White Island is New Zealand’s most active volcano and it’s also open to the public for tours. We thought long and hard before shelling out for the trip since a) it hadn’t been on our radar as a ‘must do’ in New Zealand and b) we’d already sampled some impressive geothermal activity in Rotorua. I am so glad we decided to go – White Island is probably the most memorable thing we’ve seen or done so far on our travels! (It has a lot of competition, of course, and we have only done NZ’s North Island so far…but it still takes the top place.)
Here are 5 reasons you should consider visiting White Island yourself and some travel tips for making your own trip happen.
White Island: what and where?
- White Island, aka [Te Puia o] Whakaari is the most active cone volcano in New Zealand.
- The maori name means ‘The Dramatic Volcano’, while ‘White Island’ was a name bestowed by good old Captain Cook. Though he sailed very close by no one aboard realised the island was volcanic, the name simply comes from the white ‘cloud’ (volcanic smoke) that hung over the island.
- It’s about 2km in diameter and 321m above sea level, but a whopping 70% of the volcano is actually underwater.
- Historically the site was mined for sulphur, but since 1953 the whole island has been a scenic reserve, functioning as a base for scientific research as well as receiving lots of tourists daily.
- It’s located in the Bay of Plenty region, 48km off the coast of Whakatane (east coast of the North Island).
- Tours are from Whakatane wharf and it’s an 80 minute boat trip from there to the island. Alternatively you can join a trip from Rotorua, with transfers included.
- If you have the money, you can also take a helicopter over to the island! The aerial views look incredible, I must say.
1. The Scenery
White Island is full of staggering, almost extraterrestrial scenery. The rocky, mountainous terrain is streaked with pinks, reds and the vivid lemon-yellow of sulphur. Shrouds of steam drift overhead, so vast they block out the sun and engulf large chunks of the island at once. Everything is on such a massive scale that you can’t help but feel completely awestruck.
2. Geothermal Activity
You get to witness some extraordinary geothermal features up close (and on a grand scale). If you’ve been to Rotorua you’ll be well acquainted with fumaroles, burbling mud and sulphurous smells, but on White Island similar features feel wilder and more intense. Case in point: the steam is so acidic in certain locations that you carry gas masks with you – something we never needed in Rotorua! Our tour guides even offered us boiled sweets to suck on while we explored, as this helps to lubricate your throat and prevent it from getting sore.
Besides the sights and smells, the tour was also interactive in terms of taste. We paused by a couple of streams on the island to sample a small amount of water from our fingertips. I won’t spoil the experience here, but there were some slightly odd flavours that you wouldn’t expect from volcano water!
There are opportunities to see wildlife, too, though naturally these are a less certain feature of a White Island trip! There are seals and gannets on the island itself that you’re able to view as the boat departs on its way back to shore. The most incredible thing for me, though, was having countless dolphins swim alongside the boat on our way out to the island. I had zero expectations of this happening so was beyond elated to see them at all, never mind at such close quarters! (We had spotted some out at sea while sailing on the R. Tucker Thompson, but only glimpses of fins jumping through the water!)
4. Photography opportunities
As you’ve probably gleaned from my attempts at describing White Island, I was completely mesmerised by the place! The drama and enormity of it make it a wonderful subject for photographers. In addition to the stunning landscapes there’s also some terrific detail to capture, from the colour and textures of the rocks to the corroded mechanic equipment and tumbledown old mine buildings.
5. The novelty of being on an active volcano!
It’s a pretty special opportunity to wander around an active volcano. I didn’t even realise you could do that! Lest you be worried about what this entails, don’t be. Geonet monitors volcanic activity very closely (you can see the latest volcanic alert level on their website). The alert is usually at Level 1, which does reflect some minor volcanic unrest, but all public visits to the island have comprehensive safety plans in place as you would expect. Also some people told us that you had to be careful about what shoes you wear in case they melted on the island. I have no idea where they heard that but it’s not the case! You can just wear normal walking/hiking boots.
Have you been to White Island before? Or witnessed any other volcanic locations? I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations. 🙂
We went with White Island tours, and we called up a few days in advance to book. Their website recommends booking at least a week in advance during Summer.
Check the White Island tours website for latest costs as they fluctuate. At ~$200 per person it’s pretty pricey but, imho, worthwhile as a one off.
Bring & wear:
✶ Your camera and either a wide angle lens or mid-range zoom (in case of dolphins!).
✶ Essentials for a day spent on a boat/outdoors – sunscreen, a bottle of water, an extra layer for warmth on the boat and (if you’re anything like me) seasickness tablets.
✶ You won’t need food as they provide a lovely packed lunch.
✶ Wear sensible, enclosed shoes with grip and clothes that you’re comfortable walking around in (you’ll be doing quite a bit of walking on rocky ground plus climbing in and out of boats).