White Island wonders
Few people appreciate just how much of a national treasure this island is, writes Brook Sabin and Radha Engling.
The crater lake in front of me is so acidic it makes battery acid look like fruit juice. It’s a bright gecko green - almost like a giant spirulina bowl. But this isn’t remotely nutritious; it’s a glimpse at Earth’s angry side. Vents hiss in all directions, the far corner of the lake bubbles with urgency. It seems we shouldn’t be here. Humans have achieved so much; we’re used to being in control. But her, Mother Nature rules.
We’ve all heard of White Island, but most Kiwis simply know it as that little island off the coast of Bay of Plenty, engulfed in a constant candy floss of cloud. The sea hides the truth: this isn’t an island. It’s the peak of a might volcano that extends 1.6 kilometres to the seafloor below. The crater peeks out of the ocean in a similar way a crocodile’s snout ominously pokes out of a river as it lies in wait.
Few people appreciate just how much of a national treasure this volcano is. Think about this for a second: active volcano craters aren’t easy to get to. Mt Ruapehu is an arduous seven-hour return walk that should only be attempted by experienced, well-equipped hikers. Mt Ngauruhoe is eight to nine hours, at times up a 45-degree incline. Or White Island is an 80-minute boat trip and you’re there, with very little effort. Almost anyone over the age of eight can do it, you just need to be able to climb from a small boat up a few steps onto the wharf. It’s one of the easiest-to-reach active volcano craters anywhere in the world.
The quickest way to get to the island is by helicopter, as helipads are near the crater. But the most affordable way is what we’re doing; heading out on a boat from Whakatane with White Island Tours.
As our launch pulls into a sheltered edge of the island called Crater Bay, we are given gas masks and don protective helmets. Let’s be clear. These little yellow hard hats are mostly for photos.
There is a minuscule chance of a violent eruption. We’re talking flying rocks, hot ash clouds, lava bombs, lightning and lahars. In that event, my little yellow hard hat will be about as much use as a seat belt made out of rice crackers. The gas masks, however, are handy. For some, the sulphur will tingle the back of the throat- especially if you are caught up in swirls of steam so you just need to pop the mask on.
As we board the IRB to be shuttled to the island, excitement fills the boat. The alert level for the volcano - on a scale of zero to five - sits at the usual one: unrest. We’re told there’s always a risk of a small eruption and flying rocks, but that’s considered low. The moment we step off the boat, the apprehension goes up a notch as a decaying old sulphur works greets us. Mining began on the island in the 1840’s. It was a harsh environment; workers under constant threat of eruptions, poisonous gasses and unstable land.
Disaster struck in 1914 when the crater wall collapsed and caused a mudflow that killed 11 miners - perhaps wiping away their living quarters in the middle of the night. Nobody knows exactly what happened, no trace of the men was ever found. The only survivor was the miners’ cat. Despite the disaster, mining continued intermittently until the 1930’s, when it was finally abandoned and the sulphur works left to decay.
Today, it’s an eerie reminder not to outstay your welcome. Rusted machinery, exposed continuously to the sulphur, looks like it’s been dunked in nuclear waste. The frame of the building is half buried in rocks and rubble, spewed from the crater after the occasional eruption. It looks like a miniature Pompeii - but the story here is still being written. It will all look completely different in the decades to come. The island is unworldly.
We weave through bubbling mud pits, hot streams, and roaring vents. We’re told to keep to the track. Why? The Government’s volcano expert, GNS Science, puts it quite bluntly: “Volcanic gases at White Island are discharged at high temperatures (100 to 800 degrees) so that anybody falling into a vent would be rapidly cooked.” As we get closer to the crater, every step reveals increasing intensity.
The mud bubbles get bigger, the hisses louder, and my eyes start to sting. We’re about to stare into the eye of Earth’s fury - 150,000 years in the making. The crater lake is a cauldron steaming in all directions, coloured an almost cartoon-like green. There are no barriers, just a rock that we shouldn’t go past. The rear crater wall towers 300 metres into the air, with huge splashes of fluorescent yellow and red - sulphur and iron deposits spewed from below.
Everybody falls silent as awe sweeps over the group. It’s hard to process what we’re looking at - the vents are releasing toxic vapour that has been super-heated by magma deep underground. There is a little sign of life on the island; just a gannet colony sheltered near the sea and trillions of bacteria and algae that live in the crater. Travel is ultimately about creating moments you’ll never forget - just like this one. None of us will ever get to Mars, but this is the next best thing.