Tours Continued Despite Warning Just Weeks Before White Island Eruption
The warning level for New Zealand's White Island Volcano was increased just weeks before Monday's eruption but that wasn't enough for tour operators to cancel their trips, experts say.
The volcano is the most active cone volcano in New Zealand and is regarded as one of the most accessible active sites in the world. It erupted on Monday while at least 47 tourists were visiting the island. While experts agree the Island is fascinating to visit, they also said touring active volcanoes comes with a number of serious risks.
"It's a fascinating place to visit; I have been there twice," Emeritus Professor Ray Cas from Monash University told Studio 10 on Tuesday.
"Given its remoteness, it is uninhabited, there are no emergency services immediately available. It has experienced landslides, it has had overflows from its crater lakes ... I think it's actually very dangerous to take the general public, even during periods of low alert, because of the unexpected hazards."
Five people were confirmed dead by New Zealand authorities on Tuesday, with three feared to be Australian citizens. A further 11 Australians are unaccounted for and 13 remain in hospital, some with severe burns.
Geonet, which provides information on geological hazards in New Zealand, warned the public of "increases in activity" on White Island on November 18.
"Volcanic unrest continues at Whakaari/White Island and some monitored parameters show further increases in activity. Hazards on the Island are now greater than during the past few weeks and the volcanic Alert Level is raised to level two," Geonet said in a tweet.
The warning was upgraded to level three following Monday's explosion.
Level two warnings indicate "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest potential for eruption hazards". Level three relates to a"minor volcanic eruption". Ash, lava flow, and lahar (mudflow) hazards could also effect the areas surrounding the volcano.
Despite this, the warning level wasn't high enough for tour operators to cancel their trips to the Island, Volcanologist Richard Arculus from the Australian National University told Studio 10.
"The authorities at geological and nuclear scientists in New Zealand raised the alert level a notch. They had not raised it to the point the tour operators would have automatically cancelled their trips," Arculus said.
He also said there weren't normal signs that there would be an imminent eruption, including increased seismicity and magma in volcanic dust.
"There weren't signs of the normal kind that a volcano in the ring of fire give out when a major eruption will occur ... compared with the normal monitoring and alert warning status, it had not increased to the point where you automatically stop people going," he said.
Many of the victims were guests on Royal Caribbean's Ovation Of The Seas cruise ship at the time of the eruption. Travellers who visited the Island had signed up for an optional trip as part of their stop in the Bay of Plenty.
It's unclear if tourists were warned of the increased volcanic activity on the Island prior to embarking on the trip. Arculus said, "they may well have been informed but they might not listen" because "it's all to do with the adventure".
He also highlighted the importance of running the trips for the local economy adding, "... visitors pay good money to get there by boat or helicopter ride. There's a tourist industry that's built around visitors going there."
Royal Caribbean staff from both the Sydney and Auckland offices arrived in Whakatane following the eruption and are working to support guests and staff on the ship.
"The news from White Island is devastating. The details that are emerging are heartbreaking," Royal Caribbean spokesperson said in a statement.
"We’re making sure they are taken care of in terms of medical help, counseling, accommodations and transport. Our hearts go out to them, and we want to be as supportive as we can."
Royal Caribbean was unable to confirm if the tour was operated internally, or by a third party operator. 10 daily understands Monday's trip to White Island was conducted by Bay of Plenty Tours which is contracted to run tours by Royal Caribbean.
10 daily has contacted Bay of Plenty Tours for comment.
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