Mother Nature is a force that gives and takes with equal ferocity. In 2019, the Whakaari volcano erupted during a tourist visit, resulting in the loss of 22 lives. This documentary recounts the survivors’ memories and the rescue efforts while illuminating the risks of such a dangerous and unpredictable tourist adventure.

The disasters faced

Volcanic eruptions, steam burns, poisonous gas, a choppy sea (and seasickness) and being isolated on an island over an hour away from any outside help.

The crater lake was white because ash had settled on it overnight.

The story

Whakaari (White Island) sits 30 miles off the east coast of New Zealand. Over the years, it had become a tourist attraction over the years for the local town where guides would boat or chopper out to walk around the volcano, take some pictures and enjoy the geology. Whilst Whakaari has erupted multiple times over the last decade, it hadn’t happened for three years. Sadly, the previous two times it erupted were in 2013 and 2016. We’re now in December 2019 and the clock had finally ticked down.

The documentary sets the scene by introducing a selection of survivors, relatives and local townspeople such as a reporter, the police commander, the Maori leader, the coast guard and some of the rescue crew. We meet Geoff, travelling with his daughter and they are on the Pheonix boat which is the first group on the island. They’ve been around the trek and are just leaving the island. Newlywed couple Matt and Lauren are in a second tour group making their way back from the crater. Jesse, with his family, is in a later group who are right on the crater rim. Tour guide Kelsey is also making her way back with a group and so is commercial pilot Brian, who is closer to the beach.

Matt and Lauren relive their ordeal in harrowing detail.

Suddenly, the eruption kicks off and through a mixture of survivor footage, audio clips, photos and interviews, we hear of each group’s terrible plight. 47 people were on the island when Whakaari went up and no one would leave relatively unhurt. Kelsey, Lauren and Matt are all heavily injured from the steam blast that burnt through their clothes and skin. Geoff’s boat returns back to the island to rescue survivors which include this trio in the first batch of people who could actually make it to the jetty. Brian, possibly the least injured person on the island, was able to dive into the water before the cloud hit and goes in search of survivors. As the first group start to make the 90-minute boat trip back to shore, attention turns to rescuing the people that can’t get off.

This is mainly the group which Jesse and his family are part of as they were at the crater rim when Whakaari went up. Jesse is barely alive, his dad is fading, his mum is seemingly dead and his sister is missing. Their guides Hayden and Tipene, whilst helping people in the initial blast also appear to have passed too. Jesse makes the decision to stumble for help towards the shore and leave those unable to move behind.

The three pilots are heroes for attempting to rescue those left on the island.

At the same time, three pilots – Mark, Tim and John arrive to start searching for those left on the island still. Despite being told that no help is coming and that it is a no-fly zone, the trio work together to land on the island, grab as many people showing signs of life as possible and get out again. With time of the essence with burn victims, they break protocol to land at the hospital itself and not the airport as instructed to save time and hopefully lives. The documentary weaves this all together as the phoenix boat arrives to pass the first injured group off to the hospital too.

The disaster claimed the lives of 22 people. We hear of the pain from Hayden and Tipene’s family as they deal with their loss. Jesse’s recovery has been a long one as he became the sole survivor of his family. Matt ended up in a coma for a month and both he and Lauren are having operations every few months to improve their recovery. Kelsey is in a similar situation. They are all remarkably pragmatic about the event but warn of how vague the warning systems were to them and that’s probably the biggest lesson of all.

Whakaari is an absolutely beautiful place to look at… from afar.

Why is it worth watching?

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari is unflinching and visceral without resorting to anything controversial or overly dramatic. The first main draw for me is the use of survivors’ footage. There are photos, mobile footage, drone and geological camera footage and tv footage from the event so you can see how events unfolded from the ground, sea and sky. It’s an important storytelling device because there are different groups located in different places across the entire event so this, and the brief use of maps to pinpoint locations, really helps ease the story in. The footage is dramatic enough and the restraint from using overblown cinematic audio is welcome. When interviews do get more philosophical or talk about things without footage, freezeframe footage made for the documentary is placed over the top with vintage, gritty filters. There is quite a lot of this so beware going in.

However, what stuck with me is how everyone mucked in despite authorities refusing to go officially travel to the island to help. Tourists like Geoff on the phoenix boat do their best with first aid kits. The coast guard shipping out paramedics to help and cross boats mid-journey. Brian chose to stay on the island and look for survivors. The three pilots Mark Law, Tim Barrow and John Funnell are absolute heroes too. They didn’t think, they just reacted, although you can’t blame authorities for declaring it a no-fly zone either. Hearing of Hayden and Tipene trying to comfort others despite not being any better off themselves. The whole event is full of support in the face of adversity and whilst no one would want this to happen, it does show that in times of need, the best in people can shine.

The eruption footage is jaw dropping in its power and deadly beauty.

Favourite quote

I even said the words, its not going to erupt

Matt to his wife lauren on the island

Three memorable moments

  • Seeing the photos of everyone so happily posing in front of the crater just seconds before the eruption is a stark reminder of how things can change in an instant.
  • The footage from the boat as the pyroclastic cloud booms out over the cliff edges towards them is awe-inspiring in its deadly beauty.
  • The footage of each survivors recovery and seeing their determination to not let it define their lives. Truly humbling and inspirational.
Jesse’s story is one of bravery and courage as he battles on in his recovery.

The obligatory weird moment

There isn’t a weird moment exactly but one thing this film nudges towards but doesn’t lament on is safety. The key bit for me comes from Mark Inman where he explains the volcano had been on a level 2 warning. Level 1 is no activity, level 2 is heightened activity and level 3 is an eruption. That is a woefully terrible rating system. The scope between each level is weird. Surely having a deeper tiered warning structure would have informed either a closure of the site or the larger risk for those who were willing to take it. Everyone said they felt uninformed of the heightened risk. No one has ever taken responsibility for the disaster, and it is difficult to do that in reality. If a new warning system hasn’t been introduced yet, it damn well should be.

Tipene’s Grandmother can see Whakaari from her window every day and that takes its tole.


Beautifully and intelligently told account of the Whakaari eruption. The footage is crazy, the tales of survival and rehabilitation are mesmerising and the whole package shows the deadly beauty of the world we live in. Recommended.

Rating: 4 / 5 – Excellent

If you enjoyed The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari then you may also like…

  • When A City Falls – how Christchurch rebuilt itself twice from huge earthquakes
  • Fire in Paradise – survivor documentary and footage from the forest fire in Paradise
  • Tsunami: Caught on Camera – still the most impactful documentary of a natural disaster I’ve ever seen
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