Anyone who has attended middle school should have learned that volcanos – in addition to being fascinating – can be pretty hot, and an altogether inadvisable place for a picnic. With this wisdom in mind, it may come as a surprise to hear that three days into our tour of New Zealand, we found ourselves on a chilly jetty in the North Island town of Whakatane, waiting to board a launch for a 50-kilometre journey into the Bay of Plenty where we planned to enjoy a picnic in the shadow of New Zealand’s only marine volcano – White Island.
We’d driven through the pre-dawn frost from nearby Tauranga and enjoyed the clear morning sunrise from beneath four or five layers of warming winter wear. At around 8am, as the sun crept above the horizon, we boarded and made our heading towards the island, that we could see in the distance belching out steam even from the safety of the river mouth. The journey took a little over an hour and was punctuated by brief detours to chase dolphins and other marine life that call the aptly named Bay of Plenty home. Despite the relatively calm conditions (a far cry from the near gale force weather that greeted us a few days later in Wellington for our Cook Straight crossing), the foot or so of swell was enough to make many of us queasy by the time we reached the shelter of the volcano (an oxymoron if ever I saw one).
White Island climbs 1000 feet above the water, but is the tip of a submarine mountain which starts 4000 feet below on the ocean floor. The island has smouldered constantly since its discovery by Europeans (Captain James Cook) in the 1700s (although one might assume the indigenous Maori population could have confirmed said activity slightly earlier than that).
Smoldering, however is not the only activity that geologists constantly measure on White Island. A number of eruptions of varying intensity have affected the island over the years, some – like the 1914 event which caused the western rim of the crater to collapse, killing the sulphur miners on the island – with disastrous consequences. The volcano’s active status is highlighted by the daily checks before any tour to ensure that guests will be ‘safe’ while standing on the volcano. We’d contacted the tour company and confirmed that we would be able to visit the night before, but it was still with some trepidation that I lowered myself into the inflatable tender with my gas mask and helmet in place.
The tour started with a walk around the open plain opened by a collapse in the crater, where we were alerted to the various dangers that a morning on a volcano might raise. The terrain was stark and the ever-present smell of sulfur was the only one reminder of where we were exploring.
We stopped at a steam-belching vent for a few photos and donned our masks for a close up look at the boiling mud and fluids before moving on towards the crater lake that – when we arrived – had been completely obscured by steam. Any thoughts of a swim were quickly dashed by the idea that the lake’s pH was approximately that of Hydrochloric acid. As we reached a small plateau above the lake, the wind partially cleared the steam, offering a view of the cloudy green water which hovers around boiling.
On the return walk to the small harbour, we inspected a few streams that run down from the interior of the island – tasting them to identify the mineral content and source. Finally, before returning to our vessel, we walked through the skeleton of the sulphur mining operations that ceased in the 1930s thanks to the great depression and a paucity of quality sulphur in accessible locations.
Once back on board, we circumnavigated the island before making the voyage back to Whakatane and the safety of the mainland that was (ever so slightly) less likely to cover us in superheated steam and rock. White Island was one of the principal experiences we had anticipated in New Zealand, and – despite the steep cost (which is typical of most New Zealand attractions), it was one of the highlights of our trip (which was, admittedly, as packed with highlights as a backcountry hunter’s ute.