Explore the White Island Volcano!
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Schedule of the Visit.
- 1A Day on White Island.
- 2Dolphins Are Joining the Party.
- 3Have You Ever Walked on the Moon?
- 4The Mountain is Alive!
- 5Everyone Does Not Have Nine Lives ...
- 6We Are Not Alone!
- 7Back on Dry Land ...
A Day on White Island.
Legend says that the great Maori priest Ngātoro-i-rangi lost his path on Mount Tongariro during winter. He invoked the sacred fire of the ancestors to avoid freezing to death. While coming to the priest, the flames erupted through the earth crust and gave birth to White Island in the Bay of Plenty (north of New Zealand).
Generally, the volcanoes are not meant to be visited, especially when they are active. Reserved for fearless scientists, their access is strictly forbidden to the visitors.
White Island is located off the coast of Whakatane. The emerged part belongs to a 1,600 meters high underwater mountain and spread over 16 km!
It is one of the few active volcanoes that can be visited.
Regarding the Maori legend, I will tell you more in my article about the Tongariro Crossing. The crater of White Island is at sea level, which makes it the most accessible volcano in the world. Professional guides lead groups of visitors with extreme caution.
On my last trip, we wanted to try the adventure with some friends. The night before, we discussed among us if it was reasonable or not to visit an active volcano...
At the last minute, some of us decided not to come. What a pity for them! If there was a single day not to be missed, it was this one!
Dolphins Are Joining the Party.
We are a group of approximately thirty people on the Pee Jay V from the White Island Tour company. The sky is clear and our ship sails toward White Island.
The sea is rough and we are shaken a little. In my experience, you can reduce the seasickness by seating in the back of the boat during the trip. Anyway, the on-board staff takes great care of the passengers.
Did you notice the pod of dolphins?Impossible to count them with certainty, but I would say they are nearly forty to do the race with the boat. Some are bolder than others and are swimming even faster than the boat at high speed. They are magnificent!
The passengers who were suffering from seasickness start to smile again. Everyone instantly forget the volcano while we are getting closer and closer to it. A white panache rising from the crater reminds us suddenly its presence!
White smoke is not the harbinger of an eruption. This is just some water vapor. I am somewhat reassured, but I'm beginning to wonder if I was right to embark on such an adventure.
During the previous night, instead of sleeping, I was remembering every movie where heroes run to escape a volcano eruption. But it is too late to cancel. The journey is about one hour and a half until the boat drops the anchor. But it remains a few hundred meters before reaching the shore (there is no harbour near an active volcano).
We use an inflatable boat to accost on White Island. The crew manages this operation with great skill. On our way, you will notice that the water goes from blue to green. This is due to yellow sulfur flowing from the boiling springs of the volcano. I begin to get impatient, but my turn to disembark finally arrives.
Have You Ever Walked on the Moon?
Presentation of strict safety instructions.
Two groups of twenty are formed by our guides. Each explorer is given a yellow helmet.
I have indeed well observed the advice we received the day before: preferably wear jeans and the most waterproof closed shoes.
I had not expected that we'll have to carry a gas mask! (but it will only be used on few occasions).
The atmosphere is excellent in our group, and everyone takes pictures with his mask on the face. We have helmets and our two guides also wear red ones, so we can easily distinguish them from other visitors.
The rule which imposes to remain in the marked trail is almost superfluous. No one will dare to go off the track in such a hostile environment.
It is true That New Zealand people tend to promote autonomy and responsibility. But on White Island, you must listen and follow the orders as if you were in the army.
How to describe such a sight? The landscape is so far from anything I've seen in my entire life!
Just like me, you will have the feeling to be another planet.
The slopes of the crater are steep and rise 300 meters above sea level. In the distance, we see tiny yellow dots in motion: this is another group that took the lead. The smoking crater measures 2 km in diameter and it is very impressive.
The soil is white, studded with yellow rocks. There are many boiling mud pools alongside chimneys spewing hot gases. The temperature of the fumaroles is around 800 degrees!
When the rock is not white or yellow, it's bright red. A striking contrast when you consider how much the green is omnipresent in New Zealand.
The Mountain is Alive!
We bypass some rocks of several meters. I feel a chill down my spine when one of the guides explains that these are the stones projected during the last eruption. Most of these stones could crush a car!
And what a noise! the earth rumbles and breathes as if it was alive. A strong smell of sulfur floats in the air. We are approaching the lake of the main crater.
I adjust my gas mask. A white mist covers a turquoise acid water measured at 66°C! The last eruption in the year 2000 formed the lake in less than five hours. The sight is breathtaking.
Apparently embarrassed by wearing a mask, someone took the decision of removing it. He will regret it for the rest of the day, with crying eyes and a severe cough. Another good reason to follow the instructions without discussing, especially if you have asthma.
Since almost an hour I feel like an astronaut who would be travelling in space. I'm beginning to get used to this strange world without any vegetation. Who could survive in such a hell? Yet the island has been occupied by men before but where did they go?
Everyone Does Not Have Nine Lives ...
The man tried to exploit the resources of the volcano ...
White Island was first discovered by the Maoris who already knew how to use sulfur as a fertilizer. Then, the island passed several times from one owner to another.
I heard a story about an expropriation conducted by the Westerners, and a barter history against two barrels of rum is still reported. The new owners decided to build a factory to exploit the resources of the volcano. A terrible mistake they will pay very dearly.
In 1914 a landslide took the lives of all workmen. The bodies of these unfortunate people were never retrieved and are still somewhere.
But to be honest, considering the exceptional soil acidity, you have very little chance to find yourself in presence of a skeleton.
There was only one survivor: The camp cat managed to slip through the rubble.
The ruins of the factory can be explored and reveal the true nature of the working atmosphere. The 3 meters gears used to crush the sulfur survived but appear extremely corroded, just like if the volcano was eating them piece by piece. More than a testimony of the tragedy, this is a serious warning. Let's hope next generations will keep this one in mind.
Thinking about it, buying a volcano is not the best deal on earth. The new owner George Raymond Buttle decided to create a nature reserve. Soon turned into a tourism business, the island is now a good affair. But it's not just tourists who come and go on the flanks of the volcano.
We Are Not Alone!
I thought that no species could survive here. I was wrong. Some birds make their nest in the most sheltered slope. They do not seem annoyed by ash or the sulfur smell.
The surrounding waters are rich in fish and the mutton bird colony count more than 3000 permanent residents.
The species is protected today. Maori used to catch the young birds that had not yet learned to fly. And for the cooking, they found an easy solution!
You can cook them by dipping them into a bubbling source... I dare not imagine how this could be eaten!
Just before leaving I notice an object stuck on a rock. This is a toy forgotten by a child during a visit many years ago and which seems to survive in this hell. The acidity in the air should have eliminated this plastic dinosaur long ago. But it survives miraculously, probably because it contains some porcelain which is known to resists to corrosion.
The adventure comes to an end. I clean my shoes that are covered with ashes. I had not planned to bring a swimming suit, and I was wrong. Some visitors are equipped and are going to practicescuba diving. The underwater landscapes of White Island are deemed beautiful. Too bad. My fault, I'll just eat something while waiting for the departure.
Back on board, we decide to sort the volcano pictures later. I have only one desire: to see the dolphins again.
On the return journey two whales suddenly appear at a short distance of the boat!
The captain stops the boat so we can contemplate and take some pictures of the largest marine mammal in the world.
I definitely had the feeling to be dreaming throughout the trip.
Back on Dry Land ...
I visited a volcano and a very special one: the only active submarine volcano in New Zealand. Nature has more than one face and White Island is both frightening and fascinating.
This visit helped me to understand the passion that drives volcanologists.
Fortunately, the volcano did not choose the day of my visit to get angry. Anyway, such an original experience is not without any risk. The professionalism of the New Zealand guides is just remarkable. But they are not the only ones to be congratulated. There is a permanent scientific observation which allows to visit the White Island Volcano when it’s peaceful enough.
I must admit I am very proud of having made this trip. I guess those who have renounced yesterday will probably have some regrets.
But they can console themselves if they book the helicopter tour. The departure is generally organized from Rotorua and includes the overfly over the volcano and even a landing near the crater.
From the sky one distinguishes better the sulfur flows that drain into the ocean.
For your information, the expedition lasted nearly six hours. But this is not the time to be tired!
Oamaru Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand is only 7 km from here. You may sometimes swim with Hector’s dolphins and even some penguins are living there.
If like me you survived White Island (I exaggerate, this is a very well-planned tour). And if you took great pictures, please send them to us. I leave you with Ben Kiwi who will answer all your practical questions.
Questions & Answers.
What can I do for you? The tour costs about $ 200 per person. Knowing that there are discounts at $ 135 per child during the low season. A tariff that may seem high, but that remains very reasonable for such a fantastic activity.
- All topics ... 23 answers in total
- Planning of the Excursion 11 answers
- History of the Volcano 6 answers
- Booking and Rates 3 answers
- Volcanic Activity 3 answers
Planning of the Excursion
- How long does it take to get to Whakatane?
From Auckland it takes about 4 hours. An hour and a half if you come from Rotorua.
- Are my children old enough to accompany us?
If they are 7 years old or older, they can participate. If they are younger, the equipment (helmet, gas masks) would not be suitable. But everything can evolve, do not hesitate to ask the question. Keep in mind that the boat trip is quite long.
- What is the duration of the excursion?
About 6 hours. It takes 1h30 to go, 3h of walks on the island, and 1h30 for the return.
- What should you bring for this excursion?
If you have seasickness or motion sickness, consider taking a suitable medication (to be taken well before the departure of course).
- If I book the excursion with the lunch option, what to expect?
I got a sandwich, a cake, a banana, an apple, a can of coca, peanuts, a cereal bar. But nothing prevents you from bringing something else in addition.
- Can I bring back a souvenir?
No, this is prohibited. One wonders to what extent, since the volcano is active and the landscape is reconstructed with each eruption. My opinion is that this measure is meant to discourage people from the desire to go off-track to go to pick up a piece of sulfur, for example. Security first!
- I'm dizzy, does it climb?
There is nothing to fear, the excursion takes place in the crater which is at sea level. One does not climb much (except at the beginning) and you won't get exhausted. If you take the helicopter to come, this may be different.
- Is the air toxic on the island?
It may be, but you will not be taken to the most dangerous places. Gas masks are not there just for comfort. If you do not put them on when you are asked, you will cough a good part of the afternoon. Follow the instructions to the letter and everything will go very well.
- Is it a difficult excursion?
It is not an exhausting excursion, but the boat trip can be difficult for some people who are subject to sea sickness. It is mostly a day full of emotions.
- What does the bronze statue stand for in the port of Whakatane?
She represents Wairaka, daughter of Toroa. While the men were exploring the mainland, her boat was taken offshore. Forgetting her condition that did not allow her to paddle, she saved the crew. Her famous cry "Kia Whakatane at i Ahau" gave its name to the city.
- Can you eat mutton birds?
It is delicious! See the article on the Moeraki boulders, we talk about the restaurant "La fleur" which cooks the Muttonbird.
History of the Volcano
- Who discovered White Island?
The Maoris first, then the famous Captain Cook on October 1, 1769. The island was covered with mist, and naturally it was named White Island. The captain did not explore the island during this trip and did not realize it was a volcano.
- What is the Maori name of the island?
White Island is visible off Whakatane, but sometimes obscured by bad weather. The Maoris baptized her Whakaari "what can be seen".
- What was the factory purpose on the island?
Essentially to produce sulfuric acid and fertilizers (1500 tons per year). Before antibiotics, sulfur also served as an antibacterial agent and was used to sterilize.
- What is the age of the volcano?
It is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 years old. Dating the age of the volcano is difficult because the volcano is metamorphosed after each eruption.
- Is it true that there are two volcanoes on the island?
Yes, these are two volcanoes intertwined in one another. The whole gives this original form of horseshoe open on the south-east.
- How to explain the presence of a volcano offshore?
White Island is northeast of the great volcanic line of Taupo. The volcanoes of New Zealand (Tarawera, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu) are lined up by more than 250 km.
Booking and Rates
- Where can we book?
- How much does the tour cost?
By boat, it costs about $185 per person ($120 for children). By helicopter from Rotorua the trip is much more expensive ($550 per person) but brings unforgettable memories.
- Do we need to book?
In spring and summer it is often necessary to book a week in advance.
- What are the dates of the last eruptions?
In the last century there have been a dozen eruptions, sometimes of long duration. Here are the official dates: 1926, 1928, 1933, 1947, 1958-59, 1962, 1968, 1971, 1976-82, 1984, 1992-93, 1999. Since the beginning of this century, only one eruption occurred.
- When was the last eruption?
On March 7, 2000, the volcano awoke, and a plume of 1500 m raised in the sky (stretched over 40 km). Then on July 27, 2000, the biggest eruption of the last twenty years formed a new crater 100 meters wide.
- How do you know if an eruption is coming?
The island is constantly monitored, you can observe during your visit that there are measuring instruments installed. There are multiple criteria for predicting an eruption. The increase in temperature of the lakes on the spot, the vibrations of course. Numerous cameras are filming the volcano.
On the Country Map
The White Island volcano is located 48 km off the coasts of the Bay of plenty (North Island).
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