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Get to Know Fiordland National Park: New Zealand’s Natural Paradise

The primeval world beyond the bends of Aotearoa New Zealand’s fiords is a sublime refuge for the senses. Air tinged with petrichor and brine; the silence of labyrinthine waterways; towering peaks and undulating valleys where light and shadow come to dance their eternal pas de deux. It’s no wonder Fiordland National Park has been featured in films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up


A landscape defined by water, Fiordland is home to hundreds of Earth’s most active glaciers, isolated sounds, tallest falls, and unusual underwater phenomena. It’s also a stronghold for much of New Zealand’s rarest and longest-living flora and fauna. A large portion of the region became a national reserve in 1904, laying the groundwork for Fiordland National Park, officially founded in 1952. In 1986, the region was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and four years later, it joined three nearby parks to form Te Wāhipounamu (Place of the Greenstone) World Heritage Area—named for the land’s abundance of pounamu, a mottled, moss-colored mineral treasured by the indigenous Māori.

“For a small country, New Zealand certainly punches above its weight when it comes to the natural world,” says Dr. Martin Cohen, a naturalist for Lindblad Expeditions. “I have visited this region many times, and I can’t wait to go back. The timeless landscape, rich culture, unique wildlife, and dramatic scenery with ice-carved fiords, lakes and valleys, pristine mountain-to-sea vistas—it makes my heart sing.”

Where is Fiordland National Park in New Zealand?

Fiordland’s three million acres span the South Island’s southwestern corner, from the ridges of the Southern Alps to the shores of the Tasman Sea. It’s one of only four places on the planet where fiords can be found. Te Anau is the nearest town, famed for its bioluminescent glowworm caves.

How many fiords are found within the park?

The coastline of Fiordland National Park is fringed with 14 individual fiords, each 100,000 years in the making. A fiord (sometimes spelled fjord) forms when a glacially carved valley floods with water, resulting in a long, narrow inlet bordered by steep cliffs.

The most popular, Milford Sound (or Piopiotahi as the Māori named it), teems with scenic superlatives like Mitre Peak, the tallest mountain rising directly from the sea, and Sutherland Falls, which plummets 1,900 feet into the turquoise water below. Of the more remote fiords, two standouts include the spellbinding Dusky Sound (Tamatea) and the marine maze of Doubtful Sound (Patea)—named in 1770 by James Cook, who was unsure whether he and his crew would be able to return to the sea if they dared entry.

Milford Sound Reflection.jpg

Sound v. fiord: What’s the difference?

While a fiord is formed by the flooding of a glacial valley, a sound is usually formed by the flooding of a river valley and tends to be wider and more gently sloping. Early European settlers named Milford Sound for its geographic features, but it turned out they were incorrect. Milford was carved out by glacial erosion making it a fiord and not a sound. Both Dusky Sound and Doubtful Sound were also misnamed and are both actually fiords by nature.

A rich legacy of Māori history

When Cook’s expedition first set foot in the region, the Māori people had been stewarding the land for over a thousand years. To the Māori, Fiordland is known as Te Rua-o-te-moko or Shadowland. It’s part of the ancestral territories of the Ngāi Tahu iwi (tribe) who view it as Atua Whenua, land of the gods. Due to its serrated terrain, wet climate, and isolation, few Māori took up permanent residence, instead sending in seasonal expeditions to hunt, fish, and gather pounamu to trade or carve into intricate tools, weapons, and jewelry. 



The wildlife of Fiordland National Park

Known as the best modern representative of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, Fiordland is a “nature enthusiast’s paradise,” according to Cohen (and especially so for bird lovers!). The park’s temperate rainforests shelter New Zealand’s largest and most significant population of forest birds including the endemic tūī, kererū, fantail, and mohua or “bush canary”—the yellow songbird featured on the country’s $100 note. Aquatic life, too, is plentiful: from the seabirds that take refuge on craggy coastal cliffs to a shockingly vibrant undersea. Below, get to know just a few creatures we'll encounter along the way.

The spectacular undersea

"The underwater world of Fiordland National Park is one of the most intriguing and unique in the world," says Cohen. Here, the exposed outer coastline contrasts with the sheltered shadows of the sounds, where a fascinating phenomenon called “deep-water emergence” occurs. As rainwater filters down through the lush forests, it brews a sort of tannin-stained tea that layers atop the saltwater, enabling light-sensitive marine life to thrive within 130 feet of the surface as they do in the ocean’s depths.

Fiordland Undersea and Coral.jpg

For example, there are an impressive seven million colonies of black coral trees, whose jet-black skeletons are draped in white, the submarine cousin of frost-coated branches in winter. In addition to 150 different fish species, divers can swim alongside sea dragons, tube worms, nudibranchs, cnidarians, and even the clam-like brachiopod, which has resisted evolution for more than 300 million years. The undersea specialist on board your voyage will illuminate this incredible world underneath the ship by capturing footage which they will screen at nightly Recap. 

When is the best time to visit Fiordland National Park?

Late spring to early summer—November to February—is a fabulous time to travel to this region. These are the warmest months of the year, with temperatures averaging 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit and daylight stretching from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. in the height of summer.

Regardless of when you choose to visit, do prepare for precipitation; with up to 200 rainy days per year, Fiordland is one of the wettest places on Earth. “Wind and rain can be common,” Cohen recalls, “but it is my experience that these conditions provide breathtaking drama against the magnificent scenery which comes alive with hundreds of temporary waterfalls that suddenly appear from the mountain tops and permanent falls become more powerful."

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Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Exploring Fiordland National Park on expedition

With only one road leading into the park, it can be tricky to adventure beyond the beaten tourist path—unless you’re traveling with an experienced operator like Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic. “The best way to see some of the remote and scenic southern fiords is on a small expedition cruise ship, such as the National Geographic Orion,” Cohen says. “My favorite ship can access these fiords and provide guests a glimpse into a landscape that very few people get to lay their eyes upon.”