A volcano erupted off the coast of New Zealand on White Island, a highly popular tourist attraction frequented by hundreds of visitors on December 8. Police were alerted of the eruption which started just around 2:11 p.m. local time, which has left at least five people dead and 20 injured.
White Island is located 30 miles offshore from mainland New Zealand, and because authorities raised its Volcanic Alert to Level 2 ahead of the eruption, there are questions as to why tourists were still able to visit the island. This is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, with about 70 percent of the volcano located under the sea.
University of Auckland volcanologist Shane Cronin told The New Zealand Herald that sudden unheralded eruptions from volcanoes could be expected at any time. “After a period of unrest, there’s always the likelihood of eruption – but there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said during a press conference that the incident appeared to be “very significant,” and that the situation was evolving. Later in the afternoon, at least one person was reported dead, along with 20 injured. “Some of those, at this stage, are unaccounted for,” Ardern said. “All our thoughts are with those effected.”
Visitor Michael Schade shared some of the most of graphic photos and videos from the eruption on Twitter. It’s possible to see the flumes of smoke taking over the sky as he passed by on a boat. He captioned the series of photos and video, “My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable.”
Nation Operation Commander Deputy Commissioner John Tims said, “At this stage it is too dangerous for police and rescue services to go onto the island. It is currently covered in ash and volcanic material.” The island, which is also known by its indigenous Maori name, Whakaari, became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit the volcano every year.
GeoNet said in a statement, “We are aware that people were on the island immediately before the eruption and we express our concern for their safety,” and that the eruption was a “short-lived” event which generated an ash plume 12,000 feet into the sky. However, the ash fall appeared to be confined to the island.
The national Meteorological Service confirmed the eruption and tweeted radar and satellite images of the eruption and its ash cloud.
Authorities Expect The Death Toll To Rise
John Tims said at a news conference that there are “likely to be more” deaths. Search and rescue operations have been stalled because “at this stage, it is too dangerous for police and rescue services to go to the island.”
Authorities are currently unable to say when the area will be safe, and that they are unsure if a second eruption will soon take place. A no-fly zone has been set up around the perimeters. White Island is northeast of the town of Tauranga on North Island, one of New Zealand’s two main islands.
Dr. Ken Glehill said, “It was not a particularly big eruption, it was almost like a throat clearing eruption and that’s why material probably won’t make it to mainland New Zealand. We can’t be certain it won’t erupt again in the next 24 hours.”
Numerous Victims Were People Vacationing On The Cruise Ship ‘Ovation Of The Seas’
Jonathon Fishman, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean Cruises, told NBC News that multiple guests aboard the ship Ovation of the Seas were touring the island, which in quieter times is a tourist attraction popular with birdwatchers. He said, “Please keep all those affected in your prayers.”
Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas, is in port in Tauranga, a coastal city located about 56 miles from White Island. The ship left Sydney on December 4, and made stops around Russell and Auckland before taking post in Tauranga.