If you have never spent the holiday season in the Southern hemisphere then you are missing out! While a white Christmas and cold New Years are fantastic, but, there is something magical about swimming in the ocean and exploring offshore islands, especially on New Year’s Eve! On this day we made our way to White Island in New Zealand.
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Our Experience (Photo Essay and Story)
On our trip to White Island, our inner 6 year-old finally had his day, as this absolutely magical place looks like it could easily house dinosaurs, pirates and even the occasional wide eyed tourist.
When we were kids, volcanoes were one of the most fascinating things in the universe, right up there with dinosaurs, and both were conveniently found in the same places – lonely islands in the middle of the ocean, covered in mists and bone chilling roars.
White Island or Whakaari is an active andesite stratovolcano, situated in the Bay of Plenty, 48 km off the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. And when we say active, we mean very active – it is the most active cone volcano in all of New Zealand, a land known for its volcanic activity. The full Māori name for the island is “Te Puia o Whakaari”, or “The Dramatic Volcano”, so all this activity is nothing new. White Island always had a big personality.
To get to White Island, the easiest way is by boat from Whakatane (ok, the actual easiest way is by helicopter, but we’re guessing most of our readers aren’t the helicoptering kind), where a charter service offers guided tours to the island. If you’d like to sail to the volcano yourself, that’s probably a no-no, as the island is privately owned and only the tour operators have been granted permission to visit.
The trip to the island took about one and a half hours one way. We found it fun that the waters were a bit choppy, but some of the other visitors didn’t find their sea legs too well and we had a few pale faces gripping the railings.
Despite this bit of gastric turmoil, midway, something magical happened – the boat was suddenly followed by a pod of about 20 dolphins, including a few baby dolphins. They put on an incredible show with lots of leaping and amazing feats of speed and agility and followed us for a good fifteen minutes.
The closer we got to the island, and the larger the cloud of smoke over that rock jutting out of the ocean, the clearer it became that we were really going to visit an active volcano. That feeling got even more intense when the guides handed us gas masks before we arrived. This was serious.
Compared to your more well known, lava spewing volcanoes, White Island doesn’t gurgle any liquid rock, instead it ejects bits of scoria, a porous andesite rock that covers the island. And it has sulfur, lots of it. There even used to be a sulphur mine on the island, but it fell into oblivion as an eruption claimed the lives of 10 miners in 1914, who disappeared without a trace. It soon became too expensive in both money and lives to mine on White Island. But the sulphur remains, and it’s the reason for the gas masks. The air on the island isn’t actually toxic, it can just be very irritating, especially if someone has asthma or other respiratory conditions.
The landscape of the island is nothing if not completely otherworldly. It’s a vista of grey andesite rock, bright yellow sulphur vents with white, billowing clouds of steam rising above them, and eerily clear boiling streams. In the middle of it all is the caldera lake, with its enticing light turquoise water and plumes of steam coming off the surface. If you didn’t hear the guide mention the -0.5 PH, you could easily mistake it for nature’s Jacuzzi. With one little caveat – this hot tub can melt your bones.
The island, though apparently not friendly to life, is nonetheless populated. On a flat part of the island, away from the crater, a lush green hillside is the breeding ground for over 3000 Australasian gannets, which gives the Island the title of Important Bird Area by BirdLife International. We could see the colony very well as we splashed around in the water next to the island, a welcome cool-down after our trip to New Zealand’s equivalent of Hades.
The ruins of the old sulphur mining operation are the last spectacular remnants of the human occupation of the island, and they’ve been claimed by the corrosive fumes. The steel parts of the buildings have been turned into what looks like rust coloured wet phonebooks, just layers upon layers of corrosion, all the way through.
How to Visit White Island
White Island is accessible by boat (or helicopter) from a number of towns in New Zealand. The best town to visit White Island from is Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty. There are boat tour operators that Launch out from the mainland to take the 1-hour 15-minute journey to the island. We used White Island Tours to take our trip and they were amazing.
White Island is one of the most easily accessible active volcanoes in the world. As the volcano stretches up from the ocean floor, only the very tip is exposed to the air. Therefore, you can drive the boat right to the crater without having to climb the volcano!
While on your tour you’ll see sulphur vents, hot water streams and a lake of steaming acid. The crater lake changes colours periodically depending on what is happening in the magma chamber below.
White Island Tours
The tour of the island takes around 1-1.5 hours so the entire trip takes around 5-6 hours all up.
Departing Whakatane you take a 1.5-hour catamaran trip to the island. Depending on the direction (and size) of the swell your landing location will be determined on the fly. From here, it is a short inflatable boat journey ashore.
The experienced guides begin with a safety briefing and you are advised to wear your helmet and respirator at all times. An important point to note is that if you have ever had breathing difficulties from a condition such as Asthma, you’re advised to bring along your inhaler. The sulfurous air can cause your airways to become restricted.
You’ll visit the Sulphur Chimneys, Crater Lake, Hot Water Streams and a number of other geological features as you stroll through the crater. Finally, you arrive at the abandoned sulphur mine and hear the unfortunate story of its occupants.
The tour costs $229 NZD per adult and $130 NZD for children under 15 years old. You must book in advance. The tour is weather dependent, you will receive confirmation the night prior to departure as to whether the tour will be able to depart. You won’t be charged if the tour doesn’t depart.
The following information is given from the official website as to what to bring and what is included:
What to Bring:
- Fully enclosed shoes with good grip.
- Warm waterproof jacket
- Drink/water bottle: a water filling station is available on board to refill, as required.
- Swimming gear is optional in summer
What is Included:
- Quality cruising aboard purpose-built vessels
- Professional and experienced crew and tour guides
- 1 – 1.5 hour fully guided walking tour of White Island’s inner crater area
- A light packed lunchbox
- Safety gear (gas mask and hard hat)
- Permit to land on the island
- Department of Conservation permit to spend time with any marine mammals that we encounter
You can find more information on the official website here.
White Island Tour Reviews
Don’t just take my word for it, check out these reviews from Trip Advisor. It truly is a once in a lifetime experience:
Great day out!!
We had the best day with White Island Tours. Phil and Kaitlyn were our tour guides for the day and both with so much knowledge of the area. It was the best feeling being on a live volcano experiencing the surroundings of sulphate and environment. We were provided everything that was required such as helmet and masks as the sulphate gets into your throat. We got to taste the water from the streams. Safety of our well-being was a high priority so was very comfortable being on this Island. We also got to swim in the water offshore where it was fresh but in some areas, you can feel the warmth from the underwater thermal vents before hopping back onto the boat and provided a nice lunch. On the way back we saw pods of dolphins which the captain slowed down for us to see and even turned the boat around to make waves for them to jump over. Highly recommend this tour and want to thank the team for giving us a once of a lifetime adventure. Triscina from Australia
An amazing, unearthly tour!
After a cruise around New Zealand, we spent a few extra days in Whakatane just to take the White Island Tour. So glad we did. The tour and tour leaders were outstanding! While the boat ride is long (1 hour, 20 minutes), it was definitely worth it. The Island is other-worldly with fumaroles, pressure mounds, and sulfur chimneys making you think you are on another planet. And yet, it never feels unsafe thanks to the tour leaders and their attention to your safety. The tour leaders are also very knowledgeable about the island’s geography and history. I do NOT recommend this tour for those with walking difficulties as you are required to climb in and out of small boat and travel over uneven ground. Also NOT recommended for small children or those adults with breathing difficulties. Do your research before booking!
Where to Stay in Whakatane
White Island feels like a place from another time, even another world. Overall, we have to say that the trip there is well worth the price and it’s an incredible destination for anyone who loves nature, alien landscapes and loves witnessing the power of the earth.
Words by Alex Kaschuta