The Current

'Surreal feeling' as cruise ship awaits news of missing in New Zealand eruption, says Canadian tourist

Canadian Sylvain Plasse thought he was lucky to see Monday's volcanic eruption in New Zealand from a distance, until he realized others were caught up in it, including tourists he thinks he met on his cruise.

Sylvain Plasse thought he was lucky to see the volcano explode, until he heard terrible news

Sylvain Plasse is a passenger on the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, which is awaiting news on missing people. (@sylvain_plasse/Instagram)
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A Canadian who witnessed the New Zealand volcanic eruption from a distance has expressed shock and sorrow that some of his fellow cruise ship passengers may have died in it.

"It's a surreal feeling to hear this, where people that I talked to the night before were supposedly on that tour," said Sylvain Plasse.

Six people have been confirmed dead after the massive eruption on White Island Monday, which is off the coast of New Zealand's main North Island. Eight more people are believed to have died on the island, but their bodies can not yet be reached because there is a chance another small eruption could happen soon.

Plasse is a passenger on the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas. A tour group from the ship departed for the island on Monday, and there are still people unaccounted for. 

Plasse spoke to The Current's Laura Lynch about the feelings among the shocked passengers. Here is part of their conversation.

What did you see?

I was coming down Mount Maunganui, which is right by the ship. I was taking pictures of the beaches and the ocean, and I could see in the distance this island — it's about 90 kilometres from where we are in Tauranga. And I could see this huge white plume of smoke going up in the air.

And one of the locals who was jogging there, she stopped and told me, she goes, "Wow, it's your lucky day. You get to witness one of our volcanoes erupt."

I was amazed. I was excited and so happy to be able to capture and see that with my own eyes. I walked back to the ship thinking, "OK great, I just saw a volcano erupt," and wow, how lucky I was, until, yeah, the bad news came.

Right, and the captain made an announcement. What did the captain say?

There was a catastrophic eruption of the volcano, where guests and crew were on a tour. But he did not have any updates. And one thing that stuck to my mind is he said this ship will not be leaving this port until every passenger and crew is accounted for.

See the huge plume of ash and steam after a New Zealand volcanic island erupts 0:59

What was your reaction when you heard that?

I had tears in my eyes ... and I was shaking. And even just telling you now it's getting emotional again. It's a surreal feeling to hear this, where people that I talked to the night before were supposedly on that tour. It hits close to home, even though you don't know these people personally. You know, you've crossed paths, we're all here on a cruise having a great time.

Just to kind of put myself in their shoes, it was just completely surreal.

How are the other passengers reacting?

Everybody was really, really quiet and everybody was turning on their devices to listen, to stream live New Zealand news.

I think when something critical like this happens, the most important thing is getting information. People crave details. We're curious to know, because we feel shaken by this emotionally.

Tour guides evacuate tourists on a boat shortly after the volcanic eruption on White Island, New Zealand, on Monday in this picture obtained from social media. (@SCH/Reuters)

What went through your mind when you started to hear just how serious it was?

I just remember putting my hands on my face and just holding my mouth, and the tears were welling up my eyes, and it was just like, wow, this ... could have been anybody that decided to sign up for this tour. 

And this being my 105th cruise on Royal Caribbean the last 10 years, I've made a lot of friends that are crew members and there were crew on there. And you just don't know if your friends are actually caught up in that. It's the roller coaster of emotions that goes through, at 100 miles an hour, inside of you. It's hard to describe, it's unbelievable.

What is the mood like on the ship right now?

It's a lot more sombre than it was before this happened. 

It's definitely changed. I mean, the only thing that has not changed, and I hope we can give a shout out, is to the crew — the servers, the entertainers, everybody on the ship. They're performing as they were before, smiling and taking excellent care of us, spoiling us — 1,200 to 1,300 crew members on here, over 4,000 passengers. 

A rescue helicopter is helping in the search for survivors of the volcanic eruption on New Zealand's White Island. 0:49

Once you leave port, you start your cruise, you already start making connections and talking to people, seeing the same people over and over. And then you always wonder, was that person part of it? Were they part of it? That couple that was on their honeymoon that I spoke with two nights ago in the concierge lounge. The guy's first cruise ever, and the wife was so excited, she said, "I'm making sure that we do an excursion every single port stop that we go to." They haven't been seen since the incident. They weren't in the lounge last night.

How long are you going to be on the ship?

Well, it's supposed to end on the 16th of December, but right now we don't know what's going to happen, if it's going to continue or if it's going to go back to Sydney. We have no idea, there's just a whole bunch of rumours going on. 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin, Ben Jamieson, Danielle Carr. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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