White Island (Maori: Whakaari) is an uninhabited active volcanic island off the coast from Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand that you can fly over by plane or helicopter. There used to be boat tours and helicopter flights that landed on the island, but these stopped when the island erupted on 9 December 2019.
Whakaari/White Island is the only active marine volcano near New Zealand's main islands. It is 48 kilometres off the east coast of the North Island, in the Bay of Plenty. The nearest mainland towns are Whakatane and Tauranga. The island is roughly circular and about 2 km in diameter. The volcano is around 100,000 to 200,000 years old and about two thirds of it is hidden below sea level. There are three distinct craters, only one of which is active, and it has a small crater lake.
The full Maori name for the island is 'Te Puia o Whakaari' meaning literally 'The Dramatic Volcano'. Captain Cook named it White Island in 1769 as he saw a large white cloud, not realising that it was steam from volcanic activity.
Sulphur was mined on Whakaari in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but mining was abandoned after a landslide and lahar in 1914 killed all the workers. Mining resumed in the 1920s and '30s, and the remains of the buildings can still be seen, much corroded by natural sulphuric gases.
The volcanic activity is constantly monitored by volcanologists from the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences. Survey pegs, magnetometers and seismographic equipment for early earthquake warnings via radio have been installed on the crater walls, along with visual surveillance cameras. Visitors were known to place small objects in front of the crater webcam, with a small, pink toy dinosaur the star. Hourly updates can be seen on two GeoNet webcams.
The sulphuric fumes and acidic environment ensure that there is very little vegetation within the crater. Eruptions in 1981–83 altered much of the island’s landscape and decimated the extensive pohutukawa forest on the outside of the main crater wall. The crater that formed then filled to became a lake. There are yellow and white sulphur crystal formations and bubbling fumaroles capped with steam.
The island was bought by George Raymond Buttle in 1936 and is now owned by the Buttle Family Trust. It was declared a private scenic reserve in 1953.
- Volcanic Air Safaris, Rotorua City Lakefront, Memorial Dr, Rotorua, ☏ , toll-free: 0800 800 848. Helicopter flights that fly over the island and then inland to land on Mt Tarawera. Floatplane flights that take off from Lake Rotorua and fly over the island and Mt Tarawera. The floatplane flights are cheaper than the helicopter flights.
- White Island Flights, ☏ , toll-free: 0800 944 834. Plane flights over the island departing from Whakatane, Rotorua, Tauranga and Taupō.
- The crater lake. A lake of brilliantly green, hot, steaming sulphuric acid.
- The ruins of the sulphur factory are scattered throughout the crater.