Jill Engledow | Photography by Bob Bangerter | Courtesy of US Geological Survey
Illustration courtesy of US Geological Survey | National Park Service
The little boat flew up the side of an incoming wave as we left the harbor, then slammed down hard in the trough. My fellow passengers and I braced ourselves and hung on as the boat slid up another wave. Our early morning adventure to watch molten lava pouring into the sea was off to an adrenaline-rush start.
Folks on Maui who seek travel adventures in these days of rising airfares are lucky—we’re right next door to a live volcano. On this trip to Hawai‘i Island, I was stoked: I would be seeing the incarnation of Pele, Hawai‘i’s goddess of fire, in a way I never had before. A few months earlier, I’d hiked across freshly hardened lava, hoping for a close-up look. But the long-distance view of pink-tinted clouds from the official viewing area had not satisfied my longtime lava addiction. So like any junkie, I was willing to push the boundaries for a taste of the hard stuff: an intimate view of fiery rivers flowing into the sea.
I’d arrived in Hilo the day before and cruised up to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Just visiting the park is an adventure. There’s an ever-present sense of excitement at the summit of Kilauea that comes from knowing that, at any moment, the volcano could do something new and amazing. Even on a routine day, steam issues from cracks alongside the road, the great Kilauea Caldera stretches dark and mysterious, still live with magma beneath its floor, and hiking trails cross acres of black lava where twisted trunks remain, ghosts of trees killed by falling hot cinders.
Those ghost trees are remnants of one of two eruptions I saw as a kid. We were dancing cheek-to-cheek at a teenage party in November 1959 when parents suddenly began arriving to collect their offspring. Kilauea Iki had started what would become a record-breaking eruption.
Ever after, my memories of the surging adolescent emotions that dancing evoked have been associated with memories of standing awestruck in the chilly night air as fiery lava fountained hundreds of feet high, so near and so hot that we had to turn away from time to time to let our faces cool.
Kilauea Iki erupted for just over a month, then stopped despite what scientists knew was still a full underground reservoir of magma. Weeks later, that molten rock found an outlet down the east rift that stretches along Kilauea’s flanks through the district known as Puna. I remember watching residents of the village of Kapoho shovel cinders from their roofs in a vain attempt to save their houses. Already, the fountaining vent had killed their papaya and coffee trees, and soon creeping lava would destroy the little town.
Pele has been wiping out parts of Puna for centuries. One famous ancient story tells of the time Pele sent her little sister Hi‘iaka to Kaua‘i to fetch Pele’s lover Lohiau back home to Hawai‘i. Pele gave her sister forty days to accomplish this task and warned her to keep her hands off the handsome Lohiau.
As she set off on the perilous journey, Hi‘iaka asked her sister to watch over her beloved lehua groves and her friend Hopoe in Puna. When Hi‘iaka finally reached Kaua‘i, Lohiau was dead; Hi‘iaka had to spend precious time reviving him. Alas, she missed the deadline and arrived home to find her lehua forests in flame and Hopoe wrapped in burning lava, victims of Pele’s suspicion and jealousy.
Many other beloved sites have been destroyed by Pele, one of whose names is Pele-ai-honua: Pele, eater of land. Roads, heiau, black-sand beaches, emerald-green pools, the entire community of Kalapana—all have disappeared beneath the inexorable advance of lava.
Though neighboring volcano Mauna Loa erupted in 1984, most of the land eating these days is done by Kilauea, which has erupted sixty-six times since the national park was established in 1916. Even the volcano’s name acknowledges its constant eruptive power; Kilauea means “spewing, much spreading.”
Since 1983, the action has been on Kilauea’s flanks, from a cinder cone named Pu‘u ‘O‘o. Over the years, this ever-changing eruption has allowed hardy hikers to approach in relative safety as it poured into the ocean from different points along the coast. I was able to hike amazingly close to one of these flows soon after the Pu‘u ‘O‘o eruption began.
My most recent hike, in April 2008, was less spectacular. Officials from the park, the state and the county keep tight control of access—with good reason. One visitor died and a dozen were injured when lava collapsed in 1993, and two others apparently were scalded to death by acid-laced steam in 2000.
But no one is putting fences around the ocean side of Kilauea’s encounters with the sea. And that’s where Shane Turpin comes in. Shane is the intrepid young captain of Lava Ocean Adventures, whose boat took me and two others out to the remote coastal area where giant plumes of smoke and steam mark the lava’s entry to the ocean.
We boarded the LavaKat, Captain Shane’s twenty-two-by-eight-foot catamaran fishing boat, at Pohoiki, about a forty-five-minute ride northeast of the lava’s entry point.
The cat sped along the dramatic Puna coastline, where waves splashed white against vertical black cliffs topped with a thin layer of bright green; Hawai‘i’s jungle is always ready to start anew on fresh land.
Here and there, smooth black-sand beaches edged these layers of rock, each beach composed of fragments made by explosions when hot lava hit cold water.
We passengers perched on a bench and held on for dear life while Shane regaled us with local lore, fishing stories and youthful memories of dipping quarters in hot lava to sell to tourists.
Soon we were close to the great puffy clouds of steam and a plume that was the sulfur-dioxide-tainted breath of Pele, spewing vog from seaside vents. Shane steered close, seeking glimpses of red amid the clouds.
With so much lava entering the water, steam drifted everywhere, playing a hide-and-seek game with our little boat. Shane’s experienced hands kept the LavaKat darting around the edges of clouds in water that was bathtub-hot to the touch.
Spiraling puffs of steam known as sea sprites danced over the ocean’s surface, and little blasts of black debris exploded from the eruption’s edge or fell from the clouds.
We could hear bubbles bumping against the bottom of the boat as water boiled up from the seabed. The only thing missing from this primordial scene was the dinosaurs, Shane said with a grin.
And now and again, we’d see what we had come for: glowing steam parting to reveal a river of fire, an incandescent waterfall pouring into the sea. “It’s like the eternal campfire,” Shane said. “It never loses its fascination.”
A daredevil at home on the ocean and with the lava, he pulled the boat in close and held steady, allowing us plenty of opportunity to stare and shoot pictures.
In recent months, he told us, he had hosted crews from National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, all seeking, like us, a glimpse of creation in action.
Soon it was time to head back over the ocean swells, which the sea captain claimed were pretty calm today. “This is not the tour for everybody,” he conceded. And while Lava Ocean Adventures’ bigger boat, the thirty-four-foot Lono, is a more comfortable ride, Shane said only those who are fit and venturesome should consider any boat trip along the rough-water east coast of Hawai‘i.
Lava watching is an unpredictable business. “I can’t tell you what it’s going to be like” on any given day, Shane said, and he never takes reservations more than a month out, because Pele could decide at any moment to turn off the faucet. He also tends to get lots of last-minute passengers, people who were disappointed when they hiked out to the official viewing point or flew overhead in a helicopter.
My co-passengers, North Carolinians Frank Tate and Cynthia Gibas, had tried both of those trips. Which did they like best? Frank put it succinctly: “This wins!”
Having experienced the wild ride on the LavaKat, I’d choose the larger boat next time. But I would certainly take the ride, bumpy as it might be even on the Lono, for the chance to pursue my longtime love affair with lava. After all, what’s an adventure without a little adrenaline on the way?
Go with the Flow
Are you up for the ocean tour? Contact Captain Shane Turpin of Lava Ocean Adventures at (808) 990-0553, or check the website lava-ocean.com. Wear comfortable shoes and bring a light jacket.
At this writing, on-land viewing is located outside Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park at the lava-truncated end of Highway 130/137. The viewing area may change or be closed at any time. Be prepared for a long hike over very rough lava. Wear sturdy shoes and long pants and bring a backpack with two to three quarts of bottled water per person. The site is open from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Flashlights are essential after 6 p.m.
Lava viewing conditions are unpredictable and constantly changing, so check for updates when you are actually ready to see the flow, whether by sea, by air or by land. For the latest, go to the national park’s site, or the Big Island Visitors Bureau site. You’ll also find current information and great movies of lava in action at the park’s Visitor Center at the Kilauea summit.