The Sound is sapphire mixed with blueberry, calm and still except for the ripples caused by a passing cruise ship. The water reflects the cloudless skies and the mountains like the jagged teeth of sleeping giants. Overhead, planes and helicopters drift across the peaks. The ferries cruise along the Milford Sound—a fiord in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island—carrying hundreds of tourists each day.
The tourists have little idea that their money is protecting the Sound, the most accessible and northern most of 14 sounds in the Fiordland National Park. Stretching 16 kilometers (10 miles), the Sound is a haven for some of NZ’s native creatures.
“The Milford Sound, in terms of conservation, is like a jewel in the crown because of the type of species that’s there,” Laura Harry, manager of the Fiordland Conservation Trust said.
Far away from tourists and the chugging of ferry engines, Andrew “Max” Smart walks along the Sound’s rivers, following after his dog, Oska. Oska, a five-and-a-half-year-old Český fousek, is on the hunt. Approaching his prey, Oska points at a group of rocks, his snout enclosed by a muzzle, his orange vest fluttering in the wind.
The Keepers of Milford Sound
Conservation dogs are trained to protect New Zealand's native bird species
Smart, Department of Conservation (DOC) ranger, approaches the rocks in time to see grayish blue feathers drift between them. He makes a note of the endangered whio, or blue duck, and the pair continues walking. Since 2009, the Sinbad Gully, a wet and secluded Fiordland valley in the Milford Sound, has been a secure breeding site for whio and other bird species.
“Max will go up during the summer time and do surveys of these birds,” Harry said.
Formed in 2009 by the Fiordland Conservation Trust, the DOC, and Southern Discoveries, the Sinbad Sanctuary Project aims to protect the native animals in the area from predation and increase their numbers.
Smart and other DOC rangers and contractors will take their species conservation dogs to the Sound to track the number of birds in the area. Smart has two dogs: Oska and Bryn, a German wirehaired pointer. Oska is the older and less energetic of the two. Bryn is only one and half years old and still getting used to his job as a conservation dog. Smart said it can be a lengthy process to get a dog certified to be a conservation species dog.
Handlers must first get certified themselves by being tested on their knowledge of New Zealand’s birds. After that, a handler will buy a dog and begin with basic obedience training—making the dog sit, roll over and stay. The dog will then be trained to go over bridges or across rivers. Once a handler familiarizes a dog with the basics, the handler then must teach the dog to seek out certain species of birds.
If a dog fails either the interim or full certification test twice, they are out of the program.
“It puts a bit of pressure on the handler to spend the quality time doing the train,” he said.
Right now, there are 50 pairings of whio in the Sound, but Smart and Harry with the help of their well-trained canine employees hope to increase that number.
Adorning the reverse side of the New Zealand $10 bill, the whio duck is one of New Zealand’s rarest native birds. Facing predation from introduced mammals like stoats or short-tailed weasels, the whio duck population was steadily decreasing before the DOC stepped in. As one of four fowl that can live in fast flowing water year around, there’s nothing like the whio anywhere else, Smart explained.
“They’re an ancient breed of duck, no close relatives anywhere in the world,” Smart said. “You get mallards and pateke and grey duck and they’re all related, but there’s nothing even close to the whio.”
The whio’s hedge of protection and support also includes financial backing from Southern Discoveries, a tourism company that offers boat rides through the Sound. Without tourism, Harry said, efforts like the Sinbad Sanctuary Project wouldn’t exist.
“Those operators that are involved in conservation are enabling these projects to take place,” Harry said. “It’s not just that we’re protecting the species, we’re bringing back birdsong in order for people to see and be part of it. If we don’t do this now, generations to come won’t have the ability to have native species.”
Southern Discoveries offers a number of cruises in the Sound. The Encounter Nature Cruise lasts 2 ½ hours and takes passengers close to the falls. Passengers can also see wild life such as seals. The tour costs $99 (U.S. $69).
The Discover More Cruise lasts three hours and takes visitors to the String Falls. It also allows visitors to visit the Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory. The cruise costs $104 (U.S. $73).