HALF MOON BAY, Calif., November 21, 2011—Step into the volcanic crater on White Island, among the steaming fumaroles and geysers, and you’re instantly in a geothermal wonderland. The hissing and bubbling sounds that surround you make it seem as if the earth is breathing right under your feet. It’s no Disney attraction. Just 30 miles off the north island of New Zealand, this is a real volcano.
White Island—also called by its Maori name, Whakāri—is New Zealand’s only active marine volcano. Its age is estimated at 100,000 to 200,000 years, though the part of the island seen above sea level has appeared in its present form for only about 16,000 years. About 70 percent of the volcano is below sea level.
New Zealand’s Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (IGNS) monitors volcanic activity on White Island continuously, through visual observations, seismograph monitoring and chemical analysis, and visits the island around 10 times per year. The last eruption occurred in 2000, and today, nearly 10,000 people visit the island volcano every year.
Even though my group was outfitted with hard hats and gas masks before we stood on White Island, they’re mainly a safety precaution in case the volcano kicks out sulfurous clouds or lava rocks. Our instructions for using the gas masks was, “Use them if you feel like you need them.” Mine hung around my neck with my camera the entire time, but it’s certainly a good thing to have just in case.
The island has very little vegetation, and the semi-moonscape includes meandering beds of white and yellow sulphur crystals. In some places, the crystals concentrate to create delicate yellow towers that look like Gaudi-esque melting castles. But it’s impossible to completely lose yourself in the fantasy of the crystal formations when only a few feet away is the steaming crater lake.
While a tour of White Island may have you staring awestruck at belching fumaroles, it’s extremely important to follow the guide’s instructions on exactly where you can walk. The volcano’s crater is an ever-changing environment, and if you’re not paying attention to where you’re walking, you may find that the unstable earth is not your friend.
Just before I left the island, I wandered through the remains of an old sulphur mine, which was in operation from 1885 to 1914, when part of the crater wall collapsed, creating a landslide that destroyed not only the buildings on the island, but also killed the miners working there. The remnants of the miners’ village lay corroding in the sulphur air near the deep blue Pacific Ocean—another beautiful, and sometimes destructive, force on the planet.
White Island Tours depart from the wharf at Whakatane aboard the PeeJay, a luxury launch. The trip out to the volcano takes approximately 90 minutes, which allows for plenty of time to view marine life along the way. Hard hats and gas masks are provided for the island tour, and lunch is available aboard the boat on the return voyage back to Whakatane.
Jill K. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and adventure seeker. Follow her adventures on dangerjillrobinson.com and Twitter @dangerjr. Jill and her husband are avid kayakers and own Half Moon Bay Kayak Company.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.