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Fiordland National Park: A Celebration of Water

There are few places you could travel to where you could enjoy being caught in the rain, but Fiordland National Park is different. Although the area is stunning in all weather, a rainy day, especially in Milford Sound, makes the area come alive. Waterfalls spring from cracks and crevices you'd never expect, hundreds bursting from the mountainside and plunging into the fiord. The moss and lichen clinging to the forest trees sparkle beneath the water drops, and the rhythmic pattering of rain dancing on the leaves combined with the fresh, earthy rainforest fragrance instils a deep calmness and appreciation for nature that is hard to find anywhere else. 

Fiordland National Park forces you to stop and witness the true power and magic of water that has created and sustained the landscape for millennia. From the formation of the landscape, the lush rainforest habitat, and the pristine freshwater ecosystems, to the rare marine life in Milford Sound, so much of what is extraordinary about Fiordland National Park is because of the water and rain. Here, we’ll take you for a deeper look into how rain and water have created and sustained the spectacular landscape and unique ecosystems of Fiordland National Park.

Milford Sound Waterfalls

Nature’s Landscape Artist 

In the heart of New Zealand's South Island lies a natural wonderland where water reigns supreme: Fiordland and its icon, Milford Sound. The landscape is a testament to the awe-inspiring power of water that has formed the landscape over millennia with its relentless force. 

Around 100 million years ago, ancient glaciers, vast and unstoppable rivers of ice, slowly began grinding their way from hundreds of kilometres inland out to sea. Through the rugged terrain, they sculpted deep valleys and towering peaks. Then around 19,000 years ago, as the world began to warm up, the glaciers began their slow retreat back inland, leaving giant, U-shaped valleys behind that have continuously been sculpted for centuries by flows of ice and water. 

Connections to the Underground

Te Anau Glowworm Caves

Not only did water calve out the peaks and valleys of Fiordland, but it also formed the Aurora Cave System, now home to the famous Te Anau glowworms. Around 15,000 years ago, when Fiordland’s glaciers were undergoing their retreat, water from a lake high in the Murchison Mountains began calving its way into the soft limestone below, forming intricate twisting caverns deep within the mountains, connecting the mountain tops to Lake Te Anau. The famous glowworms live in the youngest part of the cave system, an area around 12,000 years old, now lighting up the Fiordland underground 24/7.

A Story in a Landscape

Today, you can see this story of water and ice throughout Fiordland, as you gaze over expansive glacier-calved valleys, drift silently through the mystical underground glowworm grotto, and cruise the fiord of Milford Sound, the towering cliffs rising dramatically from the dark waters below, their sheer faces bearing the scars of countless cascading waterfalls. Crystal-clear rivers snake through lush forests, carving intricate networks of streams and gorges, while heavy rainfall feeds the powerful torrents that continue to shape the ever-changing landscape. 

Rainforest Magic 

Fiordland National Park is famously one of the wettest places on earth due to westerly air flows that pick up moisture as they cross the Tasman Sea, are pushed up by the mountains, and then released as heavy rain, and at higher levels, as snow. The park has around 200 rainy days every year and receives an average of 8 metres of rain annually. This heavy rainfall sustains some of the most lush and diverse temperate rainforests in New Zealand.

Unique Flora

High rainfall, high cliffs, and high mountains create diverse habitats for nearly 700 plants largely unique to the region. Silver and red beech are common species in Fiordland forests. In the lowland and coastal marine areas, dense, high-rainfall forests of totara, rimu, miro, and beeches grow, while tree ferns, lichens, and mosses form lush understories. 

Unique Fauna

New Zealand Kiwi in Fiordland

Unique animal species, many found nowhere else on Earth, thrive in Fiordland’s forest amidst the mist-shrouded landscape. The flightless kiwi bird finds abundant food and shelter on the forest floor, and the tawaki (Fiordland crested penguin) nests in the forest understory. Kererū (New Zealand wood pigeons), tūī, ruru (morepork), silvereyes, grey warblers, tomtits, bellbirds, and fantails flourish throughout the landscape, and over 3,000 invertebrates, several species of skinks and geckos inhabit the area, including common, green and cryptic skinks. New Zealand’s only land mammals, pekapeka (long-tailed and short-tailed bats) also find safe havens in the abundance of hollow trees. 

Fiordland’s Rivers Provide

Whio: The River Specialist

The crystal-clear, churning, twisting rivers and streams of Fiordland also provide the perfect habitat for whio (blue duck), a rare torrent duck species, one of only a handful of duck species in the world to live in river habitats.

Whio Blue Duck New Zealand

Whio are river specialists, and their chicks hatch out swimming with giant, paddle-like feet that make them expert rapid riders from the moment they hit the water. They have fleshy beak tips to scrape invertebrates off rocks and pluck them off the river bottom, and adults form warm, cosy nests of down, twigs, and grass alongside river banks. 

Once widespread throughout New Zealand, vegetation clearance, land modifications, and predators like stoats have reduced their habitat. Now Fiordland, with long stretches of clear, clean waters, is one of only a few places in New Zealand where you can see them in the wild. 

Whio at Monkey Creek

Whio Blue Duck New Zealand

Monkey Creek, a glacier-fed spring, located on Milford Road just before the Homer Tunnel, is a spot where whio often reside, taking advantage of the abundant food sources in the crystalline waters. Here, the water is so pure, it’s safe for humans to drink straight from the stream. In fact, whio are indicators of stream health. The more pairs of whio on a river, the healthier that river system is, and with the abundant rainfall and dense vegetation, Fiordland’s rivers are some of the healthiest waterways in New Zealand.

Star-Filled Waters

Just below the surface of Fiordland’s rivers and streams, communities of rare fish thrive. New Zealand is home to around 51 native freshwater fish species, and around 30 of these species are galaxiids, a group of fish named for the patterns on their skin that resemble galaxies of stars. 

Kokopu Fish New Zealand
Koaro Fish New Zealand, Luxe Tours NZ

These unique, glittering fish species are only found in the Southern Hemisphere, and New Zealand is home the the largest galaxiid in the world, the giant kokopu. Just like whio, galaxiids need large stretches of clear rivers and streams surrounded by lush forest and dense undergrowth. Giant kokopu inhabit the streams and rivers of Fiordland along with koaro, a smaller galaxiid species dusted with golden and silver flecks, with wide pelvic fins that give it the ability to scale vertical cliff faces. Koaro often scramble up through waterfalls, and Fiordland’s sculpted cliffs and heavy rainfall provide them with ample climbing opportunities. 

Links to the Land and Sea

Both these fish begin their lives on land when during floods, adult fish rise with the water flowing up the riverbanks and lay eggs in the damp vegetation along the water’s edge. Safe and snug in their tiny eggs, kept moist by the heavy rainfall and shaded by the trees, the young fish grow for around six weeks before another flood comes, rushes up the river banks, and the fish hatch out into the current, slowly drifting out to sea.

The tiny fish spend another six weeks feeding and growing at sea before swimming back up the rivers as young fish, often called whitebait, throughout late spring and summer. 

Like many of New New Zealand’s wildlife species, these fish are at risk of extinction, but Fiordland’s pristine landscape and healthy river systems provide a haven for them to thrive. 

Spotting these fish can be difficult during the day because their glittering markings allow them to effortlessly blend in with the river stones. But some patient river gazing might provide a lucky glimpse, and a soft torchlight shone gently across the water later in the day and night can sometimes reveal their shimmering backs as they feed on the invertebrates between the stones.

Trees and Water: Fiordland’s Power Couple

Fiordland New Zealand bush

In the verdant wilderness of Fiordland National Park, the towering trees stand with their roots delving deep into the soil. Along the banks of the pristine waterways, they play a crucial role in maintaining the health of the aquatic ecosystems. Their sprawling canopies intercept rainfall, slowing its descent to the forest floor, helping to regulate flooding and reducing erosion. Their intricate root systems act as natural filters, trapping sediment and pollutants, ensuring that only pure, clear water flows into the streams and rivers below. 

Fiordland River

These processes are crucial for aquatic life and unique birds like whio. They ensure that the aquatic invertebrates remain an abundant food source, that the flood cycles are regulated so the wildlife can carry out their life cycles, that there are shaded areas for refuge on sunny days, and that sediment is minimal so there are plenty of clear spaces for fish to rest between the river stones. 

In Fiordland, the heavy rain sustains the trees and the intricate relationship between the trees and waterways is on full display in the clear, pristine water that flows throughout the landscape.

Deep Water Emergence

Fiordland’s rainfall, rivers, trees, and waterfalls also join forces to create and sustain Milford Sound’s famous natural phenomenon: deep-water emergence. Most of the sound’s water is salt water, but the top 10 metres is freshwater, resulting from the water flowing through the forests before plunging off the mountainside into the Fiord. On its way through the forest, the water picks up tannins from the trees, shrubs, and soil that stain it the colour of tea. Because salt water is more dense than freshwater, the dark, tea-stained freshwater sits on top of the salt water, blocking most of the light above. 

Black Coral Milford Sound

As a result, Milford Sound has an abundance of unique deep-water marine life living only a few metres below the surface that would usually live much deeper in the ocean. There are plenty of food sources to support dolphins, penguins, and seals, and there are also rare black deep-water corals. With a cruise on Milford Sound or a trip to the underwater observatory, you can witness this phenomenon first-hand. 

Native Tree Planting

You are probably aware of the important service trees provide as vital carbon sinks, absorbing and storing significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because of this service trees provide, along with their crucial role in helping improve the health of waterways, for every tour guest, Luxe donates a native tree to areas throughout New Zealand’s Southland region. With the addition of trees throughout Southland, we can offset our carbon emissions while also helping to bring some of the incredible benefits of trees to more of New Zealand’s landscape. 

A trip to Fiordland National Park is a true celebration of water. Torrential rains nourish the towering trees and nurture the rich tapestry of flora and fauna. Rivulets meander through the undergrowth, feeding moss-covered rocks and fern-laden logs, while streams wind their way through the forest floor, providing sustenance to a diverse array of life. All around, you can see the water and forests working together, providing spectacular views and safe havens for precious wildlife species. 

Part of Fiordland’s magic is its ability to help you truly appreciate the unpredictable and wild beauty of nature, even on a rainy day. So pack your raincoat and your sense of adventure, and allow yourself to fully embrace every moment of your journey into Fiordland National Park. 

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