The steamy side of White Island New Zealand

From a distance all you see is a thick plume of smoke, but as you get closer that plume reveals itself to be White Island, New Zealand’s only active marine volcano.

Located off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island, near the Bay of Plenty, White Island is said to be nearly 200,000 years old, but it only broached the surface about 16,000 years old – which means it was a feature here long before the Maori arrived somewhere around the 13th or 14th Century, and they call the island Whakaari.

Scientists and vulcanologists are attracted to the island because of its unique qualities, and visitors are also welcome to experience its primeval landscape.

So what makes White Island so interesting to science? Below ground, underwater fumaroles and submarine geothermal activity add to the island’s mystery, while simultaneously providing a warm, temperate environment where a diverse ecosystem thrives.

Offshore, Laison’s Reef is a deep underwater paradise inhabited by thousands of blue and pink maomao and demoiselles, which are surface-feeding fish endemic to New Zealand, and which can live to a relatively long age. Nearby Champagne Bay has many underwater vents with escaping bubbles so named because they resemble a glass of champagne.

White Island has no human population, it used to be home to sulphur gatherers, but with constant eruptions the small township, and all of its inhabitants, were wiped out when a lahar, a pyroclastic mudflow, wiped them out in 1914.

Today, White Island is privately owned and there are four tourism operators who are licensed to take visitors to the island.  Walking upon the island is akin to walking on an alien world as it is too toxic for vegetation to grow and there are fumaroles and craters, with amusing names like Donald Duck and Nellie, that are still active. Giant mounds, remnants of the 1914 Great Landslide, dwarf visitors as they wind their way up to the Main Crater.  Venturing to the edge, they are greeted by an amazing sight – an immense crater, with towering walls shielding its spectacular lake and punctuated by steamy vents from which the power of the inner earth constantly belches forth. White Island currently sits on an alert level rating of 1, meaning she is always active.

To get there by boat takes about 80 minutes from the departure point at Whakatane Wharf.  You need to be able bodied to visit White Island as there is a short ladder to climb, a steel planking system to cross, and some boulders to negotiate before reaching the shore.

During the voyage, depending on the time of year, you may be fortunate enough to see whales, dolphins and fur seals.

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