Journey to Doubtful Sound New Zealand

During our visit to New Zealand in March 2018 my wife and I had the opportunity to experience Doubtful Sound. This article discusses our journey to Doubtful Sound and shares some images from our visit.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-160

Various cruising day tours are available to Doubtful Sound. These leave from either Manapouri, Te Anau or Queenstown. The duration of the tours range from just over 7 hours from Manapouri to about 12 hours when departing from Queenstown. At the time of writing this article the costs for the day tours ranged from $240 NZ to $325 NZ per person. Overnight tours and adventure tours (example kayak journeys) are also available. Prices do not include meals.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm @ 124 mm, efov 335 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-800

Since we were staying in Te Anau we made the short drive to Manapouri to take our day tour. Doubtful Sound is remote so getting there is part of the adventure, involving a cruise on Lake Manapouri, then a bus ride to the departure dock on Doubtful Sound.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-160

Like most cruises the vantage point on the vessel does restrict the variety of photographs that are possible, especially if one is limited to wider angle prime lenses or a wide angle zoom.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-800

The downpours in this area of New Zealand can be very heavy causing streams like the one pictured above to turn into raging torrents which can cut off the road to Doubtful Sound. On rare occasions some visitors have been flown out of Doubtful Sound via helicopter in order to make their airline connections.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO-160

During periods of extremely very heavy rain there is a possibility (albeit small) of being stranded in Doubtful Sound overnight or perhaps for a couple of days if the road is severely damaged.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 24 mm, efov 65 mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-800

Like most destinations in this area of New Zealand, Doubtful Sound receives copious amounts of rain, ranging from a low of 418 mm (16.5 inches) in the winter month of July to a high of 717 mm (28.2 inches) in the summer month of January. You’ll find thick, natural rain forest along the route to Doubtful Sound. It rains on about 50% or more days during an average month so it is always a good idea to plan your trip around local weather conditions if at all possible.  We were lucky and booked our tour on a sunny day.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 44 mm, efov 119 mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO-800

The bus to Doubtful Sound travels on a gravel road that has some of the steepest grades in the entire country which can make for some spectacular views. I captured the image above shooting through the front window of the bus while we were in transit. In order to deal with haze, I used the ClearView function in DxO PhotoLab on some of the mountain images in this article, utilizing a setting of 25.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 29 mm, efov 78 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-160

The bus does make a couple of stops en route that provides travellers with some elevated scenic views of Doubtful Sound.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-160

When you arrive at Doubtful Sound you’ll find a small dock area with some pleasant views of the sound and surrounding mountains. If you want a good viewing position on the cruise it is best to get in the queue early as space on the top deck is somewhat limited.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/5.6 1/500, ISO-160

The scenery can be quite rugged and spectacular, especially on a sunny or partially cloudy day when the tops of the mountains are in full view. Travelling to Doubtful Sound on an overcast, rainy day would reduce the enjoyment factor significantly for many people. On a personal basis, I would not do this tour on an inclement day.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 14 mm, efov 38 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-400

The cruise does come in close to the coast line at times which provides opportunities to compose images with some interesting elements in the foreground. These opportunities are fleeting so it is important to recognize the potential for these types of images in advance and get your framing ready. It is also important to make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to avoid image blur.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-400

Doubtful Sound is quite wide when compared to other destinations like Milford Sound which can make if difficult to add some variety to photographs. I incorporated parts of the cruise vessel as a foreground element to give some of my images context and an added feeling of depth.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-400
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-400
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-160

I leaned over the boat’s guardrail with my wife holding onto my belt to capture the image above. This is not something I would encourage readers to do!

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-800

At the turnaround point on the Doubtful Sound cruise the vessel stops briefly adjacent to a seal colony situated on some rocks at the mouth of the fiord. The winds can be very strong running down the length of the sound which can create significant chop at the mouth. You’ll need a long focal length lens to get decent images of the seals, as well as use a fast shutter speed to help deal with the rolling wave action.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO-160

In 1770 when this fiord was sighted by Captain James Cook he did not explore the inlet as he felt the winds were so strong that he may not be able to sail back out. As a result he named it Doubtful Harbour. Whalers and sealers later named it Doubtful Sound. In 1998 the New Zealand government passed the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act and the name of the fiord was officially altered to Doubtful Sound/Patea.

If you enjoyed this article you may want to have a look at New Zealand Tip-to-Tip. This 250 page eBook features 89 locations in New Zealand and over 400 original photographs. You can use the link to see more detailed information about the eBook. The cost of New Zealand Tip-to-Tip is $12.99 Canadian.


Technical Note:
All photographs were captured hand-held in available light using Nikon 1 gear as noted in the article. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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