We are world leaders in flaying ourselves after disaster has struck, but we never seem to see them coming. —Journalist Karl du Fresne

Dangerous activities

By Roger Childs

White Island 1There has been a huge upsurge in adventure (“risky”) tourism in recent years and the customers keep coming. Whether it’s white-water rafting; kayaking down rivers; jet boating; mountain climbing; biking on narrow and windy tracks; walking the Tongariro Crossing; or visiting White Island / Whakaari. 

The customers usually know the risks and there are always safety briefing when groups are involved. But occasionally things go dreadfully wrong. Monday’s White Island tragedy has all the appearances on a disaster waiting to happen. The operators of the tours to the active volcano know the risks, especially as activity on the island is highly unpredictable and potentially lethal. 

Red flags not heeded

A week before Monday’s catastrophe a GNS scientist had cautioned that White Island was entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal. On a scale of five the danger level went up from 1 to 2, however the operators say that was still inside their safety guidelines. Nevertheless, that increase put the danger up from 20% to 40% – surely too high to risk lives in a potentially explosive situation? 

We all know the outcome of their decision to take tourists from the cruise ship out to the volcano. It s no wonder that a criminal investigation is getting underway. There are many questions to be answered and a key one is — were the operators just too hungry for the big bucks the tourists were prepared to shell out for the experience of getting close to the volcanic activity? The Ovation of the Seas was only in port for the day – it’s very expensive for the ship owners to stay overnight – so the opportunity for companies to take visitors out to White Island was obviously too good to miss.

Decision making

Another important question for the investigation will be who made the decision? In hindsight it was a disastrous choice and one wonders if the boat operators on approaching the volcano noticed any telltale signs of danger in the colour of the water, volcanic noise and steam activity on the island. 

If tourist visits to White Island ever resume — a big “if” — making the day by day decision to go out should be in the hands of government authorities in consultation with the scientists.

White Island Sulphur miningLessons must be learnt from this tragedy. Active volcanoes are always dangerous and unpredictable. Back in 1914, 10 sulphur miners were killed when part of the main crater wall caved in. The tour operators will point to hundreds of successful trips in the past and thousands of satisfied customers, but they know Monday’s disaster could have been avoided.

They knew that eruptive activity was increasing and that the danger level had gone up by 100%. 

In these circumstances, taking tourists to White Island was unquestionably not worth the risk. 

This is a little walk-around on Google Maps that shows what is to be seen on White Island / Whakaari (keep clicking the arrows)