Exploring White Island

By: Esha Chanda, Photography by: Esha Chanda and Justin Bennett, Video by: Justin Bennett


From boiling pits of mud to beds of vivid yellow sulphur, a visit to White Island—NZ's only active marine volcano—is an unforgettable multi-sensory experience

New Zealand is known for its epic Lord of the Rings scenery and the extreme adventure activities it offers, and among these world-renowned attractions is the exotic White Island (Whakaari)—one of the few places in the world you can explore a volcano on foot.

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This uninhabited island, 49km off the Whakatane coast, is New Zealand’s only active marine volcano. The highest point on the island is at 321 metres, with a further 440 metres descending below the waterline.

Lunar landscape

While visitors have the option of taking a private helicopter tour to the island, our choice of transportation was aboard White Island Tours vessel, PeeJay IV (Predator and Phoenix being the other two, with a carrying capacity of 45 each).

The boat ride (from Whakatane), though sometimes rough when the sea is a bit choppy, is the perfect lead up to the grand climax. Fifty minutes into the journey—the voyage takes about an hour and a half—White Island emerges on the scene: a thick plume of white smoke escaping from the island and disappearing into the blue skies. But it isn’t until you reach the shore that you realise how impressive the island is. At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, it feels like a scene from The Inferno: bubbling pits of mud, thermal streams, and fumaroles with scorching gases. The sulphur yellow landscape is a volcanic wonder.

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One of the most remarkable things about the island is that you walk from the beach straight to the centre of a bubbling volcano. It’s a surreal feeling. While the photos on these pages portray the magnificence of White Island, the smell of sulphur in the air, the soft acoustics from the volcanic crater, the eerie mist, and the sheer scale of the island is best experienced in person. It’s hauntingly beautiful.

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It’s often said that a tour of this island is akin to walking on the crater of the moon, and it certainly feels like that.

The harsh acidic environment leaves little room for vegetation to grow. Sparse flora can be spotted in the creek bed, and algae survive around some of the vents. It’s in stark contrast to the green landscapes New Zealand is so well known for.

Underneath the water, it’s a different story. Vents emitting heated water, schools of blue maomao, along with demoiselles and moray eels, red snapper, scorpion fish, and others
make White Island a diver’s paradise.

To the west, the Volkner Rocks, which was used for bombing practice by the New Zealand Air Force, offer a spectacular diving spot. You may even find a practice bomb lying on the seabed.

White Island history—a grim past

The first European to discover White Island was then Lieutenant James Cook on 31 October 1769, although the island is believed to be 150,000 to 200,000 years old. Captain Cook is said to have named it White Island because it always appeared to be in a white cloud.

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It wasn’t until 1826 when naval officer turned missionary, Reverend Henry Williams, sailed to White Island that anyone realised it was a volcano. While local Maori claimed ownership of the land, the government deemed it Crown land. It was first purchased in the late 1830s by a Bay of Plenty trader for two barrels of rum. Over the years, the ownership changed several hands until Henry Johnson and John Wilson attained joined possession and started the first sulphur mine in 1885. Since then, several mining operations were undertaken, ceasing abruptly either because of change of ownership or because of the loss of a life on-site.

But White Island’s past is even murkier. Disaster struck on the island in 1914. The horrors of the night still carry an element of mystery with them. It was in September—a mere three months after quarrying had begun—when a section of the southern rim of the crater wall slumped, resulting into a massive lahar that wiped out the buildings and the human lives on the island. The 10 men working on the island were believed to be trapped under the fallen buildings. However, no bodies were recovered; the men had vanished overnight. The only survivor was one of the five camp cats, later named Peter the Great. Today, the remains of the factory on the island serve as a reminder of the disaster.

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Yet, mining attempts did not come to a complete halt. By 1925, a new factory was constructed and mining continued into the 1930s before the Depression hit and all operations were ceased. The island was put up for sale in 1936 and was acquired by George Buttle. Since then, White Island belongs to the Buttle family and has been handed down generations. Today, access to the island is restricted and is controlled through permits introduced in 1995. Only six designated tourist operators hold these permits, one of them being White Island Tours.

The White Island experience

An Alert Level maintained at 1—departure from typical background surface activity but not threatening—allows for private tour operators to take visitors to the island.

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But White Island is known to be grumpy. Guide operators informed us that they often find parts of the landscape altered between two visits and that’s what makes it a fascinating natural laboratory.

Whether you choose to fly or climb aboard a vessel, a tour to White Island is not a budget experience but it’s definitely bucket list worthy. It’s one of those special phenomena that nature has to offer. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, one that leaves you with a lasting memory—in this case, walking on the crater of a live volcano.

White Island Tours

  • White Island Tours operate seven days a week but tours are subject to weather and volcanic activity
  • Bookings are essential
  • White Island Tours are operated from Rotorua and Tauranga
  • A light lunch and safety gear (hard hat and gas mask) are included 
  • For more information, visit whiteisland.co.nz

Park your RV

  • Whakatane is an NZMCA Motorhome Friendly Town
  • There are five campgrounds with dump stations and one without
  • Freedom camping (CSC only) is allowed at McAlister Street Carpark, Maraetotara Reserve, Port Ohope Boat Ramp, Waimana Gorge, and Te Ahiaua Reserve

Check out the video here:

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