Melanesia Expedition: Mount Yasur, Tanna Island

On the first day of the Melanesia Expedition we arrived in Waisisi Bay, a beautiful bay at Tanna Island, our entry point for watching the spectacular eruption of Mount Yasur, an active volcano. We arrived at Tanna late in the afternoon and disembarked from the Ship via Zodiac. A heavy rolling swell of two meters was present in the bay by the Ship, which dissipated the closer we got to shore. The black volcanic beach landing was in half a meter of surf.

Here, we were greeted by a dozen smiling local ‘boat catchers,’ most of them in the water up to their chests, their job was to catch the Zodiacs as the drivers spun them to avoid the breaking waves. This was our first introduction to the smiling faces of Vanuatu, the ‘boat catchers’ laughter and broad smiles, displaying their instinctual desire to help and their sincere curiosity and hospitality.

Once ashore, local community members performed three welcome dances on the black sand beach. We were mesmerized by one dance in particular, as women dressed in bright white tops and grass skirts beat tightly woven grass baskets in undulating rhythms.

After spending some time with the dancers and their families, we boarded 20 four-wheel-drive trucks, climbing into the cabs and back boxes and ascending the mountain road as the sun began to set. We drove through the forests and emerged on a flat ash field. In one of the trucks, a quick thinking Resident pulled out an iPod and played Sting’s “Walking on the Moon”! As we climbed higher and higher we began to smell the volcanic ash and hear the many sounds of Mount Yasur erupting!
The volcano, caused by the Indo-Australian Plate’s movement under the Pacific Plate, was erupting at a “Level 2” today. Even though the volcano has been erupting continuously for the past three years, eruption level two is something that happens rarely. We disembarked from our trucks and made the steep climb to the rim. Once there, as the sun set, we watched bright orange lava and ash burst from the mouth of the volcano and shoot high into the darkening sky.

We returned to the beach in the dark to be met by local campfires and a line of spot lights set up by The World’s shore team. In the distance, our World was lighted like a bright city in a seascape of black water and black sky. Bobbing between ship and shore were the single orange mast lights of the six shuttle Zodiacs. Rigged for night running, the Zodiac safety lights moved in line closer to the beach. As each boat appeared, they were illuminated in the shore lights as they were met by the same ‘boat catchers.’ On their return to the Ship, the Zodiac drivers navigated by the reflected lights on the water’s surface of The World. Once away from the light influence from the shoreline spotlights, our eyes adjusted to the subtleties of the low light seascape. The forests of the island, the bright highlights of the distant white surf, and the dark subtle shadows of the rolling swell were easy distinguished.
A dramatic and peaceful end to our first landing of the expedition.

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