travel and life with lee mylne

Walking on White Island: why we take such risks

As New Zealand reels from the unpredicted eruption of volcanic Whakaari/White Island, which has killed at least five tourists and injured many more, it’s easy to wonder why anyone would take the risk of walking on an active volcano.

I’ve been to White Island twice during my career as a travel writer, always confident that the appropriate monitoring systems in place would ensure that no harm would come to me or my travel companions as we walked in this incredible place.

Whakaari/White Island is 48km off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island, with tours operating from the Bay of Plenty town of Whakatane. It is New Zealand’s most continuously active volcano, marking the northern end of the Taupo Volcanic Zone.  New Zealand’s volcanic activity has given the country the moniker “The Shaky Isles” for good reason.

Approaching Whakaari/White Island, New Zealand, by boat.

About 70 per cent of the island is under the sea, with the floor of the Main Crater less than 30m above sea level and the island’s highest point at 321 metres. The Māori name Whakaari apparently means “to make visible” or “exposed to view”, with the full name Te Puia o Whakaari, meaning “the dramatic volcano”. British explorer Captain James Cook called it White Island as he sailed by in 1769 for the clouds of white steam coming from it.

Rising steam gave White Island its name.

White Island has been active for at least 150,000 years, and has always been noted for its continual low level activity and small eruptions.  Record-keeping between 1975 and 2001 designated this the most active period in the island’s history for hundreds of years. Major eruptions in the early 1980s destroyed pohutukawa forest and created a large crater lake. Other small eruptions have occurred over the last 10 years but mostly there have been warnings as the island is monitored constantly. 

Visitors can also see remnants of the island’s history, including sporadic attempts over the years to mine sulphur, which sadly resulted in a crater collapse in 1914, killing 10 workers. Mining ended in the 1930s and the remains of the buildings, now corroded by the sulphuric gases, have been part of the guided tours.

Remains of sulphur mining on White Island.

So why are we drawn to visit such places where danger lurks? Visiting volcanoes, whether it is in New Zealand, Hawaii, Vanuatu, Indonesia or other regions where such tours are part of the tourism product, is a popular thing to do.  That frisson of danger is something that attracts us, as does the natural beauty of such landscapes.

White Island’s moonscape, patchworked with yellow sulphur deposits, is like something from another world, and has been part of the Bay of Plenty region’s tour offering for many years, conducted with care and concern by tour operators. Of course, there are the waivers to sign, just as there are with many other activities around the world where there are safety concerns, including horse-riding, jet-skiing, snorkelling and diving.

White Island’s unearthly landscape.

Earlier this year, after watching an episode of the terrific television series Coast New Zealand, which featured White Island, I posted one of my images on Facebook – and the response from followers was immediate, with many people sharing their memories (some from childhood) of their own visits.

As tourists (and travel writers) we make these decisions based on what we are told. In this case, scientists are saying it was difficult to predict that Whakaari/White Island would erupt. And some people will never visit a volcano “just in case”.

Would I go there again? I’m not sure. Perhaps twice is enough. That decision will have to wait. Meanwhile, like all New Zealanders and Australians, I’m holding the survivors and the families of all those affected by this natural disaster in my thoughts. Kia kaha. Stay strong.

12 Responses to “Walking on White Island: why we take such risks”

  1. melaniefeetfirst

    Interesting post, Lee, and appreciate your perspective. I have not been to White Island, but I climbed an active volcano in Guatemala and toasted marshmallows on molten lava. So I appreciate the frisson of danger you talk about although at the time I didn’t think we were in any danger.

    Not sure that I would do it again – but the marshmallows were delicious and the boasting rights are fun.

    • A Glass Half Full

      I’m like you, Melanie, I have climbed Mt Bromo in Indonesia (which a while later erupted, with loss of life) and I’ve taken a helicopter tour over the Hawaiian volcanos, as well as visiting the rather unpredictable volcanic regions of NZ. No toasted marshmallows involved, but that does sound good. I think we have to assess each situation as it arises and make up our minds whether to take the risk or not.

  2. Penny Ramsdale

    Yes, and apparently this was an ‘instantaneous’ event, so no warning was possible. I feel for White Island Tours – they are such a great company and it would be a real shame if they are held ‘criminally responsible’. Having said that, I doubt they will continue to take tours to the island anyway, after this.

    • A Glass Half Full

      I agree, a very good company. I think the talk of a criminal investigation has been tempered now, hopefully. But I had the same thought: it will be a long time (if ever) before those tours resume. Very sad all round.

  3. Mama Cormier

    Hi Lee. Great article. I was surprised to see that I’m not following you. I was sure that I was. Anyway I’ve fixed that problem and look forward to reading more of your posts.

  4. thelevinelowdown

    Thank you very much for this deeply personal and insightful post. I am very sorry for the awful tragedy and the loss of so many lives. I have recently published an article on my blog about the danger of adventure tourism with an emphasis on the white island eruption. If you have time, it would be great if you could check out my post, as I would be really interested to hear your thoughts! Thanks :)

  5. michelinewalker

    It saddens me to know that large portions of Australia and New Zealand are being destroyed by fire, taking lives, homes and forested areas. I hope matters will improve, but it is a catastrophe. Best.


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