A Visit to a Volcano
By Gloria Salavarria
The alarm went off at 4 a.m. and I got up—unsure whether or not I’d get the “go ahead” to visit White Island, the world’s only volcano with an easily accessible mouth.
Live volcanoes are temperamental beasts and I was told one can never be too sure. Those who would transport me by boat across 31 miles of South Pacific Ocean to this smoking land just off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island told me I could get my money back if we got a “no go.”
Somewhere in New Zealand, scientists are monitoring this and other volcanic islands lined up along this eastern-most edge of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate for seismic activity, and then they flip a coin as to whether the danger of the day would be “go” or “don’t even think about it!”
It would take a good part of a day to get to White Island and back again—hence the early morning reveille. I dialed the tour office and the word was “It’s a go—be ready to depart at 6 a.m. sharp.”
Unlike other volcanoes that require a helicopter or 4-wheel-drive vehicle, White Island has a mouth into which one can arrive by boat and walk from the shore right into the crater without having to climb over a rim.
White Island sits in the Bay of Plenty just off the north coast of New Zealand’s North Island—right on the ridge where the Pacific tectonic plate slips underneath the Indo-Australian tectonic plate. This is part of the famous “Ring of Fire” that extends up through California, Alaska, the Japanese Islands, etc.—essentially the rim of the Pacific Ocean.
When I bought my ticket, I was advised to wear sturdy shoes, warm clothing and bring extra water as this would be more than the usual “drive-you-to-the-spot-and-out-of-the-bus-to-take-the-snapshot-of-a-lifetime” tourist venue. Volcanic hotspots attract me like a shopping mall attracts normal women. I just have to see Nature’s cauldron boil and bubble so it was a “given” that I’d want to see White Island before leaving New Zealand.
The crew on board the Peejay V issued each of us a hard hat and gas mask—and safety instructions included not only the usual ones about life jackets, but what to do in case of an eruption or a sudden venting of noxious (and dangerous) gases.
The boat ride itself takes an hour with an extra half-hour allowed in the event we spotted dolphins or other sea life along the way. We indeed saw dolphins—both on the way to and from the island. The ship’s guide informed us that these were “common” dolphins—the variety most often spotted in the world’s oceans, but they were an uncommon sight to most of us who were on board—as could be heard from the clicking of cellphone cameras and other digital instruments.
When Captain James Cook first saw this island in 1769 he named it “White” Island—because, after a while, one does get sick and tired of coming up with new and interesting names for places. At the time, it was said that Cook didn’t realize this was a volcanic island.
Unfortunately in 1914, ten men and a cat found that out the hard way when the southeastern rim of the crater collapsed and killed all but the cat. The cat, whose name was Peter, went on to fame and glory on mainland New Zealand and became “Peter the Great”—sire of numerous feline offspring—a definite case of survival of the smartest.
Our landing site wasn’t far from the factory—our dock was the remains of the factory’s jetty which now serves as the landing ramp for the Peejay White Island Tour’s zodiac. White Island’s regular residents now are only gannets, mutton birds, seagulls and what is believed to be a very small population of Polynesian rats.
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation isn’t concerned about the rats—normally regarded as a pest on the mainland. Neither are they concerned about the gannets, mutton birds and seagulls, which aren’t endangered. As it is, the odds are pretty good the volcano itself will dispatch all life on this island in the near future.
We were told before we disembarked that we would be standing on a volcano that was at alert level 1 on a scale that ranges from 0 to 5 (0 being a “no go”)—and the only other volcano in New Zealand at this moment that rated as high was Mount Ruapehu. That meant mild steam venting and rumbling but nothing more earth-shaking—literally.
Instead, we stood on top of soil so warm we could feel it up through our shoes and it wasn’t just solar warmth that we were feeling. There was only two miles between us and magma.
After picking our way through a field of boulders, we assembled in front of our guide who again told us the safety rules and pointed out the ridge behind which we were to hide in the event of an eruption. What surprised me was “run like hell to the beach and start swimming toward the boat” weren’t part of the instructions.
Instead, the rule was that we should lay flat behind a ridge with our backpack covering and protecting our head and neck—and wear our gas mask—a rule I thought was more suitable to WWI in France than an unpredictable volcano a-hissing and a-rumbling out in the middle of the South Pacific.
We were also issued small hard candies—lollies—and we were told to pop them in our mouth and suck on them as we walked through our tour of the crater. This was a useful ruse to get us to keep our mouths shut and breathe more through our nose, thus keeping our throats moist and less irritated by the vapors coming from the volcano.
We quickly learned that the volcano is fairly saturated with fresh water from rains, and that the water level in the crater lake had risen—and that there is a danger, particularly with the unstable ash soil that makes up the island—that there will be a breech and all that water will come flooding down the floor on which we were standing.
But for now, there was just a stream trickling by and we stopped to put our hands in the water. The water felt warm to the touch—as warm as you’d like your bathwater to be—but then I felt the tingle. The water is very acidic—not suitable for bathing. The water in the stream was a pH factor of 1 on an acidity scale that runs up to 7 being neutral and higher than 10 being basic.
We were soon to learn that the lake itself is a pH factor of 0 and has registered into the negative numbers—a fact they didn’t mention as being possible in the chemistry classes I took back in high school.
Definitely not a place for a swim but a good place to dispose of a body—which is what they think happened to a sulfur mining foreman who one night “went missing” and all that was found of him were a pair of boots placed next to a crater. The authorities never found out what really happened to the guy so the case was ruled a suicide though foul play was suspected.
We weren’t told when to put our gas masks on but it wasn’t long before sucking on lollies just wasn’t good enough to stop us from coughing. Actually, we were there on a very good day—clear and with enough of a breeze to keep the vapors from becoming too irritating. Damp, overcast days are not good days to visit a volcano because these conditions just intensify the irritation that the volcano’s gases will cause.
We were also told that we should not only keep to the trail but stay away from areas where the soil is white because that indicates a hot spot and the possibility of thin crust through which you could break through and suffer a nasty burn—or worse.
When we reached the lake, we were told to go no closer than 5 meters (15 feet) but any closer wasn’t necessary. The waters were an eerie milky light blue with dark ghost patches running across the surface—the shadows of the vapors rising up from the waters.
After Europeans arrived and began divvying up New Zealand, the Māoris claimed they owned White Island, but this claim wasn’t taken too seriously. There was no evidence that they ever lived on the island so the island became “Crown” land—eventually sold to a long succession of men who tried to make a commercial go of it.
White Island’s crater eventually proved to be a financial “hole in the ground” as rumor of its high-grade sulfur deposits proved to be unfounded. Efforts to mine what sulfur was there for agricultural purposes proved to be both dangerous and unprofitable so mining activities ceased in 1933.
The island was then purchased by a guy who said he rather liked the idea of owning a volcano (I can understand that). It’s still privately owned but maintained as a marine reserve and as a place for scientific study and eco-tourism.
The last time there was an eruption here was March 2000. Three small vents on the north wall of the crater began emitting ash. Over the next three days, the vents merged into one. The volcano continued emitting ash until September—barring visits by all but the most dedicated of volcanologists.
This is what White Island does—it doesn’t spew out lava, it blows ash and rocks—and because of that, it erodes more rapidly than a lava volcano. This erosion into the sea, over time, builds up an undersea plateau that at some point will be lifted up to form dry land—more land to be added to New Zealand’s North Island—by the activity of the Pacific tectonic plate sliding underneath the Indo-Australian plate.
This is how New Zealand itself was formed by the combined activities of lava and ash-spewing volcanoes and by undersea plateaus being lifted up by tectonic action.
One of the people in my group mentioned that iron in the black volcanic sands on the West Coast makes it impossible for people to use metal detectors to find items along the beach. Indeed, New Zealand is rich in iron ore which has made this archipelago a good place for humans to settle—first the Moriori natives, then the Māori and now the Pakeha (Europeans).
After a lunch on board the Peejay V, we headed back to Whakatane by sailing around the island for one last look. The north side of the island has some trees taking root to form a forest but the bare remains of a previous attempt by trees to reforest this island shows that such efforts take time and patience.
The Bay of Plenty in which White Island sits is itself the remains of a volcano—a super-volcano.
Later that afternoon, after I got back to shore, I was amazed at how salty my skin tasted—more so than what I had experienced before when venturing out to the sea on other occasions. When I looked into the mirror, I discovered my clothing had been mildly bleached. This condition was temporary, as the lighter color “came out in the wash” later, when I did my laundry.
It is a good thing that I don’t have clothes that I care about on this trip.
Four days later, an island just north of White Island erupted and made me realize just how dangerous it was to visit White Island. They still haven’t found one of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation workers who was taking temperature readings along that island’s crater lake just before the eruption.
New Zealand may not have to worry much about cyclones but they’ve got other things such as earthquakes and active volcanoes to take up the slack.