White Island is New Zealand’s only active (‘live’) marine volcano, 49km off the coast of Whakatane, and a relatively unsung wonderland of bubbling mud, steam and gas. One recent account of the island described it as ‘elemental and alien’.
The island is closely monitored by volcanologists who assess its activity via web cameras and seismograph. One or two tourist couples have married amid the hissing fumaroles, but most visitors are content to take a tour. Peter & Jenny Tait, official guardians of the privately-owned island, run award-winning White Island Tours
Their tour departing from Whakatane, involves a 90-minute launch trip, a walk that takes in the old, eerie sulphur works, and a look into the roaring bowels of the crater lake.
Local Grant Dyson reports back on his White Island tour
“If there’s an eruption, don’t run,” says our cheery guide. “That’s the worst thing you can do.”
We are inside a 200,000-year-old live volcano, at the bottom of the yawning open pit that forms the interior of White Island’s cone, on a track that runs up one side of the “inner crater floor.”
It’s civilised terminology for a badlands of multi-coloured rock, mounds, hissing vents, shifting steam clouds, and eroded, crumbling crater walls, prone to landslips and variegated in browns, ochres and the bright yellow of freshly deposited sulphur.
When the volcano erupts, says our deadpan lead guide John Burgess, “it erupts very violently and explosively but only for a short period of time. A lot of very hot rock comes out very high speed and at all angles.” This would be the time to don your gas mask and take shelter behind one of the crater’s numerous rocky mounds. To run would be to expose yourself to the full force of the blast – “you may as well put a target on your back” -- but such is our confidence in this jokey-but-serious man and his encyclopaedic knowledge of volcanic forces that there’s scarcely a quiver.
We had sighted White Island’s murky outline after more than an hour on cobalt-blue, rain-lashed seas aboard White Island Tours’ beautifully spec’d, 73 foot Peejay V – built expressly for these island visits. (Former dairy farmers Peter and Jenny Tait launched the first Peejay in 1990 – they are now official guardians of privately-owned White Island; the award-wining company has 2 boats and more than 30 staff). The crew had distributed hard hats and gas marks and I’d thought, “If a hard hat signals gritty adventures ahead, then a gas mask …”
In Craters Bay, a big black inflatable shuttles us to the rusting jetty in front of the eerie remains of a sulphur factory that closed in 1933. To reach the beach we must negotiate a patch of large, rusty brown boulders, test number one for some tottery city slickers. First impressions: this is possibly New Zealand’s most inhospitable spot, a Kiwi version of Hell.
Heading up a vaguely defined track, one of the more appealing features of this jaunt becomes clear: there are no nannyish ropes, track markers, or “Danger!” signs. “It’s very natural and we like it like that,” says our guide. “Without too many influences from man.”
Placing our boots with care (we’ve been warned), we make our way up the most stable side of the crater floor, beside the gullied, gas-spitting crater wall towards the crater lake – reassured, now, by our protective gear. “Lunar landscape” is the usual cliché, but one visitor reckons it’s more like Mars. Whatever, it’s bleakly surreal.
At ‘Fumerole O,’ pungent, sulphurous gases wafting from bubbling pools produce instant hacking coughs, and the hydrochloric acid in the steam occasionally stings our eyes. Calmly, we apply our gas masks to our faces. Heck, it’s a live volcano. That strange sulphurous coating on the back of your throat is part of the experience, and the rain just adds to the drama of this extraordinary hike.
So how “live” is White Island? According to our fascinating crash course in volcanology, history, botany and more, on a scale of zero to five, White Island, like Ruapehu, has an alert level of one - constant background activity and a small chance of eruption.
Scientists from the institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences use an array of instruments to sniff and measure White Island’s stirrings. The seismograph is New Zealand’s busiest, recording 10 to 12 quakes or volcanic tremors every 24 hours. Most are low on the Richter scale, centred deep beneath the island and are consequently unfelt.
The crunchy stuff underfoot is scoria (tephra), hurled by the major eruption of July 2001. Two days afterwards, bigger rocks were still hot to the touch; a new rock found by a diver in Craters Bay was as big as a car.
The island, says our blackly humorous guide, is in a state of “passive reawakening” that will take us to the next eruptive period – “and” – masterful timing – “it could be tomorrow.” We are warned to keep off the white and yellow mounds. Break through the crust and you could be “really well-acquainted with hot gases and hot mud.” One is named after sulphur miner Donald Pye, who disappeared in 1913. Some say he committed a horrible suicide inside the crater lake – his boots were found at the edge.
At the head of the crater, we gaze down into the milky green crater lake. One of the most acidic in the world, it’s capable of dramatic rises and falls and a temperature of 74 Celsius. It’s a brew of hydrochloric acid and sulphuric acid, and just about anything you care to name. “If you got in there’d be a loud squeak followed by a very long silence.”
A White Island tour, I scribble on a soggy pad, is a multi-sensory experience: weird chemical smells; the heat and force of steam issuing from a ferret-sized hole beside a mud pool; the dull-metallic taste of a clear stream, which reminds us of what? “Blood?” says a visitor, and wins applause – and an explanation - from John.
After concluding our big loop back down the crater floor, we learn that in 1914, a huge landslip wiped out the original sulphur-mining operation and claimed the lives of 10 men, whose bodies were never found. Only the camp cat, Peter survived, the kittens he sired back on the mainland in demand as lucky charms.
Birds have fared better than humans; the island is home to colonies of Australasian gannets – up to 10,000 in the breeding season. The island is also a breeding place for an estimated 60,000 muttonbirds, or grey-faced petrels. Incredibly, the outer parts of the island support 21 plant species, including stands of pohutakawa – though some were killed by the ash fallout from the blast of 2001.
Some would say that gas’em, and lead them through a place of steaming, noxious other-wordliness is a curious formula for a tourism venture, but we loved it. There’s a little wrench in weighing anchor and leaving White Island to the wheeling gannets.
The grizzled electrical contractor from Michigan says he likes to experience things I’ve never done before and this “very tickles me.” The elderly couple from Florida rate the experience alongside the famed Galapagos Islands, and “better than Vesuvius.” Grant Dyson visited White Island courtesy of White Island Tours.
White Island Tours
Weather permitting, there’s several trips a day. Hard hats and gas masks provided; recommended for children over 8 years old. Cost is around the $200 mark (incl. lunch, off-peak rates April to Nov). Motel & gift shop. Tel 308-9588 or 0800-733-529, – www.whiteisland.co.nz