A passenger on board the cruise ship booking people on White Island excursions says staff failed to provide them information on the possibility of a volcanic eruption.
Venessa Lugo, from Newcastle, NSW, was travelling on Ovation of the Seas around New Zealand’s North Island when guests were presented with the opportunity to take part in a day trip to White Island, Herald Sun reported.
While staff encouraged passengers to read information sheets about the White Island Tours excursion, and download a Royal Caribbean app for additional insight, she claims neither sources mentioned any risk factors.
“In those sheets we weren’t advised of any warnings of anything going off,” Ms Lugo told the publication.
“It did ask about pre-existing medical conditions, and it was classified as strenuous activity because you would be in a gas mask, but it definitely didn’t specify the possibility of (the volcano) going off.”
She said they were kept in the dark about Geonet, the national geological hazard monitoring system, raising the hazard warning level raising from one to two.
White Island Tours weren’t alarmed by level 2 alert
Her concerns echoed those of many frustrated loved ones and relatives of victims and survivors of the volcano, who expressed outrage that tours were allowed to continue despite the hazard warning.
Geonet had elevated the volcano to a level two alert on November 18, indicating minor volcanic unrest. It was on level one ahead of its previous eruption in 2016.
While Geonet tracks the volcano's activity, the island is privately owned and it is up to tour operators to decide when to visit.
White Island Tours, who had a boatload of people on the island when it erupted, said on its website - which has been taken down - that it operated during varying alert levels, but that “passengers should be aware that there is always a risk of eruptive activity regardless of the alert level”.
The tour operator also said it publishes the volcanic alert level on its website, Stuff.co.nz reported.
The website also stated that the tour company "follows a comprehensive safety plan which determines our activities on the island at the various levels."
Paul Quinn, chair of Ngati Awa Holdings which owns White Island Tours, told Radio New Zealand the heightened alert levels on the volcano over the last few weeks didn't meet its threshold for stopping operations.
“Level three and above we liaise more directly with GeoNet but level two is still within our operational guidelines,” he said.
Vulcanologist Shane Cronin told Science Media Centre that “sudden, unheralded eruptions from volcanoes such as White Island can be expected at any time.”
Magma was close to the surface, and the heat and gases formed hydrothermal systems.
“We know hydrothermal and so-called 'phreatic' eruptions can occur suddenly and with little or no warning because they are driven by the expansion of super-heated water into steam,” he said.
‘Passengers should be aware of the risk’
White Island sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area known for frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and is the emergent peak of a large submarine volcano that lays 48 kilometres offshore from Whakatane on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island.
Ray Cas, emeritus professor at the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Monash University, told the Science Media Centre White Island has been “a disaster waiting to happen for many years”.
Ross Dowling, tourism researcher at Edith Cowan University in Perth, said that "the number of tourists visiting active volcanoes is increasing globally as part of an increase in both geological tourism and adventure tourism.
“Part of the attraction is to visit an unpredictable natural environment and for most tourists they assume that they will be able to visit such dangerous sites in relative safety.”
Three Australians are believed to be among the five people confirmed dead, with the toll certain to rise.
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