With a distinctive white plume that’s visible from as far away as Mount Tarawera almost 100 km to the west, White Island is New Zealand’s most active volcano. This desolate island, located approximately 50 km off the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island was aptly named Te Puia o Whakaari (The Dramatic Volcano) by the local Māori and has been in a constant state of unrest and occasional eruption since it was first documented by Captain James Cook in 1769.
Important Update: Following the tragic events of December 2019, all on-land tours of White Island have ceased. It is extremely unlikely that these tours will ever be resumed which means that our visit to the island was truly a once in a lifetime experience, and one we’ll never forget.
Privately owned and declared a scenic reserve in 1953, the island was only accessible with authorised tourism operators. We were fortunate enough to explore the island as part of a weekend dive charter with New Zealand Diving and Cascade Charters who operate out of Whakatane. And in case you’re wondering, yes, the diving off White Island is incredible, with an abundance of sea life and a rather unique experience involving bubbles, but we’ll save that for another article.
A living volcano with a tragic past
Had Captain Cook first encountered the island today and actually stepped ashore, he may well have named it Yellow Island instead after coming face to face with this alien looking landscape.
These mounds are formed by the sulphurous gases released from steaming vents on the crater floor, and this sulphur is pretty much everywhere. As it turns out, sulphur is quite a handy substance, found in everything from fireworks to fertilizer and even skin cream so sulphur mining has been attempted on the island from as far back as the 1880s. Unfortunately this first came to a tragic end in September 1914 when the western crater rim collapsed, creating a lahar which killed all 10 workers on the island, leaving only the cat as sole survivor. Since then, mining has been attempted several times but eventually ceased in the 1930s. All that now remains are corroded machines and the remnants of the ore processing plant.
Gas masks and hardhats required (The lollies are optional)
On the Sunday afternoon of our visit, having spent the morning diving from first light (a benefit of having moored off the island the previous night), we joined a Pee Jay tour group that had arrived from Whakatane. One of the first things you see on arriving at the small jetty are these colourful ‘rusting’ boulders that give a hint of what’s to come as you head into the crater.
But not before signing the obligatory disclaimer any adventurer will know all too well, only this time with the addition of death by poisonous gasses and bubbling sulphuric acid pits that could swallow you at any moment. Ok, maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but not too far from the truth given that this really is an active volcano that is typically at Alert Level 1 on a scale of 1 to 5. Fortunately, White Island is constantly monitored by New Zealand’s GeoNet team whose job it is to to detect, analyse and respond to earthquakes, volcanic activity, tsunami and large landslides and as you walk around the crater, you’ll see several of their monitoring stations high up on the crater walls. The work the team does is pretty fascinating and you can read more about it on the GeoNet website.
Having signed our disclaimers we were each handed a hardhat and a gas mask along with a selection of lollies. You may be tempted to think that the gas mask is just a precaution. It’s not. And even if you don’t like or feel like sucking on a lolly, our advice is ‘take the lollies’. You’ll be thankful later as they do help to soothe the throat.
Suitably prepared, we followed our guide towards the main crater, being careful to stick to the path as instructed, as the ground was noticeably unstable in places. Soon we could hear the hiss and roar of the steam vents and as we approached we were enveloped in clouds of gas. Even with our masks we found it difficult to breathe, but the incredible patterns and shapes of the bright yellow sulphur kept us enthralled.
After a few minutes, and feeling suitably ‘steamed’, we headed towards the crater lake itself. What you’ll see will largely depend on how active the volcano is on the day but we looked down on a bubbling, steaming greyish green pool that you definitely don’t want to go swimming in.
From the lake we headed towards the eastern side of the crater which, by comparison, feels a little ‘calmer’, certainly on the surface, but is no less dramatic, and the high crater walls are beautiful, a real tapestry of colours.
Something we weren’t expecting to see are the two small streams that run along the crater floor. This may seem odd but thinking about it, all the rain that falls on the island has got to go somewhere if not into the crater lake itself. What’s really interesting is that as these streams make their way towards the sea, the water in each stream picks up different minerals which makes for a rather unusual taste test. No really, it’s quite safe but don’t actually drink the water, just dip your finger in and taste. Don’t worry, your tour guide won’t immediately come running with a first aid kit. In fact they’ll most likely encourage you to do it as it’s all part of the White Island experience. We won’t give away any more than that.
As we headed towards the ruins of the old mining buildings we heard the unmistakeable sound of a helicopter approaching. No, it wasn’t an imminent evacuation, it was some very fortunate tourists who had flown in from Whakatane with Kahu NZ. Note to self: start saving now for the deluxe White Island package next time.
After spending some time exploring the ruins of the mining plant it was back to the jetty to rinse our shoes before boarding the Pee Jay vessel that was to take us back to Whakatane, a 2 hour trip complete with dolphin sighting. This gave us ample time to reflect on our weekend spent at White Island. And what a weekend it was, with incredible diving, and the opportunity to experience this alien but stunningly beautiful landscape.
Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Bay of Plenty region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Bay of Plenty.