White Island – Diving beneath the fire

Text by Monique Witsenberg

Photos by Dive NZ team and Rob Phillips

There is no hell beneath the fire of this volcano. The most heavenly underwater amusement park awaits you at White Island. An experience such that You might find it hard to top the spectacular diving available here as not many places can boast a visibility of 40+ metres and be home to such diverse species of fish and sea life.

White Island is a volcano believed to be 200,000 years old and is the most active volcano in the Pacific Ocean. Part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone and the Pacific Ring of Fire. Its full height from sea floor is about 760 metres, and reaches 320 metres above sea level. Only 2.4 km by 2 km is visible of its 16 km by 18-km breadth.

Hosts Tony Bonne from Dive White Island/Sportsworld Whakatane and Rob Phillips from Black Shag Charters took us on an exhilarating expedition around this fascinating island. The foil-assisted Bladerunner cat capable of 30+ knots took us 49km east of Whakatane in less than an hour. Instructor, guide and dive buddy, Alex organised our group into experience levels and familiarised us with our underwater surroundings.

Park Reef on the northern side ranges from 13-40 metres with outcrops presenting wonderful photo opportunities. The walls around the various pinnacles were carpeted with soft corals and colourful sponges, which glowed with vivid complexions in the flash of the camera.

This perfect natural laboratory has underwater vents, which radiate warm gas bubbles. However the water temperature of 21°C has really nothing to do with the 400°C active volcano above, but due to the warm current that sweeps past the Poor Knights. My favourite spot of the day was Homestead Reef for its abundance and diversity of marine life. This place could have entertained us for hours. Learning the way marine life survive and exist is amazing – We observed several leatherjackets which can lock erect their dorsal spine to protect them from predators. Looking closer you can spot various playful triplefins and blennies. Male demoiselles and angelfish guard their nest sites – I interrupted what looked like some mating ritual of angelfish, but maybe just a gang of territorial males.

Various anemones, hydroids and bryozoans nourish the many grazing animals. Swarms of curious koheru and kingfish continuously surrounded me. We were lucky enough to glide along with friendly stingrays and to even catch sight of a unique turtle. Near Shark Bay, a huge swim through cave is home to a few packhorse crayfish. As I swam over a forest of swaying kelp I found myself suddenly amongst a mass of fish. I couldn’t believe my eyes; I had just entered a jungle saturated with more than 15 species. Huge dark balls of sweep above me and massive blue moki and porae circled below whilst huge kingfish cruised by. I was frozen with bewilderment and respect; I did not want to disturb this divine, alien world, so I just hovered there in awe. I also thought that if I was a shark, this is where I’d stop for lunch, so no enthusiastic dive buddy was going to entice me through that congregation! The Island is home to some of the largest kingfish in New Zealand.

The Volkner Rocks lie 6km northwest of White Island, just beyond the Continental Shelf. Schools of golden snapper feed here and you’ll find all species of moray eel. The rare surgeonfish pass by, as do long fin boarfish and big blue mao mao.

Laissons Reef just south of the Volkners is a pinnacle that rises from 150 metres to 12 metres. Boasting huge meatballs of fish besieged by big kingis and stingrays that come in droves with the blue water.

To help preserve and encourage natural development this extraordinary underwater environment, proposals for a Marine Reserve or a no-take sector, one mile around these rocks is currently under review. This in the long term will also benefit fishing in the region. With some more support, the island’s underwater dwellers have a promising future.

We regrettably headed back to the mainland, knowing there was so much more to discover and explore.

Walking on the moon

We thought our diving expedition would be our closest encounter with the volcano but we were lucky enough to return to the island aboard PeeJay Charter tours. On boarding their luxurious fully equipped 18-metre launch, we knew we were in for a treat! Dolphins are a delightful customary spectacle for visitors out here, as well as sharks, orcas, and the occasional brydes, pilots or sperm whales.

The award winning White Island Tour’s desire to protect this fragile environment is focused on educating people about its flora, fauna, gannet colony and volcano. This has to be one of New Zealand’s most awesome scenic attractions being the only live strato volcano of this magnitude to be viewed at such close proximity. We were kitted up with sexy hard hats and gas masks in case of emergency when going ashore!

With an A-grade classification of international scientific importance it is monitored with a solar powered seismograph/cameras and presently sits on an alert level of one, with five being a national disaster.

Captain Cook discovered the island in 1769 and in 1826 the volcano was found to be composed of sulphur. The island was purchased in the 1830s for two barrels of rum. Several ownerships later, sulphur mining commenced in 1885 but ceased after the 1886 Tarawera eruption. Sold again and again with repeated mining attempts/disasters, none worse than the 1914 tragedy when the western rim of the volcano’s crater collapsed, creating volcanic landslides (lahar). Due to the acidic, harsh conditions, machinery had a very short life, but timber and tractor tyres are well preserved.

In 1933 mining ceased leaving the island to nature and is now a private scenic reserve!

March 2000 saw the pressure in the main crater build and emit grey ash, rising the alert level to 2. However for a short time thereafter, visitors still flocked in fascination as layers of ash covered them and the island. The next visit, at the end of July, the Taits found a totally altered landscape. Ploughing through mud and scoria 200mm thick to the main crater, they found a new explosion crater of 120-150 metres across had formed. This most significant eruption in 20 years left the island covered in red ash and lava bombs of molten rock.

Through this unique fully guided tour you can experience many sensations; seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling and taste! We were invited to taste the honeyed fluid in the creek – rainwater formed into sulphuric and hydrochloric acids with a pH balance of about 2 – or about the same as a can of coke! Watch billows of white steam (carbon and sulphur dioxide) gush from the main crater’s powerful, fear-inspiring 400 C orifice – what an intense sight – out of this world!

Trekking this barren and rugged topside composed of andesite volcanic ash and rock, it’s impossible to imagine living in this harsh habitat. A refreshing swim and snorkel from the boat with a beauty lunch, brought us back to reality.

Intriguing stories of White Island and its history can be found in the Tait’s book White Island from White Island Rendezvous.

Ideas for the island are diverse, from health resort to prison farm! With the continued respect for its conservation and having to have a permit to land with limited exposed landing areas, White Island looks to have a healthy future ahead, but you never know when she’ll blow!

Monique travelled courtesy of Dive White Island and White Island Tours and Black Shag.

scroll to top