Captivated by White Island
Taking a helicopter flight to White Island just adds to the wow factor.
Taking a helicopter flight to White Island just adds to the wow factor, writes Jo-Marie Baker.
An active volcano is one of the most powerful yet fragile places on earth. To actually step foot inside a live crater is a rare opportunity but on New Zealand’s White Island (Whakaari) you can easily explore this arid landscape, taste the metallic atmosphere on your lips and feel the full force of Mother Nature as 1000°C gas thunders out of the ground towards you. White Island sits 49km out to sea off the Bay of Plenty coastline and is New Zealand’s most active volcano. Most of this geothermal behemoth sits underneath the water but an impressive crater rim belching white steam is visible from Whakatane and neighbouring coastal towns. The thrills begin at Frontier Helicopters’ base at Whakatane Airport. They run up to five Volcanic Adventure Tours to White Island every day and have several helicopters among their fleet. We hop aboard their Airbus AS350 with our pilot and tour guide, Mark Law, who expertly lifts off, leaving my heart thumping and my mouth open-wide. If you’ve never flown in a helicopter before it’s an exhilarating experience and should be on everyone’s bucket list. Within seconds we’ve left land behind and are heading out over the vast blue Pacific Ocean towards White Island. We’re on the early 8am tour and the rising sun glimmers off the water as Mark starts to explain the island’s sulphur mining history and surrounding sea life. Some days you can spot dolphins in the water and even the occasional blue whale in summer, while fishermen flock to this area to reel in kingfish, marlin and yellowfin tuna. Nearing the island, Mark points out the impressive gannet colonies which sit perched on the southern shores upon small green oases of succulent plants. Aside from another small cluster of pohutukawa trees on the northern side, the rest of the island is completely bare. We land in Crater Bay and the smell of sulphur hits as soon as the helicopter doors slide open. Mark hands out helmets and gas masks which we occasionally breathe into during our 75 minute walking tour when the gas catches in the back of your throat and starts to make you cough. Our surroundings are what I imagine another planet might look
like. Cliffs scoured by rainfall and streaked with shades of yellow and pink tower above us, while boulders and loose rocks are piled precariously all around. The rocks look heavy but many of them are scoria and simply disintegrate into dust when you crush them. Hot water streams trickle beneath your feet (the water tastes like you’re licking a battery) and hissing vents emit clouds of white steam everywhere you look. As we walk closer to the crater lake the noise grows ever louder until at last the true power of White Island reveals itself. An enormous steam vent that would rival any Hollywood special effect, swirls scorching hot gas into the air like a super-charged LPG blow heater. The roar is deafening and the gas turns into a billowing white cloud as it hits the cold air. Mark says the crater lake (and indeed the entire island landscape) is constantly changing. Today the lake is milky blue, but can vary in colour between different shades of blue and green depending on the micro-organisms living in the water. He points out different ‘sulphur chimneys’ that have formed in recent weeks – tall bright yellow columns that puff out gas from the top – and boiling mud pits
which “pop up all the time”. While ash events and thermal eruptions happen semi-frequently, scientists keep a close eye on the island’s rumblings to try and keep everyone as safe as possible. The last magma eruption was in July 2000. White Island’s unpredictable nature has indeed claimed lives in the past, and our guided tour includes a visit to the abandoned ruins of a sulphur mining factory. Ten workers were swept to their deaths by a lahar in 1914 after part of the crater’s rim collapsed. Only their camp cat, Peter, survived. Now, the gas and salt are eating away at the steel machinery and partially-collapsed factory walls that remain. New scientific equipment and cameras are strategically placed around the crater rim and on the volcanic ash floor below. White Island is one very cool science lab and there’s nowhere better to appreciate and study the geothermal forces which have shaped Aotearoa. As we climb back on board the helicopter, Mark hands out boiled sweets to help get the taste of sulphur out of our mouths. Traces of the yellow chemical element are everywhere, staining the ground, rocks and even affecting the colour of the ocean as it laps White Island’s shores. But the effect is fascinating and beautiful to see. There is no fresh water on White Island so it’s a good idea to bring a bottle with you. You’ll also need to wear sturdy covered shoes and be able to handle walking on uneven terrain. There are endless photo opportunities (so don’t forget your camera) and chances to ask plenty of questions. Daily boat tours to White Island are also available but taking a helicopter there and back definitely adds to the excitement and wow-factor. Frontier Helicopters promises “the best two hours in New Zealand” and they certainly deliver.