Friday 4 February 2011

The acid test

So up to an awesome sunny morning and beautiful light on the flanks of White Island as we anchored at this remarkable active volcano.  Breakfast was had as we waited for the local guides to arrive, and I took the time to put the finishing touches to my lecture to be given later in the afternoon.

We then boarded the Xplorer and headed into the shore, and then disembarked and met with the local guides.  I have to say I did think to myself ‘What could possibly go wrong?!’ as we set foot on the shoreline and then started to head through to the caldera.  This extremely active volcano has been the infamous site of a number of explosions over the past, that have resulted in the loss of life...not recently I might add, but when it was mined for sulphur a number of ‘incidents’ occurred.  With these in mind we donned our hard hats and armed ourselves with gas-masks and followed the guide.  I’ve visited a number of volcanic places before – Rotorua, Taupo, Iceland...but I have to say this place takes the cake.  The steam was intense and swirling at times, then opened to provide beautiful views across the moon like landscape.  In between bouts of wheezing and coughing, when you realised you should have donned the mask, I managed to take around 1500 photos over the course of a couple of hours.  I was quite shocked at how harsh the air actually was when breathing sometimes, and you really did need the mask when it was at its worst.  The local guides were excellent though and as well as providing excellent information on the safety aspects, also knew their stuff with regards to the volcano and its history.

We wandered up past several insanely active fumeroles and up to the crater lake which cleared every now and then to reveal the rich green waters.  Then across to a great overview spot, and back through to the almost completely destroyed sulphur factory near the shoreline.  All this over about 2 hours, and as I say, managed a pretty significant number of photos.

We then got back on the ship, and as we had lunch started to head along the northern coast of the island to do a circumnavigation of the island.  We cruised around Volkner Rocks, seeing a couple of distant grey ternlets, before then heading along the southern coast and towards East Cape.  The birds started to come as we did so, with good numbers of Buller’s and flesh-footed shearwaters and Australasian gannets, the odd black petrel, and then as the afternoon proceeded a couple of Pycroft’s petrels, quite a few Cook’s petrels, the odd grey-faced petrel, and a good number of white-faced storm-petrel.  A few fluttering and the occasional little shearwater, but no black-winged petrels.

I gave my lecture during the afternoon – on the origins and evolution of New Zealand’s wildlife and the extinctions and endemism we have here, and then spent the rest of the afternoon in beautiful conditions on the bow birding.  Pretty much the same species, but a gorgeous afternoon with hot conditions around 10 knots of wind (following so very warm) and almost no swell.  We did see two albatross at a distance, but landed on the sea, and not sure what they were.

Late afternoon we started to round East Cape, and then as we dined on potato and bacon soup and pork belly short-beak common dolphins came and rode alongside the ship, leaping from the waves for about 10+ minutes, again less than 20m away from my table!  Absolutely ridiculous!

As we anchored

You know it is going to be a tough day when this is the view from the breakfast table!

Intrepid explorers begin

Bleached wood

It all seems so big when you have scale

The fumeroles

Fumeroles and sulphur

The crater lake


More vents

The remains of the factory

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