Mysterious Whakaari / White Island appears on the horizon as a thick plume of smoke rising from the Pacific Ocean - the first visible sign of one of New Zealand’s most fascinating natural attractions.
A closer view of this remote volcanic island - off the North Island’s Bay of Plenty coast - reveals a lunar landscape dramatised by an eerie mist rising from the crater lake, and the hissing and roaring that comes from far below.
As it continually puffs dense gas and steam, New Zealand’s only active marine volcano is a magnet for the adventurous tourists who come from all over the world to experience its unique beauty.
White Island’s name
Māori called the island Whakaari meaning ‘that which can be made visible’ - most probably referring to the way the island disappeared and reappeared from behind the plumes of smoke and steam.
Captain james Cook, the first European to sight the island, named White Island after the same white cloud. However, Cook did not go close enough to see that it was a volcano.
Scientists and volcanologists worldwide are attracted by the volcano’s unique features.
Walking on Whakaari is like walking on the moon. Virtually no vegetation survives the harsh acidic environment inside the crater walls where beds of yellow and white sulphur crystals grow amongst hissing, steaming, bubbling fumaroles.
The volcano is said to be nearly 200,000 years old, although the portion of the island that is visible above sea level has been in its present form for only around 16,000 years - evidence of a constantly changing landscape.
White Island visits
White Island is privately owned and, as a result, is in pristine condition leaving an untouched unique beauty for visitors to experience.
There are four licensed tour operators who provide transport to the island - via boat, helicopter or floatplane - and guided tours.
By boat, the voyage takes around 80 minutes, offering time to take in the scenery and marine life such as pods of dolphins and whales.
After landing on the island, guides take visitors through the curiously coloured, constantly trembling thermally-active landscape to a higher point on the island's central plateau at the edge of the main crater and the crater lake. On the way, there are also old mining ruins from an earlier era.
Whether above or below ground, Whakaari / White Island offers a spectacular and other-worldly landscape.
Below ground, underwater fumaroles and submarine geothermal activity add to the island’s mystery, while simultaneously providing a warm, temperate environment where a diverse ecosystem thrives.
Laison’s Reef is a deep underwater paradise inhabited by thousands of blue and pink maomao and demoiselles, and Champagne Bay has many underwater vents with escaping bubbles resembling a glass of champagne.
Legend of Whakaari / White Island
Māori gave White Island several names but the most widely known is Whakaari - meaning ’that which can be made visible’.
According to Māori legend, Whakaari was sent from Hawaiki - traditional homeland of the Māori - as a gift of fire to warm an ancient high priest named Ngatoroirangi.
Ngatoroirangi and his party were ascending Mt Tongariro - a volcano in the Central North Island - when they were surprised by a fierce blizzard. Close to death, Ngatoroirangi made a desperate plea to his sisters Te Pupu and Te Hoata for help.
The siblings rushed immediately to Ngatoroirangi’s aid, travelling beneath the earth and sea in the form of fire, rising occasionally to the surface. The first place they surfaced was Whakaari and thus, the volcano was created. They eventually made it to Ngatoroirangi to warm him with the fire from Hawaiki.
Wherever they paused and rose to the surface, the sisters left part of the fire they carried, creating the Central Plateau geothermal system that includes famous North Island attractions such as Tikitere / Hell’s Gate, Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, Waimungu, Waiotapu, Orakei Korako, Wairakei, Tokaanu and the three volcanic mountains of Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe.
Background: Whakaari / White Island
Early Māori visited Whakaari for sulphur, which they used as manure on their mainland gardens, and to hunt birds - primarily mutton birds - that nested on the island.
Europeans first landed on White Island in 1826 - the first arrival was a naval officer turned missionary, Rev Henry Williams. The New Zealand Manure & Chemical Co. was established in 1885 to produce fertiliser and sulphur ore for sulphuric acid.
In September 1914 a section of the southern rim of the crater wall slumped, causing a massive lahar that wiped out all the buildings on the island as well as the men who were living there.
When the island was put up for sale in 1936, it was acquired by George Buttle. Since then it has passed on to other Buttle family members.
As such, the island remains private property, and access to the island has been controlled through permits since 1995. Four designated tourism operators hold those permits.