A few weeks before, GNS issued a bulletin putting the volcanic alert level at 2, indicating significant volcanic unrest. This is also 1 step away from alert level 3: a localised eruption. Despite that, tour operators chose to head to the island anyway. I suppose they rationalised that eruptions can happen at any alert level - which is true - and felt that the risk was worth it. All visitors to the island have to wear hard hats and gas masks, which in normal circumstances would have been enough to ensure their safety. After all, White Island is constantly active and churning out steam and poison gas, and that activity lulled us all into a false sense of security. We thought the volcano to be predictable.
I've tried putting up a bird's eye view of White Island, but I've had no luck. Google Images has plenty of them, so if you want a visual aid, go there. I was going to try to visually demonstrate why any visitors would be absolutely fucked if there was an eruption - which there just was. And why it may be time for these tourist visits to STOP.
Here's the gist: White Island is a stratovolcano that is about 70% underwater, with only the tip-top of the mountain above water, and the crater is only 30m above sea level. Part of the crater wall is collapsed, allowing easy access by jetty to the crater itself. But that means there's only one way in, one way out. You're hemmed in by high crater walls on all sides except the part open to the sea, the air is thick with toxic gas, there's no man-made shelters and the main crater is only 700m away. In an eruption - if you're on the island, you have nowhere to go. Whakaari often erupts with bursts of hot ash, steam and gas that certainly rises upwards, but just as often travels across the land via the path of least resistance. That is to say, it follows the same route to the sea as the tourists. And anyone caught in that shit gets steam broiled.