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White Island

By Philip Trupp


We had run nearly 30 miles off the coast of New Zealand's North Island before sighting the volcano on the horizon. Hidden in a shroud of mist rising over the surface of the sea, it cast a wide blue shadow on the water.

I strained to see through the haze, and though I didn't know it at the time, this encounter would bring me face-to-face with my own past.

"There she is," said John Baker, who's been telling us how life at sea has changed him. "She's been awfully active. The vegetation's been burnt off."

We penetrated the hazy shroud. It must have been like this when Captain James Cook sighted the volcano nearly three centuries ago and decided to name this place White Island.

The primal mass of the volcano rises out of the sea like a hydra -- dark and angry and seething. The Moari natives named it Whakaari, "that which can be made visible, uplifted to view." For them this was a Devil's Island where incorrigables where banished, obviously to a nasty death.

By this time we'd had a fair sampling of underwater New Zealand. Still, Whakaari was a special gem. Fire and ice -- glaciers and volcanos -- these are at the heart of New Zealand's South Pacific frontier. Whakaari was window in time, a view of the earth when it was young and angry and violent.

"She's spitting rocks," John said as we rode the dingy to shore.

Three large volcanic cones make up this 800-acre no man's land. Its starfish-from-hell contours reach upward from the 4000-foot-deep White Island Trench, a child of an ancient collision of the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates, a catyclsm that gave birth to the whole of New Zealand.

Everything about Whakaari is primal. The southwestern rim has been blasted away in a long ago eruption. This so-called Taupo Volcanic Zone is unpredictable, another link in the highly active Pacific Ring of Fire.

Whakaari can also be deadly. Two cases in point: In 1914, when the White Island Sulphur Company operated here, a fireman vanished without a trace. A few months later, an avalanche obliterated all evidence of human presence. To this day, the bodies of the 10-man crew haven't been found.

The crater floor is straight out of Hieronymus Bosch: an anarchy of landslides and exploded rock, lava flows, screaming sulphur-rimmed fumeroles spewing heat at 800-degrees. There is the stench of sulphur. We donned gas masks and sipped the nasty air instead of gulping it.

Whakaari doesn't smile on living things. The floor of the crater feels as if it might suddenly split open and swallow you. At one point I stumbled into a patch of quicksand (fortunately, it wasn't superheated). One leg was instantly sucked in up to my knee. I was amazed by the treachery, the speed and voracousness with which I was trapped.

It was a relief to head out for some diving. We were gritty with ash and acidic dust. The cool blue water was just what we needed.

Our dive site was the necklace of stone pinnacles which accent the seascape around Whakaari. On a grand scale the area is a gigantic submerged theater of volcanism, with Whakaari and its pinnacles at center stage.

The nearby Volkner Rocks break out of very deep water. They are stark and foreboding but below the surface the Pacific has decorated them with Miro-like shapes and designs: intense fields of red and yellow, linked together by an invisible thread. The scars of the upthrusted rock are softened by forests of golden kelp.

I swam away and hung motionless in midwater, studying the rockface. I looked straight down; the pinnacle vanished into the cobalt abyss.

"Pretty good sights," John said after the first dive.

Better than pretty good: it was fascinating. The transformation of Whakaari below the surface was nearly complete, time and the sea reshaping a brutal landscape.

Our second dive gave us excellent visibility (100 feet-plus). The colors were spare but intense, a near polar opposite of the hard corals and lush gorgonia of Australia's Great Barrier Reef to the north. Here, in the far South Pacific, the 60-degree water keeps coral growth to a minimum. The diver is faced less by color and more by the raw essentials. You see what the earth is made of, and what you are made of, too.

The fish tend to be large and unfamiliar. Gliding past are Rough skate (Raja nasuta) with burnt umber wings and a half-dozen "winglets" on their tails; Hagfish (Eptatretus cirrhatus), a red tube-shaped creature that drifts up out of 1,000 feet of water; the barracuda-like Gem Fish (Rexea solandri) moves with swift, predatory power; yellow morays and conger eels are everywhere.

And there are the sharks. Just beyond the line of visibility they moved like shadows, circling the pinnacles, darting into view, sizing up their opportunities. At one point a fair-sized mako appeared, its jaw slack and unpleasant. And, like that! -- the long gray and white body disappeared behind the curtain of invisibility, leaving a new chill in an already chilly sea.

In researching Whakaari I discovered a prospectus published by the sulphur company sometime after 1913; it claimed that the sands of the alluvial drift were of a "diamond-bearing character." This claim was based on the discovery of what the company called "precious stones" spewed from the crater and recovered by an employee. These "Whakaari diamonds" were appraised in Auckland; afterwards, the word "diamond" was dropped from the prospectus.

The very thought of diamonds littering the seabed was irresistible. We searched the rocky underwater shelves around the pinnacles, but found only splinters of obsidian, the glassy byproducts of heat and high pressure.

"So now we dive the vents," John said.

It was our last dive before resuming our tour of topside Whakaari, so we hugged the flanks of the volcano and headed for the the heated openings in the shallows, at 20-40 feet.

Divers have reported fish "sitting" on the submerged vents, enjoying a sort of underwater jacuzzi. Still, the volcano is fickle and the temperature can change radically. Without warning the vents can pump amazing heat. Fishing boat skippers tell tales of lead weights melting, and there are stories of "precooked fish" snagged in their nets.

On this day the water temperature at the vents was in the eighties, a pleasant change after the cold temperatures offshore.

Unlike the relatively colorful offshore environment, the thermally heated shallows are a jumble of garage-size boulders and schooling fish. Thick curtains of bubbles rose between the boulders, and it looked as if we'd encountered an underwater snow storm. The venting gas gave the water a brittle quality; it was very clear and noticeably warmer as we swam closer.

The boulders were covered with thick, white "mats" formed by heat-loving bacteria. The mats were pure white, soft to the touch, and the fish apparently think the stuff (whatever it is) is delicious.

We boarded a helicopter for a final tour of Whakaari. From the air we could see the ruins of the old sulphur mining operation, and a long, high spine of land jutting into the Pacific from the southeast.

I spotted the formation on my map, and there, in black-and-white, was my family name: The site is called Troup Head!

Once I got over the shock, I realized the connection. The British side of my family has been in metallurgy for generations, and sulphuric acid is used to extract alloys. Apparently my great-uncle, Frank Hough Troup, bought into this sulphur machine of an island with J.A. Wilson, a judge of the New Zealand Native Land Court. Maybe I was in line to claim my own personal dive site.

John was amused: "You'll be filing papers, I suppose."

Alas, my dream of inheriting a piece of Whakaari went glimmering when I later discovered that Uncle Frank sold his half-share in 1885. It didn't take him long to figure out Whakaari would never be tamed, and that any attempts to do so would meet with disaster. Still, my day of "owning" half an island was a thrill.

It was dusk when we hauled anchor. Whakaari's fumeroles glowed red and blue against the lowering sky, a final show of power before slipping back into the mist.

Isn't it odd: the closer you get to the past, the more vivid the present becomes. "True enough," John said. "We're always discovering something, aren't we. That's how the sea changes you."