The Lethal Wonders of the Whakaari Volcano (White Island)

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Like an open wound to the depths of the earth, bleeding sulphuric acid and emanating toxic gases, the White Island or 'the dramatic volcano' in Maori, is an overwhelming place, and traveling there is an experience of sight, sound, and smell unlike any other.

This living volcano that can erupt at any time, is situated 48 kilometers (30miles) out at the sea in New Zealand, belonging to the Taupo Volcanic Zone, and stands right where the Pacific and Indian-Australian plates collide.

Whakaari Volcano

A Jules Verne character could descend into the gates of the underworld, somewhere in this roughly circular island of about 2 kilometers in diameter.

But what makes this volcano special is its accessibility: without much effort, it is possible to get to the boiling caldera, which lies at an altitude close to sea level.

geothermal activity New Zealand
Imagine the island like an iceberg, where you just see the top of this oceanic mountain.

The scenery is in constant mutation. It changes depending on the level of geothermal activity.
Image by Martin Panzer

eruption White Island
The last eruption was in 2001 >> Update: Whakaari erupted again on the early afternoon of 9 December 2019!
Image by Martin Panzer

Boiling acid volcanic crater
There aren't many places in the world that you can walk around the crater of an active volcano, roaring and rumbling in boiling acid.

Compare the size of this vast lake with the visitors who venture to the edge of the main crater, on the left.
Image by Theirishkiwi

volcanic yellow lake
The colors and level of the lake vary a lot depending on its mood. Captain Cook didn't make a very good choice when he named the island 'White'.

His expedition never got close enough to check what was causing the whiteness that can be seen over the island from afar.
Image by Aelena

Whakaari volcanic pool
Need to get rid of incriminating evidence?

The pool is around 80°C, although temperatures up to 800°C have been registered, and has an acidity level off the scale.
Image by Oemebamo

Crevices of boiling gases
Like a pirate story, the island was sold for two barrels of rum by the Maoris.

Inside the crater, no vegetation survives the tough acidic environment.

Instead, bright yellow sulphur abound, and steaming crevices of boiling gases rise from the ground.
Image by Aelena

Sulphur processing plant ruins
It is also interesting to walk through the corroded rusting remains of the abandoned sulfur processing plant.

It has been uninhabited since the 1930s. This story is quite dramatic: In 1914 an earlier mining settlement was completely wiped out, when a flank of the crater wall collapsed, resulting in a massive avalanche.

The ten workers of the camp were never found. Only the cat survived.
Image by Aelena

Acid corruption
Like in politics, in White Island corruption quickly takes over.
Image by Matt Biddulph

Whakaari stream
A small river of liquid volcanic goodness runs across the crater floor.
Image by X-oph

White Island aerial view
Whakaari has a distinctive look from the sky, with its stream of paint pouring into the ocean.
Image by X-oph

Sulphur Bay
Sulphur Bay, where the river from hell flows to.

The greenish tail coming out to the ocean, from the cone side that has fallen.
Image by Aelena

Wearing gas masks in the volcano
The issuing of gas masks by the tour agencies is not for show, it's due to the high sulphur dioxide levels in the air.

But a sense of possible danger contributes to the increased feeling that this is not an average tourist experience.

It is also possible to reach the island flying or after one and a half hour boat ride from the main coast of New Zealand.
Image by Pluckytree

The stratovolcano in 1987
This is a pre-digital age picture, taken in 1987. This landscape doesn't exist anymore.
Image by (nz)dave

Do not miss this video about a scientific surveillance expedition. It starts at a point where you can see the fury with which the steam and gas fumaroles burst.

The video also explains the story of the dinosaur that mysteriously appeared in front of the webcam of the crater, in 2004.


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