Memories of Whakaari/White Island, New Zealand

News of the December 9/19 volcanic eruption on New Zealand’s White Island caused a few shudders in this household. My wife and I has visited this tourist attraction on March 30/12. In fact, that was our prime reason for going to Whakatane on the Bay of Plenty, during this trip.

On news of the loss of life, during the latest eruption, our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this tragedy.

A few facts about the island:

  • “Wh” in Maori is pronounced “F”, so Whakaari is pronounced Fa-ka-ri and Whakatane is pronounced fa-kah-Tah-ne
  • White Island is an active volcano 48 km (30 mi) off shore in the Bay of Plenty.
  • It is New Zealand’s most active volcano and has built up to a height of 321 m (1,053 feet) above the sea, over the last 150,000 years. From the sea floor, it rises 1,600 m (5,249 feet)
  • Sulphur mining was active at times on the island from the mid 1880s, until ending in the 1930s. An eruption in 1914 killed 10 miners when part of the crater wall collapsed. Only the camp cat survived.
  • It erupted continuously from December 1975 to September 2000, making it the longest continuously erupting volcano in the world. Other eruptions occurred in 2012 (just over 4 months after our visit), 2016 and the latest in 2019.
  • The island is a privately owned scenic reserve and access is only by authorized tour companies.
  • Volcanologists from the Geonet Project continually monitor the island seismic activity via cameras. Seismic monitors are in place on the island and tour companies are guided by alert levels of 1-5. Trips to the island do not occur beyond alert level 2, which was the alert level during the tour just before the latest eruption.

(Sources: Wikipedia and White Island Tours during our tour)

You might wonder “Why would anyone risk setting foot on an active volcano?” I guess the same could be said for “Why would anyone jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” In our case the option to visit this place seemed to outweigh the risk.

We still consider this day as one of the highlights of our 2012 trip. The tour company even runs a motel (the White Island Rendez-Vous) right near the dock. We stayed there for two nights and it was a ship shape. The boat trip, the ocean, the island and the tour were all beautiful, as the following photos will attest.

Heading out on the tour boat
White Island comes into view
Green serenity obscures the danger that can lie below

On the way

On the trip over and upon landing, we were given a very detailed safety briefing to keep us safe while we were on the boat and on the island. Our guide advised us not hesitate to wear our gas masks, to follow exactly where our guides walked, as the soil crust may be covering a hot pool or steam vent and to immediately head for the boat, if the signal was given. We felt well looked after.

Abandoned sulphur mine equipment.

The acidity of the island air, water and soil causes metal to deteriorate…even studs on blue jeans, metal on purses, etc. after only a short while. This works was abandoned in the 1930s.

Us in our protective gear. You look at the gas mask and you think, “I’m never going to put this slimy thing on my face.” and then you get the first burning sulphur tickle in your throat and that puppy is on your face, faster than you can think. They also gave us candies to suck to soothe our throats.

After safety briefing

Overall views of the island

water runoff
steam coming from the crater
lava flow pattern
water runoff past sulphur coloured rocks and soil

Bubbling mud

bloop, bloop, bloop

Suphur coloured landscape. Unreal beauty.

At one point, our guide looked for a volunteer. Nobody put their hand up, so I jumped in. First, I was asked to dip my finger in the stream and taste the water and let everyone know what it tasted like. It tasted very much like high iron blood. Then, I was asked to dip a copper penny in for 10 seconds. You can see by the photo below, that the copper was cleaned up pretty quickly by the acidity of the water. Soon, everyone else was trying it out.

After the tour, our boat pulled off shore and slowly circumnavigated the island as we ate the included box lunch (sandwich, apple and drink). Had we been there in December, the one side of the island would have been covered in red Pohutukawa blooms (New Zealand Christmas tree). Not at this time, though.

Lunch over, it was time to head back and we were promised a bit of dolphin fun on the way to port. Keeners jumped into the bow position before I could think of it and we did not have long to wait, before a huge pod of dolphins came out to play.

dolphin scouts
dolphins frolicking

They played with the boat and the wake for about 15 minutes, before skipper boosted the power and we left them diving and leaping behind us. What a fabulous experience. All too soon, we could see Whakatane harbour and knew the tour was over.

Would we do it again? Under the right circumstances, most likely.


13 thoughts on “Memories of Whakaari/White Island, New Zealand

  1. It’s very sad but from what you write it sounds like the compt was very safety orientated. Nature has a way of making us think twice about what we control.
    Great photos and it does indeed look like a fabulous time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In a fight with nature, nature wins. I feel very sad for the whole situation, for the dead and injured, for the company and for the town. Today was the first time in a long time that I looked back on this day. Why were we so lucky (missing the 2012 eruption by only 4 months)? Thanks for reading and commenting, Bernie. Allan


    1. I do not think we knew in 2012 how dangerous the island could be. I recall now being a bit horrified when I heard of the August 2012 eruption, when we were long home. The dolphins are a treasured memory. The water at the place where they appeared was strangely calm and clear. I can’t even believe I got those shots. Thanks for reading and commenting, Crystal. Allan

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an awful tragedy. Lucky that you got to experience it safely. Our visit to Hawaii Volcanoes didn’t seem so volatile… I mean there were barriers keeping us from the steam vents but our tour guide was not overly concerned about safety. After seeing this disaster unfold in New Zealand I don’t know if I would visit an active volcano again

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed and thankyou. Our visit also seemed safe, at the time. When you hear how much monitoring is going on, you think you are safe, but sometimes, nature has other ideas. Thanks for reading and commenting. Allan

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s a really awefully tragedy and a sad day for many! But you can never know yet alone to predict when the nature is going to strike. I’m not sure if I would ever visit an active volcano, but at the same time, if I had money and a fantastic fitness level, I would easily take up the challenge to reach the top of the Everest.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think when we visited, we did not know the history of the place and while we were told of the possible dangers and given detailed safety instructions, we did not have any major fears. We all take risks every day, whether it be driving, bike riding or even simply walking (particularly on the icy sidewalks in our area). For the most part, they are calculated risks and we have an idea of what we are getting into. The key is to be informed and prepared. But, there are still the unpredictable elements and nature is one of them in the earthquake zones. Thanks for reading. Allan

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you very much for this deeply personal and insightful post. I am very sorry for the awful tragedy and the loss of so many lives. I have recently published an article on my blog about the danger of adventure tourism with an emphasis on the white island eruption. If you have time, it would be great if you could check out my post, as I would be really interested to hear your thoughts! Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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