The most thrilling volcanic experience I had in New Zealand was definitely visiting the country’s most active marine volcano, White Island. Imagine stepping on a deserted island with nothing around you but steaming vents and soil cracks, Sulphur-rich deposits with very strong smell and an intimidating volcano crater in its centre. Would you be scared or excited about it? I was certainly both but more of the latter. Being the volcano enthusiast I am, I couldn’t wait to be right at the centre of an active volcano and feel the adrenaline rush. Let me tell you all about it.
WHAT THIS VOLCANIC EXPERIENCE IS ABOUT
Visiting White Island is an experience you won’t forget for sure. Even if the actual time in the island is short, around 1 hour, is enough for you to get all your 5 senses wide awake and feel the volcanic magic. The strong rotten egg-like Sulphur smell invades the entire space you visit. Your skin feels the hotter “breeze” around the steaming soil and your throat goes dry and slightly irritated. The eyes are rewarded with a distinctive volcanic landscape but yet unique as it is surrounded by deep blue South Pacific Ocean water. Your ears are fully alert to the expert guide’s advice on where not to step. And the taste buds will be busy with the mandatory candy, needed to enhance the saliva production to aid your irritated throat.
I think it all just sounded too dramatic but don’t worry! The slight discomfort will be forgotten as soon as you embrace the beauty and power of this natural site. I would love to have this volcanic experience again!
As soon as you disembark on the rocky island jetty, you will begin your circuit walk following the guide’s steps. You will feel several volcano’s features and admire different vantage points. For the sake of safety, the path will vary everyday according to volcanic activity and newly created “volcanic landmarks”. The terrain is uneven and harsh for your shoe soles but it is an easy short walk. I think anyone who is slightly fit could do it. The only “difficulty” I can think of is the first few steps on the island as you might have to walk on big uneven boulders.
BASIC WHITE ISLAND’S VOLCANIC INFORMATION
Just to clarify, White Island is not just an island but its entirety is a marine stratovolcano. What we refer to the island is just 30% of the volcano size, the portion above water. The remaining 70% is underwater with a 16Km by 18Km base. It is the largest volcanic structure in New Zealand and also, among the most active with volcanic gas being emitted continuously.
The volcano lies 48 Kilometres off the coast of Whakatane. Despite the distance, the explosive eruptions can sometimes be seen from land. The latest significantly large explosion was in 2000, when scoria covered the crater completely and another explosion crater was formed nearby. Subsequent explosions occurred in 2012, 2013 and 2016. White Island is under constant monitoring, research and surveillance by experts, warning about its volcanic activity and potential threats. On a volcanic alert scale from 1-5, the island is usually at 1-2 with minor to moderate volcanic unrest. Alert levels 3-5 indicate minor to major volcanic eruptions when, obviously, no visits to the island are allowed. Before visiting the island, you can check the volcanic alert level on the GeoNet, New Zealand’s geological hazard information website.
HOW TO GET TO WHITE ISLAND?
There are no hotels in the island for obvious reasons, so there are only two ways to reach White island: by helicopter and boat. I know the helicopter ride sounds fancy and is probably quicker but I preferred going by boat because I could enjoy the ocean breeze and distant view of the volcano. Also, there are high chances of spotting dolphins on your way there and in summer, you might be able to even bathe!
White Island is a private property and White Island Tours boats are the only ones anchoring in the island, so if you are interested in reaching by sea, you need to book your visit with this tour operator. Boats are comfortable with inner and outer space to sit and stand, depending on weather conditions and your own choice of course. The boat rides last around 1.5-2 hours each way but it goes by fast, trust me.
- Booking in advance to ensure a place on the boat for the selected date. Confirm with the tour operator the day before to check weather and sea conditions.
- Clean your shoes well after visiting White Island to remove all traces of sulphuric acid and other elements corroding the shoes soles and making the boat dirty on the way back.
- Essential Packing for the day:
- Trainers or hiking shoes (comfortable shoes for walking on uneven terrain)
- Sea-sickness pills for the boat ride if you tend to get sea-sick.
- Water Bottle to keep drinking plenty of fluid (throat might get a bit sore or dry with the volcanic fumes).
- Clean your camera equipment, especially the lens, very well after visiting White Island to avoid equipment deterioration or damage.