White Island New Zealand

THE VOLCANO - White Island (Whakaari)


THE VOLCANO - White Island (Whakaari)

White Island is one of the most fascinating and accessible volcanoes on earth, carrying with it an A grade level of scientific importance.  As New Zealand’s only live marine volcano, scientists and volcanologists worldwide are attracted by its unique features.
The volcano is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 years old.  However, the small portion of the island that is visible above sea level has been in its present form for an estimated  16,000 years  - evidence of a continually changing landscape.

Walking on White Island is like walking on the moon.  Virtually no vegetation survives the harsh acidic environment inside the crater walls.  Instead, lush beds of yellow and white sulphur crystals grow amongst hissing, steaming, bubbling fumaroles.

Giant mounds, remnants of the 1914 Great Landslide, dwarf visitors as they wind their way up to the Main Crater.  Venturing to the edge, they are greeted by an amazing sight - an immense crater, with towering walls shielding its spectacular lake and punctuated by steamy vents from which the power of the inner earth constantly belches forth.

Neighbouring Donald Duck and Noisy Nellie Craters each have their own stories to tell and a view from on high.  Down below, bright yellow chimneys of delicate sulphur crystals enhance the alien landscape and lure the visitor for a closer look.

In contrast to these natural features, stand the ruins of an old factory, the only human testament to the numerous failed sulphur mining attempts of days gone by, and now slowly being reclaimed by Mother Nature.

Scientific equipment is discreetly positioned around the volcano.  Its activity is constantly being monitored by IGNS (Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences).  A seismograph, survey pegs, magnetometers and a camera all provide information on just what the volcano is up to.  Up-to-date images of the island can be viewed hourly at www.geonet.org.nz

White Island currently sits on an alert level rating of 1, meaning constant background activity. This the level that White Island normally sits on. Misty, roaring, ashing, rumbling - who knows what mood she’ll be in if you are fortunate enough to visit .....



The White Island volcano is estimated to be between 150,000 to 200,000 years old.  It was named White Island by Captain Cook, the first European to sight the island.  This was in 1769 and as he noted in the Endeavour’s log book, “We called it White for as such it always appear’d to us”.  Cook, however, did not come close enough to realise it was a volcano.

There have been several translations in the Maori language for White Island but it is most widely known as Whakaari which means “that which can be made visible” – a name perhaps brought about by the island’s tendency to disappear from sight on hazy days, only to reappear sharply on the horizon on clear days.

Long before the Europeans took any real interest in White Island, Maori were making the most of what the island had to offer.  They recognised the value of sulphur as a manure and were collecting it for their gardens back on the mainland.  In addition, the abundant bird life that nested on the island was a valuable food source - primarily adolescent Grey-Faced Petrels (or Muttonbirds) that had grown fat enough but could not yet fly - and human predators came regularly to seize this easy prey.  The hunters had not only birds and fish to save them the trouble of bringing food to the island for use while they worked, but also steam jets to cook them in.  In summer, when temperatures increased, the Maori cooked and sealed the birds that they caught in their own fat – a method devised to preserve them.  Long afterwards, sulphur workers on the island, lacking a refrigerator, used the same idea to keep joints of meat received from the butcher.

Europeans did not land on White Island until 1826.  The first man to do so was a naval officer, turned missionary, called The Rev Henry Williams, who sailed there from Tauranga aboard the schooner, Herald.  Williams described the scene:

“We walked round the crater, which presented an awful sight.  Its surface was nearly on a level with the sea.  One of its sides having fallen in, we had easy access.  Steam and smoke were issuing from all parts of the island and to the very summit.  There were several small lakes of boiling substance, and on the right a large body of smoke with the upmost fury rose up from the regions below.  We examined this awful sight as minutely as we dared but from the intolerable stench of brimstone and the lightness of the surface over which we had to pass, we deemed it not prudent to remain long, fearing suffocation from the one or precipitation into some boiling cavity from the other.  As the whole island was composed of sulphur, being blackened with the smoke gave it a ghastly appearance.”

Throughout the next 4 decades after Williams’ visit, there were 3 more recorded landings on to White Island and then in August 1866 Edwin Davy, the Government Surveyor, visited the island and produced the first map.  At this time, while ownership of the island was naturally claimed by Maori, in Government circles the place was deemed to be Crown land.

It is said, however, that the island passed into European hands in the late 1830s when Maori owners sold it to a Danish sea captain turned trader, Philip (Hans) Tapsell for 2 hogsheads (or barrels) of rum.  Tapsell’s ownership of the island was not officially recognised, however, until 1867, when his son and daughter were awarded title by the Native Land Court.

There is no record that the Tapsells ever made use of White Island.  They sold it quite quickly, thus beginning a long series of European owners.

Serious exploitation of sulphur on the island did not begin until 1885, when joint owners at the time, Aucklanders Henry James Johnson and Mr Justice Wilson formed an enterprise called the New Zealand Manure & Chemical Co.  Their intention was to produce both fertiliser and sulphur ore to be used in the production of sulphuric acid.  In order to do so, a base on the mainland was needed.  Even though Whakatane was the closest port, its river entrance was obstructed by a bar which made entry for shipping difficult.  A site was therefore acquired on the shore of Tauranga Harbour at what came to be known as Sulphur Point.

Production got underway but was abandoned in a great hurry a year later as a result of one of the greatest volcanic eruptions of all time, the Tarawera eruption. Ash from that eruption blanketed White Island and, as White Island was the closest active volcano to Tarawera and part of the same geological structure, it was thought that it would erupt in the same way.

Operations resumed in 1898.  Fair amounts of sulphur ore (about 1500 tons per year on average) were produced at the start of operations but in the fourth year these started to dwindle and the operation was closed down.

Ownership of the island changed hands several times over the next 11 years but it does not appear that there was any effort made to work the mineral deposits during this time. It wasn’t until Dr John Browne and Archibald Mercer, an Englishman with connections in Vancouver, Canada, purchased the island for Canadian $20,000 in 1913, that another attempt was made to mine.  The name of their company was The White Island Sulphur Co. of Vancouver and its aim was to concentrate on sulphur production.

The operation was plagued by production problems and disaster from the beginning but the most devastating of these halted the works completely.  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.

After this disaster, the island was left alone for 9 years until Mercer, ever optimistic and having raised capital in Canada, resumed production in 1923.  The venture showed promise of being fairly successful.  Mercer formed a new company, White Island Agriculture Chemical Co. Ltd, headed by prominent local people, and looked to attract prospective investors.  To help, he enlisted the services of someone familiar with the local capital market to take charge of the distribution of shares to the public – Auckland sharebroker, George Raymond Buttle and the firm, GA Buttle & Co.  So began the Buttle family’s association with White Island.


This particular venture, which ended up being the last, continued for 10 years until, with the Depression and consequent reduced demand for fertiliser, it went bankrupt and was closed down in 1933.  The island was left alone for the next 3 years and then was put up for tender in 1936.  It was through this tender that George Raymond Buttle acquired White Island and it has been in his family ever since, now being owned by the Buttle Family Trust.

The new owner commented that “he rather liked the idea of owning a volcano”.  Later, he wrote: “I am setting the impossible task of trying to let you have some idea of the fascination that White Island has for us….. Strange as it may seem, the island is unbelievably beautiful and beyond description.  Surely it is one of the wonders of the world….”

For a while, George Raymond Buttle did investigate the possibility of continuing production on the island, particularly that of the mineral gypsum, a large deposit of which had been earlier reported as being located on the north coast.  However, Buttle did not take any further steps to develop the gypsum or other minerals.

In 1952, the NZ government wanted to buy the island from Buttle but he was not willing to sell and instead a compromise was reached in declaring White Island a private scenic reserve in 1953.  As such, several restrictions were introduced, including those to protect the bird life.  This of course had an impact on the long-standing custom of 3 Maori tribes to go muttonbirding at the island and, although it was not banned immediately, White Island was later added to the list of areas in NZ exempt from muttonbirding.

Since the 1950s, as awareness of the need to protect the environment has increased, access on to White Island has become more and more restricted but it wasn’t always this way.  As soon as steamships began calling regularly on Bay of Plenty ports in the late 1860s, people have visited the island.  Until the early 1920s, these ships made weekly calls and often had a spare day in port.  Several times per year trips to the island from Opotiki, Whakatane or Tauranga were offered at a reasonable price and these trips were very popular.  For many years, the public had free access on to the island.  It wasn’t until 1995 that this was controlled somewhat by the introduction of permits.  In 1997, the owners of White Island Tours, Peter & Jenny Tait, were appointed official guardians of the island by the Buttles.  Now, access is further restricted and the only way in which anyone is permitted to visit the volcano is with one of the 4 designated tourist operators.

As a result, White Island is in pristine condition and is a fascinating natural laboratory.  Tourists from all over the world have enjoyed her uniqueness.  To learn more about her history and awe-inspiring beauty, why not join us on a White Island Tour…