White Island

Trip Start Oct 11, 2009
Trip End Mar 18, 2010

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Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Saturday, January 9, 2010

To round out our exploration of the North Island's volcanic wonders, we did a day trip from Whakatane to White Island, to see one of the country’s most active volcanoes.

White Island is the tip of an otherwise submerged volcano, some 150,000 to 200,000 years old, 80km off the coast in the Bay of Plenty. It erupts with some frequency: indeed, changes to geological features can be noted in weeks, months and years rather than millennia. Not for nothing is everyone issued with a gas mask and advised what to do in the (unlikely) event of an eruption.

We had an amazing tour of the caldera – two huge vents that rumble on sending out thousands of tons of hot gases; boiling mud pools; endless sulphur crystal encrusted vents and a huge green lake of sulphuric acid. The gas masks come in handy as the wind swirls the acidic vent emissions around and the next thing you know you find yourself in a hot cloud of acidic gas. Boiled sweets are the prescribed solution to make people breathe through their nose and avoid inhaling the gas through your mouth where it tickles the back of your throat and makes you cough (though they assured us it is annoying, but not dangerous).

The island was mined for sulphur but each subsequent company went bust as there really isn’t enough of the mineral and the costs of operating a mine on a remote island are high. The one exception was one company whose workers were all swept to their death by a flood unleashed by a landslide in the caldera. It isn’t the most hospitable place to live as all the rusted factory equipment demonstrated ably. Fortunately we didn’t have to witness whether the gases really make your teeth enamel go black after a few weeks on the island unless you brush them 4-5 times a day.

There are some great Australian gannet nesting sites on the edges of the island and some limited rather scorched vegetation that doesn’t do too well from the onslaught of acid rain.

Our journey back was magical – swarms of flying fish and at least 5 schools of dolphins who played along the bow leaping from the water at regular intervals. Stunning.
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