Doubtful Sound – A Sound Choice

Overshadowed by Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park is one of New Zealand’s top wilderness attractions. Captain Cook reached the area in 1770, but didn’t come ashore as he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get back out to the open sea. He named it Doubtful Harbour as a result, and the name stuck. Today, Doubtful Sound is still a breathtaking landscape of narrow inlets, rainforest-clad slopes and lofty peaks to reenergise even the most jaded of travellers.

The Doubtful Sound Tour
Doubtful Sound on a clear day: Photo Allie Caulfield / CC BY 2.0

The Doubtful Sound Tour

The Sound of Silence

Until a road was built over the Wilmot Pass to enable the West Arm Power Station to be constructed, visitors had to come by sea. This, coupled with the immense size of Doubtful Sound, means that even today, visitor numbers are much lower than at Milford Sound, earning it the moniker the “Sound of Silence”. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a seafaring explorer to experience it. It’s now possible to stay in Manapouri or even Queenstown and arrange your Doubtful Sound tour from there.

Plenty to explore

Doubtful Sound is actually a fiord, three times the length and ten times the area of Milford Sound. At 421 metres deep, it’s also the deepest of the fiords in the area. There are several Doubtful Sound tour operators that can take you out on the water to explore the three arms of the fiord, First, Crooked and Hall, as well as to see the islands close to the sea. The high rainfall that characterises Fiordland means that you’ll also see impressive waterfalls, including Helena Falls and Browne Falls. Many people like to take a kayak out on the water; the towering cliffs of the fiord’s edge are even more impressive from a vantage point so low to the water.

A haven for wildlife

Fresh water fed from the mountains, and of course each day’s rainfall, sits on top of a buoyant saline layer. This sea water has different characteristics than the fresh water, leading to an abundance of flora and fauna at Doubtful Sound. Dark tannins make it hard for light to penetrate, facilitating the growth of black coral, a deep sea species that manages to thrive in the shallower waters of the Sound. If you can dive, you’ll see it.

The Doubtful Sound Tour: Fur Seals
New Zealand Fur Seals: Photo Mike Switzerland / CC-BY-SA-3.0

The Doubtful Sound tour is also a great opportunity to spot bottlenose dolphins; about seventy make their home here. Watch out also for New Zealand fur seals, crested penguins, and if you’re lucky, whales – humpback, sperm, minke, killer and pilot whales have all been found here. If you want to fish for your own dinner, you can. The area between Secretary Island and Bauza is a haven for crayfish and is nicknamed “the gut”.

About JuliaHammond


Julia Hammond is a Geography teacher turned travel writer with a passion for places. Winning Mail Travel's Deep South competition was the catalyst to write for a diverse range of publications including Bradt's Bus Pass Britain Rides Again. She’s written Kindle guides to Cape Town, Peru and London for Unanchor and advice on Savannah for Wanderlust. When not travelling, she can be found at home in Essex planning her next trip, her two golden retrievers curled up at her feet.

Other posts by the Author

One Response

  1. What to pack for a winter trip to New Zealand | Go 4 Travel Blog

    […] chill. Some of the country’s most beautiful sights, such as South Island’s Milford and Doubtful Sounds, are amongst its wettest. Pack clothes that you can easily put on or take off to deal with […]


Leave a Reply