10 Dec 2019

Whakaari / White Island eruption: Why tourists were allowed on the island

12:59 pm on 10 December 2019

Questions are being raised over why tourists were allowed on Whakaari / White Island, but the company that owns the tour firm says the alert level was within its guidelines.

A helicopter assisting in the search and rescue operation at White Island.

A helicopter assisting in the search and rescue operation at White Island. Photo: Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

On 18 November the alert level was lifted to 2 on the 0-5 scale, indicating moderate volcanic unrest.

The alert was briefly raised to 4 during yesterday's eruption and is now at level 3, classed as "minor volcanic eruption".

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The White Island alert level is at 3 indicating 'minor volcanic eruption'. Graphic: Geonet

Paul Quinn, chair of Ngāti Awa Holdings, which owns White Island Tours, said the heightened alert levels on the volcano over the last few weeks didn't meet its threshold for stopping operations.

Mr Quinn said two of his staff were unaccounted for.

"There was one boat left over there that had 38 clients and there were four staff accompanying them on the tour at the time of the eruption."

"Two of our staff are unaccounted for."

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Ngāti Awa Holdings. Photo: NZ Parliament

He said White Island Tours had previously taken visitors to Whakaari / White Island when the volcano had been at a level 2.

He said that alert level was within its operating guidelines.

"GNS do the monitoring, and they advise us if there are any changes, and we operate around their guidelines in terms of what levels are stipulated.

"Level 3 and above we liaise more directly with GNS but that level 2 is still within our operational guidelines."

He said ceasing tours had not been discussed, and everyone was comfortable to continue operating.

Mr Quinn would not say whether changes need to be made.

"It's too early to worry about those things.

"Our concern at this stage is with our staff and our manuhiri and their wider whānau," he said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has not commented on the future of tourism at White Island, saying only that tourism operations had taken place there for 30 years but it was "a very unpredictable volcano".

"There are obviously, in context of that, questions that will need to be answered for the public and those who have been affected."

Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin said it was too early to consider what form any inquiry into the White Island eruption could take.

Martin said answers were needed but it was too soon to be trying to provide those right now.

Read more on the Whakaari/White Island eruption:

White Island Tours has been operating out of Whakātane for more than 25 years and has exclusive rights to land passenger vessels on the volcanic island.

The company began with one boat and has since grown to a fleet of four vessels, including a purpose built 62-foot catamaran launched in April this year.

Ngāti Awa Group Holdings bought White Island Tours in May 2017.

'Right decision' over rescue attempts

Meanwhile a natural hazard expert says it was the right decision to stop helicopters heading back to Whakaari / White Island after initial rescue efforts.

University of Canterbury professor of disaster risk and resilience Tom Wilson said further eruptions can occur after the initial event.

There can a pyroclastic flow - a blast where very hot gas and ash and other volcanic debris combine and flow away from the vent, he said.

"That can be very very hazardous to life.

"I think the decision-making process has been very good," he told Morning Report.