Visiting Volcanoes: Nature’s Fireworks on Your Next Cruise

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What could be more exciting than seeing the power of volcano while on your next vacation. A cruise vacation can take you to many of the world’s most spectacular active and dormant volcanoes.

Hawaii

The islands of Hawaii are all either active, dormant or extinct volcanoes, but the highlight of any trip to Hawaii is viewing the lava flows of Kilauea. That volcano has been erupting nearly continuously since 1983. Cruisers have several options for viewing this volcano. First,an option is a day time tour to Volcanoes National park. While the park offers many easily accessible volcanic features like steam vents, the caldera area, and Thurston’s Lava Tube, viewing the lava flow currently requires a one to two mile hike across rough terrain. The lava flow is constantly changing sometimes making the viewing areas more easily or more difficultly accessible. Perhaps the easiest way to view the lava flow is right from your cruise ship. Some cruise lines sail around the Big Island at night from Hilo to Kona or the reverse. On these voyages passengers are treated to earth’s natural “Fireworks” show. We were lucky enough to have a spectacular lava flow on our voyage on the Celebrity Infinity in 2005. Right after dinner the waiters announced that we should head straight out to deck as we were sailing right by the lava flow. Right from the deck we could see the glowing rivers of lava heading from the side of the hill to the sea. This was one of the most unforgettable moments of the cruise.

Caribbean

All of the West Indies Islands were created through volcanic activity. Currently, the only volcano in the area listed as “active” is Soufriere Hills, Montserrat, West Indies. That volcano has been erupting since the 1990’s. About half of that island has been devastated by the eruption and is currently off limits to ground transportation. The town of Plymouth has been covered in layers of volcanic ash since 1997. It lies in what the island call the “volcanic exclusion zone” but can be viewed from several vantage points. Perhaps the best way to view the volcano on Montserrat for cruise travelers is during their stop at the neighboring island of Antigua, a popular cruise destination. Several tour operators provide aerial excursions from the island of Antigua to view the volcanic areas on Montserrat. Tours include viewing of the volcanic dome and the areas devastated by the eruptions.

The island opened a new cruise port in 2005, and is hoping to bring more cruise ships tourists to the island. Some cruise line offer scenic cruises around the island at night to allow passengers to view the volcanic activity. Elsewhere in the West Indies, Mt.Pelee in Martinique is another infamous volcano. On May 8, 1902, a blast from the volcano Mont Pelée destroyed the town of St. Pierre, killing almost all of its 29,000 inhabitants. The only survivor was a prisoner saved by his position in a jail dungeon with only a single window. The town had to be completely rebuilt and lost its status as the commercial capital, a title which shifted to Fort-de-France.

We visited St. Pierre during our cruise to Martinique in the 1970’s. There, we visited an interesting museum that documents the 1902 eruption. Currently this volcano has a “dormant” classification. Scientists monitor this volcano for any signs of renewed activity. There are many extinct or dormant volcanoes in the Caribbean. Passengers who are interested in visiting some of these sights should review the details of their ship’s tours or independent tours to see if the tour offers the type of volcanic visit they seek.

Alaska

Alaska has several active or dormant volcanoes, but currently the most famous is Mount Redoubt near Anchorage. This volcano is located 110 miles from Anchorage. The recent eruption spewed a large cloud of ash into the air. While the mountain itself is not a popular cruise tour destination, the eruption is expected to dust the extremely popular cruise-tour destination, Denali National Park, with a light coating of ash. Hopefully, that ash won’t affect the visitors during the upcoming 2009 tourist season. However, Cruise passengers will more than likely enjoy seeing many of the dormant or extinct volcanoes located along the popular inside passage cruise route. For example, long dormant Mt. Edgecumbe near Sitka, provides dramatic scenery that draws people to these cruises and Alaska.

Atlantic

The Canary Islands, Madeira, The Azores, and Cape Verde islands were all formed by volcanic activity. Though none of these islands currently experience eruptions, the geographic features resulting from the volcanic activities, provide some of the most popular tourist attractions. The desert weather of Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, has left the volcanic cones, lava fields, and formations of the 1730’s eruptions nearly unchanged over 250 years later.

Tours take visitors to Timanfaya National park where they can see these various formation and demonstrations of the islands hot zones. Tenerife is home to the highest point in the Canary Islands, Spain, and the entire Atlantic, Mount Teide. This volcano last erupted about 100 years ago. Both cruise line and independent tour operators offer visits to the often snow capped peak of this mountain. All of the other Canary Islands are home to some sort of dormant volcano providing many opportunities to explore volcanic areas during visits to these islands. Visitors to the Azores often visit Lagoa das Sete Cidade which stands for the Seven Cities Lagoon. It consists of two small lakes connected by a narrow passage located inside a dormant volcano cone in the east side of the island of São Miguel Island. It is the largest fresh-water lake in the Azores. If tourist are lucky enough visit on a clear day, the two pools of the lake reflect different spectrums of light. This effect earned the two pools the names the Green Lagoon and the Blue Lagoon. The last volcano to erupt in the Azores, was the Capelinhos Volcano in 1957.

The Cape Verde islands are another popular destination particularly on Trans-Atlantic cruises. Mount Fogo is the highest peak of Cape Verde, rising to 2,829 metres above sea level located on the island of Fogo. The main cone last erupted in 1675, causing mass emigration from the island, while a subsidiary vent erupted in 1995. The mountain’s slopes are used to grow coffee, while its lava is used as building material. Near its peak is a caldera, in which sits the Pico do Fogo ash cone. A small village, Chã das Caldeiras, is inside this caldera. Madeira Island is the top of a massive shield volcano that rises about 6 km from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Formation of the bulk of the volcano began over 5 million years ago and continued until about 700,000 years ago. The most recent volcanic eruptions were on the west-central part of the island only 6,500 years ago, creating more cinder cones and lava flows. The highlight of any visit to Madeira is simply taking in the beautiful scenery and flora of the island. If you are planning a trip across the Atlantic and have an interest in volcanoes, all of these islands provide magnificent volcanic scenery.

Ice Land

Ice Land is probably best know for its geothermal activity, and the island’s use of that energy as a renewable energy source. A geologically young land, Iceland is located on both the Iceland hot spot and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs right through it. This combined location means that geologically the island is extremely active, having many volcanoes, notably Hekla, Eldgjá, Herðubreið and Eldfell. There are also many geysers in Iceland, including Geysir, from which the English word is derived, as well as the famous Strokkur which erupts every 5-10 minutes. After a phase of inactivity, Geysir started erupting again after a series of earthquakes in the year 2000. Iceland controls Surtsey, one of the youngest islands in the world. Named after Surtr, it rose above the ocean in a series of volcanic eruptions between 8 November 1963 and 5 June 1968. Only scientists researching the growth of new life are allowed to visit the island. In 2004, scientist discovered the first Puffin nests on the island.

Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific

Another popular “Sail By” volcano is Whakaari/White Island, located in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. This volcano was named White Island by Captain James Cook during his circumnavigation of the islands in the 1700’s. Whakaari’s eruptions have produced both lava flows and explosive eruptions of ash. It is New Zealand’s only active marine volcano and perhaps the most accessible on earth, attracting scientists and vulcanologist worldwide as well as many tourists.

Several of my friends took an Australia/New Zealand cruise last year. Their ship sailed by the the island during the 2008 steam and gas eruption. Visitors cannot land without permission or remove or disturb any wildlife and must leave only their footprints. However, it is easily accessible by authorized tourist operators. Weather permitting, a luxury motor launch leaves Whakatane daily for a six-hour day trip. Helicopter trips are also available from Rotorua and Whakatane.

Those same friends also sailed to French Polynesia on a back to back cruise, where they visited the islands of Tahiti and Bora Bora. Bora Bora, like many other atolls in the Pacific are ancient decayed volcanoes around which coral reefs have grown up enough to produce a surrounding land mass. These islands demonstrate not the destructive abilities of volcanoes, but the ability of aquatic volcanoes to create a thriving environment for many different plants and animals.

Survivor fans may also remember the active volcanoes on the island of Vanuatu during the season filmed on those islands. Yasur volcano, in southern Vanuatu is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The volcano has erupted many times per hour for at least 800 years. Yasur has been called the “Lighthouse of the Pacific” because of the regular Strombolian eruptions visible from sea. However, most of the tours offered to cruise visitors do not include a visit to this volcano as it is located on the island of Tanna, and most of ships visit the other islands. Tours on those islands focus more on the culture and sea life in the islands.

If you want to visit an active volcano in Australia you’ll probably have to be part of a scientific study group. The only active volcanoes in Australian Territory are actually the two islands of Heard Island and McDonald Island located in the Southern Indian Ocean 4000 kilometers southwest of Western Australia, close to Antarctica. Due to there remote location and harsh climate, very few private tours have ever visited these islands. The Australian government limits human visits to the islands to less than 400 people per year, however scientific and private visitors have never even come close to that limit.

Italy

Mt. Etna, Mt. Stromboli and Mt. Vesuvius are three of the most famous volcanoes in Italy. Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is in an almost constant state of eruption. The fertile volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread across the lower slopes of the mountain and the broad Plain of Catania to the south. Etna exhibited extensive eruptions in 2007 and 2008.

Stromboli is a small island off the north coast of Sicily. Stromboli is remarkable because of the length of time for which it has been in almost continuous eruption. For at least the last 2,000 years, the same pattern of eruption was maintained, in which explosions occurred at the summit craters with mild to moderate eruptions of incandescent volcanic bombs at intervals ranging from minutes to hours, something which proved a considerable tourist attraction. The island has a population of between 400 and 750. The volcano has erupted many times, and is constantly active with minor eruptions, often visible from many points on the island and from the surrounding sea. The last major eruption was in August 2, 2008. Many cruisers have been treated to one of these natural fireworks displays while cruising the Straits of Messina.

For a look at an historic town destroyed and then preserved by a deluge of volcanic ash, many cruisers visit Pompeii. In 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius erupted destroying the town. They citiy was preserved and forgotten for over 1500 years until their rediscovery in 1599 and excavations beginning in 1748. Archeologists devised the technique of injecting plaster into voids in the ash to perfectly recreate the forms of Vesuvius’s victims. Tourist can see from these casts what the terrifying last moments of life might have been like for these unfortunate victims. Mt. Vesuvius is still regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes because of the close proximity of over 3 million people.

Galapagos

Another increasingly popular volcanic island cruise destination is the Galapagos Islands. The group consists of 13 main islands, 6 smaller islands atop the Galapagos hot spot, a place where the Earth’s crust is being melted from below by a mantle plume, creating volcanoes. The oldest island is thought to have formed between 5 and 10 million years ago. The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed, with the most recent volcanic eruption in May 2008 when the 1,690 meters high (5,541 feet) Cerro Azul mountain started spewing lava after 10 years of inactivity on the island of Isabela. For Galapagos cruisers, often the attraction is not only the stark landscape, but rather the unique wild life in the area that inhabit these remote islands.

Your Next Cruise

If you have an interest in volcanoes, just about any cruise itinerary will offer a chance to get up close with one of these natural wonders. Be sure to check out the excursions offered by your cruise line if you are interested in visiting some of these fantastic sights. Many independent tour operators will also offer similar excursions. However if you choose an independent tour, make sure that your tour allows ample time to return to the ship. Should you be delayed, your ship will not wait for you.

We invite our readers to share any of their own volcanic experiences with us. There are over 1550 active volcanoes around the world, so the ones listed here just scratch the surface of “nature’s fireworks.”