With just a handful of days remaining before our extended New Zealand vacation ended, we headed off to White Island via Eurocopter AS355 Twin Squirrel. As with our helicopter excursion to Milford Sound and our heli-hiking experience at Franz Josef Glacier, we expected to drive to the heliport to begin our day’s adventure. But our travel company surprised us by arranging for pick-up from our lodgings. When our HELiPRO pilot landed at the little helipad, I felt like I was on a Candid Camera episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous!
We soared over Huku Falls and then our pilot timed things so perfectly that we flew over the Lady Knox Geyser at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland just as it erupted at 10:15.
Our first of two scheduled landings was on the summit of Mount Tarawera, the site of the largest volcano eruption in New Zealand’s living memory. In addition to the bird’s eye view of the Rotorua Lakes district and distant volcanoes, we had close-up view of colourful craters and saw another uniquely New Zealand survey marker.
Our pilot left the twin engines running during our brief photo stop on Mount Tarawera; apparently it’s more cost-efficient to leave the engines running for short landings than it is to cycle them off and back on again.
Between Mount Tarawera and Te Puia o Whakaari (aka White Island) we looked down on vast pine forests and rolling farmland before crossing the North Island shoreline. The longer we flew over the open ocean, the more I appreciated those twin engines!!
Approaching from the air, the first thing we noticed was the collapsed section of the White Island crater wall. And I was surprised to realize that although Te Puia o Whakaari and Ngauruhoe are both active volcanoes, they look quite different. Not only is most of White Island submerged beneath the ocean, but its crater bottom is characterized by a series of winding yellow-banked creeklets against a background of mostly grey dried mud and ash punctuated by boiling mud holes, whereas from what we could see, Ngauruhoe is all red and black lava rock.
The smell of sulphur hit us as soon as we stepped out of the helicopter. As we toured the crater floor, there were times I really appreciated the mask that our pilot issued to each of us when we landed. Breathing through the mask quelled the nausea provoked by the strong fumes.
The crater floor was a hostile, alien environment that didn’t very closely resemble previous years’ photos featuring a large, acidic crater lake. We saw a fairly small lake, but scientists believe the major vent is in the process of migrating away from the lake to a major fumarole closer to the collapsed wall of the crater.
Just a month before our visit to White Island, all tourist activity was suspended due to volcanic activity. Scientists had been out just a couple of weeks before our visit, replacing solar panels damaged in the minor eruption and making additional observations. Some of the monitoring equipment is high up on the crater walls, but one set of equipment was clearly visible on the crater floor.
The yellow we saw from the air is sulphur, and the ruins from old sulphur mining operations sit out in the open, slowly disintegrating. Sulphur mining occurred intermittently beginning in 1874. The island was owned by The White Island Sulphur Co. of Vancouver (a Canadian connection) when the southwest flank of the crater wall collapsed in 1914. The ensuing debris avalanche and lahar buried 11 mine workers. When mining operations resumed in 1923, living quarters for the mine workers were constructed outside the crater wall, near the island’s large gannet colony.
The island is now a privately owned scenic reserve. Since 1995, access has been restricted and all visitors require a permit (arranged behind the scenes by helicopter and boat tour companies). We watched visitors arriving and departing by boat. Their experience included a short wave-tossed Zodiac ride to/from the rickety looking jetty. I think the boat tour operators were pretty wet by the time they ferried everyone back and forth! Watching the wave action bobbing the little Zodiac around and thinking about K’s seasickness when we were out whale watching made me glad we opted to splurge for the helicopter excursion.