White Island is the summit of two overlapping stratovolcanoes and one of New Zealand's most active volcanic sites. It has had around 35 small to moderate eruptions since 1826. The Maori name for the island is 'Te Puia o Whakaari', which means 'the dramatic volcano'.
The island is roughly circular, about two kilometres in diameter and rises to a height of 321 metres above sea level. However, what you’re seeing is only the peak of a much larger submarine mountain - the main vent is below sea level but shielded from the ocean by high crater walls.
Scientists and vulcanologists from around the world find White Island fascinating. On an eruption scale of one to five, the island is usually on an alert level of one or two. In March 2000, three small vents appeared in the main crater and began belching ash which covered the island in fine grey powder. An eruption later that year blanketed the island with mud and scoria and a new crater appeared. At most times the volcanic activity is limited to steaming fumaroles and boiling mud.
Althought it's privately owned, White Island is a scenic reserve that can be visited by launch or helicopter. From Whakatane and Tauranga you can arrange a walking tour of the island, which leads right into the huge main crater. Hard hats and gas masks are provided for the walking tour - it's an extraordinary experience.
A surprising sight is the remains of a sulphur mining operation. Several attempts were made to mine sulphur on the island, but mining came to a sudden halt in September 1914, when a mudslide killed all the workers. They disappeared without trace; only the camp cat (named Peter the Great) survived.
There's virtually no vegetation on the island (a large pohutukawa forest was destroyed by eruptions during the early 1980s), instead yellow and white sulphur crystals grow around the edges of hissing, steaming fumaroles. It's possible to walk right inside the main crater, which has a spectacular lake and many steamy vents. Donald Duck and Noisy Nellie are two other craters that will demand the attention of your camera.
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