Stirling Falls was the second of two permanent waterfalls that we encountered in the Milford Sound (with Bowen Falls being the first one). Since this waterfall was far deeper into the fiord (yes this was actually a fiord as opposed to a sound), I made this my waterfalling excuse to talk about the typical Milford Sound Cruise experience. Not only did the cruise get us several views of this 155m waterfall, but it also literally got us up-close and personal views of it from right beneath its drop! The cruise also let us see other waterfalls; most of which were temporary waterfalls yet some were so reliably visible thanks to the frequent rain here that they even had names given to them. Then, there was the awe inspiring landscape and the surprise wildlife sightings that further added to the mystique and aura of New Zealand's most famous fiord (by the way, the Maori name for this place was Piopiotahi after an extinct native bird).
Julie and I managed to do this Milford Sound Cruise twice - once in December 2004 and again in December 2009. Each time followed a particular route pattern, which I'm about to describe, yet they were also different in their own way. For starters, the weather on our first experience was during a day when a rain storm was just starting to clear after three straight days of it. The weather on our second experience was in the midst of such a rain storm, which shouldn't have been surprising considering this area averages near 7m (or 23ft) of rain per year!
Our typical route left the wharf and followed closer to the southern cliffs of Milford Sound. After getting a passing look at Bowen Falls, we then traversed a large area of the sound where on both of our visits here, we saw playful dolphins swimming around our cruise vessel. The cruise then passed beneath the steep cliffs at the bottom of Mitre Peak (so-named because it reminded someone of a bishop's mitre [i.e. that hat he might wear]) before passing beneath other cliffs harbouring several waterfalls including Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.
Fairy Falls was a plunging columnar waterfall that was just west of a succession of four parallel waterfalls. In our second cruise experience, our vessel actually went right beneath this waterfall to try to drench punters willing to stand outside on its front deck. On the other hand, Bridal Veil Falls was really a smaller but seemingly more permanent waterfall at the bottom of a convergence of what seemed to be a series of temporary waterfalls coming down like veins. These waterfalls were examples of what I believed to be named temporary waterfalls as I'd imagine the Milford Sound Cruises would frequently see these waterfalls reliably thanks to the frequent rains here despite their true ephemeral nature.
As our cruise passed along the southern cliffs of Milford Sound, we managed to get distant views of waterfalls on the north side of the fiord. This included Stirling Falls, where it was clear that it was leaping off a wide U-shaped hanging valley between the Lion and Elephant Mountains. We also got a distant views of Palisade Falls, which like Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, was a temporary named waterfall that got named due to its reliability of being seen thanks to high rainfall. This particular waterfall was memorable in that it had a twistying S shape that could best be appreciated from this far away.
Ultimately, the cruise vessel reached the choppier waters of the Tasman Sea. This was about as far as the vessel would go before returning back into the fiord beneath the northern cliffs. As we made our way back into the calmer waters, we were able to see Fiordland crested penguins in our 2004 visit (we were too late to see them in our 2009 visit), then we passed by the base of Palisade Falls and other ephemeral waterfalls before getting a closer look at a colony of New Zealand fur seals, which Julie and I saw on both of our experiences. A jutting rock outcrop seemed to be especially popular for these fur seals where it was real easy to get wildlife photos of these residents contrasted against the bright rock.
After the fur seal colony, we then headed further east where we approached the base of Stirling Falls. On both of our cruise experiences, the vessel went right beneath the waterfall to allow willing punters at the front deck of the boat to really get drenched under its frigid waters. As the boat was pulling away from the falls, we also managed to get very majestic angled views of Stirling Falls beneath the forced perspective of the hanging valley beneath its neighbouring mountains yielding perhaps one of our most memorable photos of this waterfall that I recalled our graphic designer wanting to put a full-paged photo of it in our New Zealand Waterfalls book.
After Stirling Falls, the cruise vessel then briefly passed before Harrison Cove. At the tip of the cove, there was an underwater observatory, which was included on some of the cruise tours. However, on both times that we have done this visit, it wasn't included so we can't say or show anything more about what that was like. After leaving the mouth of Harrison Cove, the both then returned to the wharf where we got one last look at Bowen Falls before wrapping up this 2.5- to 3-hour cruise.
Directions: Stirling Falls was best experienced from the very common Milford Sound Cruise, which took off from the very end of the SH94 (Milford Sound Highway) about 118km north of Te Anau. Allow a little over 2 hours (depending on traffic) for this drive.