White Island: the dramatic volcano
mbition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go,” British explorer James Cook once proclaimed. Known as Captain Cook, he travelled three times to the Pacific Ocean in the 18th century. During his voyage to New Zealand, Cook reached a circular island measuring barely two kilometres across, where he found what is currently the most active volcano in the country. Cook called it White Island, after the white cloud that surrounded it. A cloud of steam and gas. The Maoris called it Te Puia or Whakaari, which means the “dramatic volcano.”
The volcano has erupted some 35 times since 1826. Mostly these have been low intensity eruptions. The latest ‘movements’ were registered in 2013, but the gas it releases daily (and has done for centuries) has made this stratovolcano a top tourist destination. The number of visitors is aided by the fact that it is one of the most accessible marine volcanoes in the world, located 48 kilometres off the coast of Whakatane. The trip to White Island takes 90 minutes and the last section is completed on a launch.
Big Brother Island
GNS Science, a New Zealand geology consultancy, monitors White Island with webcams, a seismograph and a microphone. They also visit three times a month to check the water, gas and soil to register any changes to the surface.
White Island Tours and other local companies organise these trips (usually lasting three hours in total). Peter and Jenny Tait kicked off the tours in 1990 when they decided to pack in their jobs as farmers and start a fishing and scuba diving company. After a couple of years, a client asked them to go to the volcano. They were so blown away by the view that they decided to scrap the fishing rods and wetsuits, and focus on Whakaari. They now have several boats to cater for visitors looking for extreme options.
As you sail over (or helicopter in) to White Island, you won’t see lava, but you will smell smoke and steam. Gas masks are compulsory, and other safety gear is recommended to protect your skin and eyes. Kick up a stone and you might release a gust of air from a recent crack. The gas from the volcano can reach up to 800ºC. It isn’t toxic, but it does cause coughing and watery eyes. Gas masks also protect visitors from the strong sulphurous smell. The same sulphur that, after centuries, has painted the island’s rocks a characteristic shade of yellow, almost like the surface of Mars.
The biggest attraction on the island is the crater lake, which combines water, gas and mud. The water is highly acidic, with a pH under 0 –it has to be at least 7.5 to be drinkable. However, it is home to microscopic life that has nevertheless managed to survive in these extreme conditions. They are the island’s only inhabitants, however.
Until 1936, White Island was a mining location. In fact, the ruins of the old factory are still on the island, remembering the miners who lost their lives in a landslide. After that came a succession of lawsuits between the owner of the island, George Raymond Buttle, who refused to sell it, and the government of New Zealand. It is currently controlled by the Buttle Family Trust and welcomes tourists eager to discover one of the hottest locations in New Zealand. Fishing and scuba diving have taken second place. Everything happens on firm ground now, all surrounded by white smoke.