Exploring New Zealand’s untouched Dusky Sound by superyacht

28 January 2015 • Written by Ivor Williams

Anyone looking to visit locations unmarked by the passage of time should consider a superyacht charter to Dusky Sound in New Zealand: it’s one of the few truly untouched destinations left and is best visited by boat. As one of 17 fjords that make up the Fiordland National Park, Dusky Sound offers exclusive dives in breathtaking isolation, but take the weather into careful consideration before planning a New Zealand superyacht charter as the “the Cape Horn of New Zealand” can produce terrifying seas.

Step back in time with a superyacht charter to Dusky Sound

Modern-day travelers in the Pacific Ocean cannot fail to feel the presence of early explorers like Abel Tasman, George Vancouver, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, William Bligh and, the greatest of them all, James Cook. Echoes of Asian, Polynesian and Melanesian voyagers who preceded these 18th-century heroes are also evident. But, in most cases, progress has irrevocably altered the places these explorers encountered centuries ago. Even Antarctica, pristine as it is, is semi-populated with permanent multinational research stations and frequent cruise ships.

But Dusky Sound is different. Located in the isolated southwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island, it still has no roads, no settlements, virtually no traces of human activity at all, despite being discovered by Cook more than 240 years ago.

Accessible only by sea or air (helicopter or float plane), the narrow beaches of Dusky Sound and the steep mountains that enclose it are unmarked by development of any kind. Fishing boats occasionally seek refuge here from the Southern Ocean storms that sweep past these high-latitude outposts. Infrequent cruise ships sometimes navigate the 21-mile passage without stopping, but they usually proceed directly to the more-traveled Doubtful and Milford Sounds farther north.

Ethereal in the untouched waters of Dusky Sound

An account of visiting Dusky Sound on superyacht Ethereal

It’s rare for intrepid cruisers to venture far off the beaten track to experience this extraordinary place, and even rarer for superyacht charters. In the southern summer of 2014, Ethereal, the 190-foot Ron Holland ketch built by Royal Huisman for Bill and Shannon Joy, added its name to the very short roll call of superyachts to visit Dusky Sound.

“Dusky Sound is unquestionably the least-touched place I have ever seen,” says Shannon. “It gave me chills to see how utterly unchanged it has remained over hundreds of years, a magical experience. We were hiking on one of the small islands and came across a mother seal nursing her pup; we knew we were the intruders in such a pristine sanctuary. It is an extraordinary and historical place.”

Cook first sighted the narrow inlet in 1770 as he approached the coast. It looked too forbidding to enter and he named it Dusky Bay before sailing on by. It was three years later on his second voyage to these parts that he penetrated its dark, forest-laden shores. In a sense, it is ironic that Dusky Sound has remained as untouched as it has because it hosted New Zealand’s European settlement, a short-lived base for sealers and whalers in the late 18th century. It’s also ironic that this remote and little-known fjord was once the most precisely mapped place on earth as a result of observations from Astronomer’s Point during Cook’s 1773 visit, using Larcum Kendall’s copy of John Harrison’s revolutionary H4 chronometer.

Collectively, 17 fjords, including the popular Doubtful and Milford Sounds, make up Fiordland National Park, part of a World Heritage site and comprising about 5,000 square miles of mountains, dense beech forests, fjords and lakes with a wide variety of fauna and flora.

Despite the challenges of getting there, the total isolation and the extraordinary landscape exerted a powerful motivation for visiting with a superyacht. Conservation and heritage preservation are matters close to the hearts of her owners.

Following his stellar career as a Silicon Valley software pioneer and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Bill Joy embarked on a mission to discover, develop and promote alternative green technologies and energy sources. In 2000, he wrote a philosophical essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” in which he cautioned against the unbridled growth of technologies such as genetic engineering and robotics.

Shannon Joy serves on three different boards all concerned with environmental issues, the preservation of endangered species and the climate crisis. She is a particular disciple and supporter of Dr. Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue program, which aims to set up marine reserves, dubbed “Hope Spots,” around the world.

_Ethereal _was built for long-range, self-sustaining voyaging utilizing as much progressive eco-friendly technology as possible, including hybrid propulsion systems. The owners’ cruising ethos is focused on environmental study and assisting these causes wherever possible.

Superyacht Ethereal at Dusky Sound, New Zealand

The southern summer of 2013/14 was Ethereal’s second visit to New Zealand. Previously, the superyacht covered most of the familiar North Island cruising grounds around the Bay of Islands, Great Barrier Island and the Hauraki Gulf. As diving enthusiasts, a visit to the Poor Knights Islands was a highlight. Situated 13 miles off the northeast coast of the North Island, they are a nature reserve above water (no boats are allowed to land) and a marine reserve below. Rocky submarine cliff faces plunge sheer through the water to depths of up to 300 feet. Divers from all over the world visit each year to experience more than 50 dive spots in deep, clear blue water.

Like most other visiting superyachts, Ethereal also took time to complete maintenance work, including pulling both rigs for a full inspection and service. “The marine industry resources in Auckland are incredible,” notes Captain Andrew Barry. “The concentration of world-class expertise in large-yacht refits within a small area of Auckland is unique in these latitudes. Combine that with great cruising grounds, and New Zealand is a superb destination for superyachts.”

Having done the gentler, well-traveled cruise spots of the North Island, Ethereal’s agenda for the second New Zealand visit was for a more adventurous excursion to Fiordland. This involved a passage from Auckland down the east coasts of the North and South Islands to Stewart Island, almost 1,000 miles south and located well inside the Roaring Forties at about 47°S.

It was a significant undertaking that demanded careful planning and a very close watch on the weather. The east coast route, though, does offer plenty of refuge along the way. Ethereal made four stops. The west coast option is much more exposed and is generally not recommended for superyacht charters (although Ethereal, in fact, had a dream run up this route on her return passage).

Stewart Island is accessible by air and provides a good place for superyacht charter guests to rendezvous and embark. It is an intriguing destination in its own right, verging as it does on the sub-Antarctic zone.

Superyachts visiting Dusky Sound need to be wary of weather forecasts

These high latitudes command respectful attention and Captain Barry made full use of multiple weather data sources, including twice-daily contacts with Liam Dowling, an Auckland-based router and voyage planner, and as much contact as possible with local fishermen. “Tapping into local knowledge was invaluable,” he notes.

During one telephone conversation as we planned a Dusky Sound photography session, Captain Barry commented that he had just received a marine forecast for the area that contained the chilling words “phenomenal seas”. Professional fishermen in the deep south tend towards laconic understatement rather than exaggeration, but Brett Hamilton, who operates a fishing boat out of Stewart Island, put it in perspective when he described the region as “the Cape Horn of New Zealand.” When winds of 70 knots oppose the tides, the seas can become horrifying, he added.

“Any time you venture beyond 40°S, you are departing from the usual patterns of superyacht cruising,” says Dowling. “But I do not see any reason not to go and would encourage superyachts to do so, with sensible precautions. It is stunning down there—a very beautiful area of the country.”

Dowling’s best advice is to allow plenty of time and not become captive to tight schedules when chartering a superyacht to Dusky Sound. “Conditions can change very quickly and, if bad weather comes in, it can stay in for some time”. Prudence dictates sitting tight in a sheltered anchorage until a window opens, rather than being forced into tough circumstances by the clock.

By adopting this approach, _Ethereal _was able to move around without any discomfort and was always tucked up in shelter when bad weather struck. “Most of the time we were at anchor, there was little or no wind,” says Captain Barry. “The anchorages are calm and well protected, if you position yourself to take account of the wind direction.

“Every two or three days, a front would come through and we would ensure we were well protected. The really bad conditions tended to pass farther offshore. It could be blowing thirty-five to forty knots outside, but anchored inside the sounds we only ever saw about seventeen knots, nothing over twenty knots, and that was always very brief.”

Dusky Sound is one of the wettest places in the world, producing a unique diving experience

With a mean annual rainfall of 268 inches over 182 days a year, Fiordland is one of the world’s wettest places. Rainfall can reach 10 inches during a span of 24 hours. By contrast, only 50 miles away as the crow flies, across the mountainous divide, the charming lakeside town of Te Anau has an annual rainfall of just 40 inches.

The effect of all this freshwater pouring into Dusky Sound is spectacular waterfalls plunging down cliffs into the sea, where it creates a boundary effect, with freshwater layered on top of saltwater. Rainwater filtering down through the beech forests accumulates tannins, which stain the sounds with a reddish tinge after heavy downpours. As the weather clears, the color slowly dissipates back to deep indigo.

Dusky Sound is an ideal superyacht charter destination for those who enjoy diving: the underwater landscape is a feast for divers. “The freshwater and colder saltwater combination supports so many different life forms. It was fascinating,” says Shannon.

“On one dive, after heavy rain, the freshwater layer was a deep rust color. Once you got through to the saltwater, the visibility was excellent, but, with the heavy layer above, it was like doing a night dive in the middle of the day. The whole experience was otherworldly.”

“We dove a total of fifteen times in Fiordland,” says Ethereal’s dive master Jamie Cockayne, who was supported during the sounds expedition by Andrew Simpson, a professional guide from Global Dive in Auckland.

Dives in Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound revealed abundant black coral, giant crayfish, kelp forests, cavorting seals, and massive fields of scallops.

“Dusky Sound yielded arguably our best dives in Fiordland,” says Cockayne. “We dove several spots—the north-facing wall of Cooper Island, Shag Island, where we were joined numerous times by seals, and Nine Fathoms passage, where we dove under a giant waterfall and the water was several degrees colder.

“A final dive in Bradshaw Sound, not found on any reviews, had easily the biggest black coral forests we had seen,” Cockayne continues, “and, more encouragingly, a lot of very small juvenile black corals, suggesting that the future is bright for Fiordland’s marine life.”

Blessed by its isolation—and guarded by squadrons of stinging sandflies—Dusky Sound is preserved as a kind of time capsule stretching back thousands of years. When Cook first arrived, shipboard artist William Hodges painted the waterfall at Cascade Cove and his rendition is as relevant today as it was a quarter of a millennium ago.

If anything, it is even more untouched now than then. Hodges’ painting shows a group of four Maori on a rocky outcrop next to the waterfall. Cook did record encountering thin scatterings of indigenous Maori in these parts, whereas today Dusky Sound is totally devoid of permanent habitation.

Like any modern society, New Zealand has its environmental challenges, but the Joys reveled in the space and relatively unspoiled natural beauty afforded by a small population of four million. “Cruising around New Zealand was amazing,” says Shannon, who enjoyed talking with local naturalists, witnessing programs to preserve native wildlife and birds—including the emblematic kiwi—and admired efforts to preserve land and marine resources.

As Ethereal made ready to depart New Zealand with the onset of winter, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef beckoned as the next destination. After that, the Joys had not decided on their next itinerary.

Clearly, though, Ethereal’s mission will remain firmly focused on celebrating and supporting every effort to protect the environment. Her owners have been privileged to experience hauntingly beautiful places. Recognizing the precarious and threatened state of much of the natural world, they are committed to helping preserve as much of it as possible for future generations.

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