Whakaari / White Island

Whakaari / White Island is located 48 km from the coast of the Bay of Plenty. This privately owned nature reserve is the peak of a much larger submarine andesite stratovolcano. Since ancient times Māori of the local tribe Ngāti Awa visited Te Puia Whakaari (The Dramatic Volcano) to hunt seabirds, mostly petrels and gannets, and to preserve the meat on location with the help of fumaroles. On 1st October 1769 Captain James Cook named Whakaari "White Island" because it was almost always obscured by dense clouds of steam.

As was demonstrated in a gruesome manner by the most recent eruption on 9th December 2019, when twenty-two people lost their lives, two of them remain missing, and many were injured, Whakaari / White Island is the most active volcano of New Zealand. Its predominant eruption style is hydrothermal or phreatic, whereby the heat of ascending magma meets groundwater and causes a violent steam-driven eruption accompanied by ejections of hot boulders and ash.

White Island, Eastern Subcrater
Whakaari / White Island, view from the eastern subcrater towards the area of active vents

It happened that we visited Whakaari / White Island on 17th November 2019, three weeks before the eruption. The very next day, the geological hazard information service for New Zealand GeoNet raised the Volcanic Alert Level from 1 (minor volcanic unrest) to 2 (moderate to heightened volcanic unrest) on a scale of 0 (no volcanic unrest) to 5 (major volcanic eruption). During the days after the eruption we learned to our great dismay that not only the number of victims is very high, but that also two of our tour guides are presumably dead and others are injured. We want to extend our sympathy to all victims and their relatives and express our solidarity.

Even if Whakaari / White Island currently remains closed to public access and the Ngāti Awa have placed a rāhui (ceremonial ban) over the volcano and the waters around, we decided to inlude our trip report and pictures here. On our visit we knew that the volcano was in an active phase, that it could erupt anytime with little or no warning and we accepted the risk. In addition, we hereby wish to honour the great work and passion of our tour guides, who made this visit possible in the first place.

As of 1995 you need a permit in order to visit Whakaari / White Island, issued by a registered tour operator. We booked a guided tour in advance and on 17th November the boat named Te Puia Whakaari took our group to the jetty in White Island's Crater Bay. From the jetty we got a first stunning look towards the active centre of the volcano. The water of the bay is greenish clouded by sulfurous fluids discharged from the volcanic springs.

White Island, Crater Bay
View from Crater Bay towards the centre

The short hike of 800 metres (0.5 mi) from the jetty to the crater lake first ran along the southwestern crater wall, where large fumaroles deposited huge amounts of bright yellow sulfur crystals. The first steam vent we met was also the largest accessible one and at the same time the hottest one. It is called Fumarole Zero (also written as Fumarole 0) and geologists believe that it represents a direct degassing conduit from the magma reservoir. The group in front of Fumarole Zero gives a good impression of its dimensions.

White Island, Fumarole 0
Fumarole Zero

Next to Fumarole Zero cables and wooden structures are evidence of scientific monitoring activities. Almost all scientific reports about volcanic activity on White Island access data obtained from Fumarole Zero.

White Island, Fumarole 0
Fumarole Zero, view in southeastern direction

Often landslides from the slope above reshaped the fumarole and every time the hot gases formed new active vents. Depending on ascending magma the emitted volcanic gases are between 150 °C and more than 190 °C (300-375 °F) hot. They are very corrosive and consist mainly of steam, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Both scientists and visitors should wear gas masks to protect against the sulfurousĀ steam.

White Island, Fumarole 0
Fumarole Zero, view in western direction

Northwest of Fumarole Zero in close vicinity the next large steam vent showed up, called Fumarole 1. It was smaller but hardly less impressive. On our visit it displayed a great variety of sulfur built sub-structures such as towers, craters as well as scaly and furry surface coatings. Hard to tell whether the dazzlingly bright colours or the acrid steam did more sting in the eyes.

White Island, Fumarole 1
Fumarole 1

Until 2009 the trail also passed Dragon's Foot up close, a further large fumarole still farther northwest. However, in May 2009 a landslide buried the fumarole, forcing the ascending gas to form new vents. Shortly afterwards ingress of hot water turned one of the vents into a powerful geyser and flooded the old trail. Even after the geyser had disappeared visitor groups used a different trail and stayed clear of the unstable Dragon's Foot area. Therefore we saw the feature only from a somewhat larger, safe distance. There are several further large fumaroles in the area, some of them named such as the Noisy Nelly north of the crater lake, but none of those is close to the visitor trail.

White Island, Dragon's Foot
Fumarole 1 on the left side and Dragon's Foot in centre of the picture

Leaving the fumaroles behind we set off to the crater lake. Without exaggeration one can say that the sight was simply overwhelming. We were lucky that sun and steam perfectly staged the scenery. The crater lake, which would be shortly afterwards buried by the eruption, was a little bit agitated and steamy but still showed much of its famous jade green colour. It contained mainly hot sulfuric acid of a pH close to 1, what is quite similar to battery acid. However, most of the time of its existence the temperature of this lake was not as hot as former lakes, namely between 30 °C and 50 °C (86-125 °F). Accordingly, the acid in it was not as concentrated as in its predecessors. In the course of history all crater lakes of Whakaari / White Island were quite short living. The one we saw had developed from April 2018 onwards after the former lake was destroyed by the eruption on 27th April 2016.

White Island, Crater Lake
Crater Lake of Whakaari / White Island on 17th November 2019

As it is true for the lakes also the very craters are short living features. According to the Global Volcanism Network, the current crater goes back to the 2016 eruption, too. In that incident the area around the so-called Donald Duck Crater collapsed and exploded, followed by the eruption of the former lake in the adjacent 1978/1990 crater complex. As a result the lake floor dropped at least 13 m (43 feet), old crater walls collapsed and a new, much larger crater arose out of its predecessors.
Beyond the crater lake a steaming hill is visible, which is a lava dome generated by an extrusion in November/December 2012, not long after the explosive eruption on 5th August 2012. In the course of the 2016 eruption on the left (southwestern) side of the dome a large gas vent appeared, called Dome Vent. The next picture shows the lava dome and the gas vent beside it, which at the time of our visit was drowned by the lake and acted as a busy mud volcano.

White Island, Lava Dome
Lava dome and gas vent on the far side of the crater lake

GeoNet reported geyser-like explosions of mud and steam with a maximum height of about 10 metres (33 feet) around the lava dome since August 2019. An update of 3rd December 2019, mentioned mud fountains in this area reaching up to 20-30 metres (65-100 feet). The height of the eruptions we saw is hard to estimate due to the huge distance. Based on the fact that the lava dome has a height of more than 30 metres (100 feet) and is approximately half way drowned by the lake, the observed mud fountains may have been 10 metres (33 feet) high. Exactly this spot is assumed to be the centre of the devastating phreatic eruption on 9th December 2019, triggered by magma which had ascended just below the lake. The magma rose so close to the surface that its glow eluminated the sky through the opening of the major gas vent, which could be seen on night time camera images captured from the coast by GeoNet scientists.

White Island, Mud Fountain
Close-up of a mud fountain erupting from a gas vent beside the lava dome

On the way back to the jetty our group followed a stream that drained rainwater but also water emitted from thermal features off to the sea.

White Island, Stream
Stream on Whakaari / White Island

The guides encouraged us to taste the water of the stream. The flavour was somewhat between vinegar and lemon juice with a strange metallic undertone. In the further course of the stream some small ponds became visible which were bluish clouded by suspended silica particles.

White Island, Stream
Stream on Whakaari / White Island, looking downstream in direction of the sea

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