Sound in our vessel that is quite tiny in comparison to our surroundings, we feel as if we have merged with Doubtful. It is deceptively easy to feel proprietorial about the Sound; ownership is of course irrelevant, foolish, and in the past injurious. In 1793, the Italian navigator Malaspina was the first European mariner to actually explore Doubtful. The early 19nth century saw extensive sealing and whaling by many nations, which depleted these species in the Sound. In 1910, a cruise ship hit an uncharted rock in Doubtful Sound and sank. Today, like the rest of the immense Fiordland National Park, Doubtful Sound is a protected environment, serene, secure, and removed from the threat of human excess.

Our passage through Doubtful is slow and deliberate. There is ample time to appreciate the great vistas that blend one into another and the abundant flora and fauna. The towering sides of the fiord are covered in native beech and tall conifers, prefaced at the water’s edge with lichens, ferns, and more mosses. The scarlet-blooming rata trees interspersed high up among the beeches and conifers are like blushes in the variegated green. And as like meets like, cascading waterfalls continually feed the Sound. Splashing water falls in stages from great heights looking like delicate sheer draperies. The fabled Lady Alice Falls tells the story of a real “lady” who made the trek to Doubtful in the company of two male guides and in the process scandalized polite society and lost her considerable social standing. I suspect she saw the value in her audacity. Beneath us, we are told, is a companion marine environment sheltering corals, sponges, and numerous species of fish.


The Commander Peak weaves its way through the branching arms of Doubtful and around small islands, and then there is an abrupt change of temperament in the waters as we have a brief encounter with the Tasman Sea. At the Nee Islets, a large colony of New Zealand fur seals, looking like market day in a seaside village, spreads over the rocky outcroppings. While heavy adult males lounge or jockey for space, females coax pups into the water; adolescents slip and slide through the swirling eddies around the rocks. Life is abundant and protected here and always on the edge of two disparate but connected marine worlds where the turbulent Tasman Sea meets tranquil Doubtful Sound.

New Zealand fur seals were culled here for food, skins, bones, fat for preserving other food supplies by early Maori travelling the coastline. The later sealing industry was bloody and merciless, almost rendering the colony extinct. Adult bulls measure up to two metres in length, weigh up to 140 kilograms, and are extremely territorial and protective of their harems. The good news is they don’t hang around all that long. The pups, fruit of their lumbering loins, suckle the protein rich fatty milk of their mothers and as they pass through several moults turn from black to silver grey and then darker again. These eared seals have elaborate behavioural idiosyncrasies; they posture and present themselves, pointing their noses to the sky and waving their heads from side to side or threatening with their gaping mouths and prominently displaying their teeth. Returning from their fishing expeditions, the hardworking females recognize their own pups by their individual calls. Watching the seals, we are reminded that Doubtful is a diverse, unique, and potentially vulnerable ecosystem.


Losing one’s sense of time is to be expected during a passage through Doubtful. Time, after all, in an environment like this has quite a different meaning from the digital world that is now so far away. A different and powerful sense of time is felt; a transcendent time not devised or controlled by human ingenuity. Doubtful is timeless and out of time. Gliding along the smooth surface at the base of the ponderous cliffsides, we begin to feel rather alone, somewhat forgotten, and yet it is we who have forgotten, briefly.

As we enter the narrow Hall Arm, there is a crescendo of sensory stimulation as the walls of the fiord seem to rise even higher; an optic trick owing to the narrowness. The Captain turns off the engines and all human sound ceases. We are contained and embraced by Hall Arm and we see, hear, and feel the cascading of pure water supplementing and accentuating the unfamiliar fabulous stillness. What we experience is not soundlessness but a natural lull. What we no longer hear is the residual noise of human civilization. We are hushed; listening to Doubtful. The splash of tumbling water is amplified by the natural acoustics of the still water, high granite cliffs, and absorbent foliage. The flute-like notes of Bellbirds resonate like moistened fine crystal. The whisper of soft intermittent breezes are felt as much as heard. It is a lesson in sound sensitivity and aural proof of life at its most eloquent. The Captain restarts the engines.


And then, as if on cue, a pod of bottlenose dolphins slips through the surface of the water, arching in unison; some quality interaction in the peace and quiet. With a symmetry and a synchronicity that is inherent to Doubtful Sound and acting like goodwill ambassadors, they conduct us the length of the Arm. At a respectful distance, a zodiak of French marine biologists researching the interactive behaviour of dolphins and humans studies them and us. Among the largest known of their species, there are about 60 dolphins in the resident pod in Doubtful Sound. Bottlenose Dolphins are true dolphins given their peg-like teeth and short thick beaks. Their slender graceful bodies can reach almost four metres, their distinctive dorsal fin is tall and curves elegantly backwards. The light grey of their glistening backs gradually becomes lighter shades on their sides and white on their bellies. These exquisite creatures move with skill and grace propelled by large flukes that are deeply notched. Each member of the species has its own signature whistle and they form diverse bonding groups. It is seldom that they leave Doubtful Sound.

The dolphins dive, we wait and hold our breath, and then they resurface. They dive again, we wait for them, but this time they are gone. The captain slowly turns the vessel and we begin to head back to Deep Cove, and then, just before we reach the wharf, the dolphins reappear, this time much more playful, exuberant, and capering alongside us, now that they see that we are safely on our way, and they are home safe.

Getting to Doubtful

For more information on excursions to Doubtful Sound, follow the links on the New Zealand Tourism Board’s excellent website.

You can also contact Fiordland Travel in Queenstown, tel: 03-442 7500; fax: 03-442 7504; Te Anau, tel: 03-249 7416; fax: 03-249 7022; email or by visiting the website

Concerned about the long flights? Try a Pacific hop-skip-and-jump as we did. Air New Zealand, a Star Alliance partner, ( has excellent connections through variations major cities around the world. We were also able to plan our itinerary so that all our flights were day-time ones.


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