Whakaari/White Island is situated forty-eight kilometres from the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand, in the Bay of Plenty.
The nearest mainland towns are Whakatane and Tauranga. The island is roughly circular, about 2km in diameter.
Whakaari is New Zealand’s only active marine volcano and perhaps the most accessible on earth, attracting scientists and volcanologists worldwide as well as many tourists.
The full Maori name for the island is 'Te Puia o Whakaari' meaning literally: 'The Dramatic Volcano.'
It was named 'White Island' by Captain Cook on October 1, 1769 because it always appeared to be in a cloud of white steam. Although Cook went close to the island he failed to notice that it was a volcano.
Its official name is Whakaari/White Island although it is most well-known as White Island.
Volcanologists from the GeoNet Project continually monitor the volcano’s activity via surveillance cameras. Survey pegs, magnetometers and seismograph equipment for early earthquake warnings via radio have also been installed on the crater walls. The island is usually on an alert level rating of 1 or 2 on a scale of 1–5. At most times the volcanic activity is limited to steaming fumaroles and boiling mud.
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 on July 27, 2000 blanketed the island with mud and scoria and a new crater appeared. Major eruptions between 1981–83 altered much of the island’s landscape and decimated the extensive Pohutukawa forest. The large crater created at that time has become a lake.
An attempt was made in the early 1900s to mine sulphur from Whakaari but it was abandoned in 1914, when a mudflow killed all ten workers. They disappeared without a trace, only the camp cat survived.
Some years later mining was again attempted, but learning from the 1914 disaster, the miners built their huts on a flat part of the island near a gannet colony. Each day they would lower their boat into the sea from a gantry (a kind of tripod with a boom) and row around to the mining factory wharf in Crater Bay. If the sea was rough they had to clamber around the rocks on a very narrow track on the crater’s edge.
Sulphur before the days of antibiotics was used in medicines as an antibacterial, also used in making match heads and for sterilising wine corks. The miner’s diggings were handled in small rail trucks to the crushing and bagging process in the factory built on the island.
Unfortunately, there was not enough sulphur at Whakaari and so the ground up rock was used as a component of agricultural fertiliser. Eventually the mining ended in the 1930s because of the poor mineral content in the fertiliser. The remains of the buildings can still be seen, much corroded by the sulphuric gasses. BOOK A WHITE ISLAND HELI TOUR.