I was back to my old camera for this trip, not wanting to risk my newer one in such a hostile environment (Whakaari/White Island being an active volcano with poisonous gases continuously seeping). It meant the photos afterwards took a long time to upload and often failed altogether which was quite frustrating. Lots of cuppas helped with the patience levels!
I’ll be putting quite a few photos into this blog, and the one where I visit Mt Tarawera in a few days time. They are all part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone which is endlessly fascinating to me.
Kevin and I studied the metservice’s weather predictions for this trip, hoping for a calm sea journey. The best days were going to be the first few days of September, so I booked us for September 2nd.
I had the Geo Nuclear Science (GNS) White Island App loaded onto my phone so we could see that the Volcanic Alert Level of activity on the island, on it’s scale of 1 to 5, was sitting on 1. Sweet time to go, though of course there’s always enough unpredictability in volcanoes to create a risk of an eruption in spite of measurements and readings.
Shiver, White Island – another place I’ve wanted to visit forever. Amazing how long it can take to get to places you really want to see.
We drove early from where we were staying near Rotorua to the meeting point in Whakatāne at the White Island Tour headquarters. Across the road the tour boat lay tied to the jetty on the Whakatāne River. At the check in, we each had to read and sign a page that ensured our physical suitability and footwear, and that made it clear we were about to walk around the crater of an active volcano.
Our boat, Te Puia Whakaari (which more or less means ‘the geyser that’s made visible) is the newest boat in the fleet for White Island Tours – what a beauty! We could sit where we liked inside except for the back row of seating which was reserved for anyone who might become seasick. Hopefully there’s none of that today with the sea as flat as naan bread!
This photo’s looking towards the Whakatāne River mouth (right on the photo), where we will be exiting the river to cross the part of the Bay of Plenty that holds Whakaari/White Island. The river mouth is extremely rocky and narrow, and is a major cause, in iffy weather, of tours being postponed until another day. Looking across the river, the peak you can see is the volcanic island Moutohora.
We were looking at Whakaari/White Island through the boat’s windows (top right, very faint in photo) when the tour guides told us to look out for whales – we were buzzed to realise we might see whales as well as the island. Then there they were! Humpbacks! The skipper turned the boat’s engine off and we watched as they came really close around us. I got as close as I’ve ever been to a whale this day and it was an awesome experience. They lifted themselves out of the water to jump gracefully in spite of their weight. They didn’t seem at all worried by us. There were two species of baleen whales within our sight: one being humpbacks and the other I think the tour guide said were sei whales heading south for the summer, where they will feed for a few months before returning nearer to the equator for the winter. There were plenty of birds out and about too; this area is rich in marine life which provides food for a variety of animals.
I love this shot of Kevin’s (he took it on his phone) with the humpback in the foreground and Whakaari at the back.
Here are some of the birds we saw – the native Australasian gannet. Whakaari holds one of the biggest colonies of these gannets in Australasia. For some reason many – but not all – of the fledglings at around 15 weeks of age lift themselves into the air and migrate to Australia. Only about 30 percent of these survive the flight. They remain in the warmer climate on the southern and eastern coasts of Australia for three or four years before returning to their turangawaewae (home) on Whakaari.
Here we’re coming into Crater Bay and our landing spot on Whakaari. Nearly there! Whakaari is a stratovolcano made up largely of andesite, with some dacite and a bit of basalt from past eruptions. It’s submerged, with only the top 30 percent of its volume poking above the waves. It’s about 150 000 years old, so it was growing up during the latter years that the Okataina Caldera was still being formed (where we were in the last blog). Evidence of it’s latter years show it’s largely formed from eruptions that are phreatic (steam driven), phreamagmatic (when rising magma interacts with water near or at the surface) and pyroclastic in nature. Eruptions are typically small – though you wouldn’t want to be in the way of any of them – and there is evidence of small lava flows too.
We transferred to the island in three groups via the zodiac inflatable belonging to the boat.
Happily travelling, happily waiting…we put on life jackets, helmets and gas masks before climbing into the zodiac.
This is the site of the old wharf from the sulphur mining days of the early 1900’s; and the point at which we clambered up a short ladder onto the island. You can see the factory workings in the background; we’ll have a better look at that at the end of our tour.
Our life jackets came off and we settled into two groups, each accompanied by two guides. Our guides were Kelsey and Hayden. It was easy to pick them out as they wore emergency packs and orange helmets while the rest of us wore yellow ones.
Yep, our boat Te Puia Whakaari’s still there – hope it doesn’t leave us behind! You can still see the wharf, just, on the left.
We followed a trail along the southwest wall of the Crater Rim, moving slowly, stopping often, seeing all the different rocks, ash and colours. Our guides were a mine of information and talked on a whole range of topics to do with Whakaari – health and safety, bird life, plant life, marine life, geology, scientific research, Māori history, European mining history, and Māori myths and legends were all there for anyone who was listening.
Crater erosion in action; a dry stream that cuts and flows in storms but dries out in settled weather – one of many that we saw.
Kevin and I often stopped to look back the way we had come, taking the time to try and see everything, making the most of the time we had here. We could see steam rising from several different parts of the crater and learned that some of these are craters within the crater. We also saw a helicopter on one of the landing pads. We looked around and eventually spotted its occupants, a group of three people walking on high ground on the opposite side of the crater to us.
This is an even better photo than before showing erosion within the crater – the runnels are deep where loose, soft tephra material is easily washed away. Not all the erosion in the crater is natural – drains were dug in the early days of sulphur mining to rid the crater of the lakes that often filled it. The Crater Rim is built of tuff, which is compacted volcanic material, quite unstable to walk on. A track once led over the Rim somewhere at this point which the late 1920’s/early 1930’s miners used to walk over, from their house on the shoreline into the crater. Their house was built outside the crater due to the ten miners in 1914 who were buried in a lahar (volcanic slurry flow) as they slept in their own house set within the Crater Rim.
Getting closer to all the steam.
And closer! We can see the sulphurous fumaroles now, that comprise the Donald Mound. The ground as you can see is pretty humpy – this is apparently due to debris deposited by the 1914 lahar that killed the ten miners living in the crater.
Well, I thought we were close but it turns out we dropped a little in elevation and could barely see the fumaroles for some minutes.
The humps in this photo are recent developments – pressure and heat has built up below causing the ground to expand into these ‘bubbles.’ We were warned not to step on them incase the ground collapsed us into super heated rocks and ash below.
These are typical of the rocks and ash on the island – these ones have a tiny stream running through them. You can’t be deceived by the clearness of the streams on this island – they are all poisonous, filled with sulphuric acid and traces of arsenic amongst other chemicals. When miners lived on the island, whether they were the early 1900’s group or the late 1920’s/early 1930’s group, all their water was brought in monthly by boat, apparently sometimes in old petrol tanks that weren’t very well washed out. Most of the men did a three month stint (the contracted length) and never went back. The longest lasting was a young man of the late 1920s/early 1930s – he could handle the environment so well that he kept signing up for more stints, staying for a total of two years. Some of the men who arrived on the island didn’t even get off the boat, just took one look and climbed the mast, refusing to come down until the boat was docked back on the mainland!
Welded rock fragments – also called welded tuff. Possibly this rock is an example of one that’s made up of both lava flow material and erupted material. Either way, it was really lovely!
Here we are, at the Donald Mound, an area of fumarole activity.
The Donald Mound fumaroles are forming beautiful sulphur deposits. The steam to be seen on this island is comprised of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and small amounts of flourine and chlorine. Our tour guide Hayden passed out sweets for everyone to suck to keep our mouths salivated around the more acrid area at the western end of the crater. They worked, making the air seem less acrid on our throats. I put my mask on once for a few moments when I got too close to a bit of steam, but mostly sucking on the sweets did the trick. There were lots left over so Kevin ended up with a handful! We were at the very back of our group as I was trying to get photos without lots of people masking every view.
I know, this photo’s pretty much the same as the one above – I just can’t help myself, surrounded by so much beauty!
We started walking again, on towards the crater lake. Looking back on the Donald Mound activity…
Since the 1914 lahar, volcanic activity on Whakaari has been observed and recorded, and more recently testing carried out. Several times since then the active crater or craters have shifted and reformed. We heard about the Christmas Crater that used to be in the front left of the one that’s there now – if I understood correctly there were two craters then, on the current site where there’s now just one big one. The water has built up in the current one and is at a pretty high level at the moment. Apparently it’s so high that a couple of previously open air vents are now covered and causing fumaroles to be thrown up. I took a video of one and will have a go at uploading it here. The Crater Rim collapse of the early 1900’s happened on the left of this photo, around the corner behind the crater lake. It sent the crater lake/s of the time flying all the way to the other end of the crater (approximately to where our boat is waiting), picking up a mish-mash of volcanic debris on the way. The ten men were buried so deeply that a supply boat dropping goods, while thinking it was unusual for them not to come at the sounding of his horn, merely thought they’d gone for a trip to the other side of the island. It must have bugged him though, as he returned within a couple of days and realised what had happened when he walked ashore. The sole survivor from this disaster was a cat, Peter the Great, who apparently has many descendents living in and around Whakatāne today!
Looks like it worked. This is a close up video with the fumarole in the centre, near the front of all the steam. You’ll see the steam of the fumarole is black – that’s what it’s like before it cools and turns white.
We started walking back to the boat, still moving slowly, following a route down the centre of the crater, making a loop with the trail we came in on. Everywhere, steaming ground! The water in the stream was bubbling away in places.
We climbed a rise that had great views. There’s regular testing of the volcano that’s carried out by GNS scientists – gas, water, temperatures, surface elevation to name a few. We saw a lot of paraphanalia connected to this testing as we went around – it shows up in many photos but might be too small to see. We could see back to the Donald Mound and to where the big crater lake lies.
And this view is looking towards the east side of the crater, towards craters within the crater.
Onwards, back to the boat.
I dipped my finger tip into a part of the stream that wasn’t boiling and tasted the water – yep, even though it looks clear as glass it definitely tastes like sulphuric acid and maybe a few other chemicals as well!
That’s boiling water, there in the foreground.
The rocks at this end of the crater (where we started and ended our walk) are older than the ones at the other end, as they were spat out when there were active craters at this end. The craters have slowly moved to the western end, so the rocks there are the youngest on the island. The craters of this volcano have typically always, as far as the evidence shows at least, thrown rocks that land fairly close to their source.
Sometimes the sea washes right through from Wilson’s Bay (directly in front of us) to Crater Bay (out of the photo, to our right). There’s a lot of driftwood that’s been deposited. Depending where the weather’s coming from, the tour boats sometimes land in Wilson’s Bay when it’s too rough in Crater Bay.
Looking back towards the Crater Lake – and look, off to the left are two more helicopter pads.
Heading in to the remnants of the old mining buildings, back where we started from.
These wooden beams of the old accommodation house have lasted far longer than anything metal in the corrosive air of Whakaari.
This was the factory where the sulphur was crushed and purified ready for shipping out and using to make medicine. White Island sulphur was renowned for its purity.
A final talk and time to explore…
There’s Te Puia Whakaari, phew, it hasn’t abandoned us! The small island you can see is part of the Club Rocks, the home of the Australasian Gannet colony.
Once we all congregated on the wharf, along came the skipper bringing the zodiac.
Back on the boat, we ate lunch provided by the tour and were invited to the top deck, where we slowly circumnavigated the island.
This is the jutting Troup Head that stands tall between Crater Bay and Wilson’s Bay.
Wilson’s Bay. You can see where white sea water is hitting into the cliffs – there are a few sea caves there.
In places we could see steam rising from the rocks at this end of the island.
Pohutukawa and ice plants, amongst others, grow on the island. It’s just far enough away from all that heat and poisonous air over the hill! Whakaari is privately owned by New Zealand’s Buttle family, but they work with DoC to ensure conservation of plant, animal and marine life on and around the island.
North Island Muttonbirds, or petrels, live way up high here, above the grassy looking patches of ground.
When we reached the western side of the island it was time to head back downstairs to our seats, and we sped off towards Whakatāne
Unbelievably awesome, we paused for another whale watching session. Actually I think the skipper and tour guides were totally into it themselves – our guide Kelsey told us that they really only get to see the whales themselves when the sea is calm, and they love making the most of seeing them.
Seated again, heading for Whakatāne while looking at the Okataina Caldera’s eastern most stratovolcano Putauaki/Mt Edgecombe, and watching it grow bigger.
Back on the mainland, we walked along and got as close as we could to the river mouth through which we had entered and exited to get to Whakaari. I hadn’t been able to get photos from inside the boat, but we could see this statue of Wairaka, or the Lady on the Rock, that the tour guides were telling us about so I wanted to get this shot of her. She stands on Turuturu Rock, and tells a story from the 1400’s migration of Māori to NZ shores – the men all climbed out of the newly-arrived waka, Mataatua, to explore a little while the women waited on the waka. The waka began drifting back out to sea, so Wairaka, the daughter of the captain Toroa, called on the gods, asking for the strength of a man, and thus she was able to direct the women to take up the oars and paddle Mataatua back to the shore. NZ Politician Sir William Sullivan commissioned this statue in 1965 to commemorate his wife who had recently died.
At the rivermouth you can walk out on these rocks if you like. The small island you can see is the volcanically active Moutohora Island which I briefly mentioned at the start of this blog. We passed it en route to and from Whakaari and the tour guides told us a bit about it.
Looking along the river from its mouth, towards the township of Whakatāne
What a gorgeous day and awesome trip – one of the best. We’ll remember it forever!
Postscript: On the afternoon of December 9th, 2019, 47 people comprised of tourists and tour guides were caught out in a phreatic eruption on Whakaari/White Island. Ultimately, 21 of these died and there were injuries to the remaining 26, some of them severe. It was surreal news for us, as we knew it could’ve been us or anyone like us who’s in the frame of mind to undertake tours such as these. Our thoughts remain with the survivors and the ones who didn’t make it, and their families.