HAWAII VOLCANIC ADVENTURE: When Lava Explosively Collides with the Sea

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiLava flowed into the sea at two points when we visited Hawaii in May 2013: steam pours up when searing 2,000°F lava meets 75°F saltwater; the steam cloud is illuminated by the incandescence of the glowing lava.

The captain of the small vessel very nearly sneered at his 15 or so prospective passengers as he listed all the hardships of our ocean trip to view lava. He pointedly disparaged the idea of taking a big camera (like the one I was holding) out on the tumultuous seas, because, well, stuff happens. He emphasized that just last week, a young woman lost her iPhone to the sea and cried that “my whole life was on that phone!” He commented that perhaps she needed more of a life.

I wasn’t about to be deterred by his comments, so I wrapped my camera in a plastic bag and secured it under a cheap yellow poncho, then climbed the tall step ladder to board the small vessel. Karen and I found a seat toward the rear, where the pounding journey was said to be a tad less rough. Then the captain hauled his boat by pickup truck to the ocean, and backed us all into the rough surf.

The captain gunned the twin engines, and we roared out of the harbor and into the open ocean at high speed. The surf was high–so high that the day’s early morning journey had been cancelled. We were on a late trip, so that I could photograph the flowing lava at twilight rather than during daylight. I had tried to exchange this scheduled trip for one in the pre-dawn light, but the captain never called me back, despite my repeated calls. In the end, it worked out better this way, because the early trip didn’t go.

It was 18 miles along the coast to reach the two places where lava was flowing into the Pacific Ocean. This was a pounding ride through the waves, and we were splashed repeatedly with warm saltwater. Both of us are prone to seasickness, so Karen wore a Scopolamine patch and I took two tablets of Bonine, which was not supposed to make me sleepy. We both also used wrist bands with a little plastic ball that stimulates an acupressure point in the wrist–said to relieve nausea–and we both ate ginger candy that is also used to combat seasickness. All these precautions worked for us!

We hung on tight to the steel rails of the craft as we surged over the ocean. Huge towers of sea spray rose all along the lava cliffs as the waves crashed into the island. This was an elemental experience!

Ahead, we could see a column of steam rising above the rocky shore; that was where the lava was entering the sea. Before long, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” blared from the boat’s sound system and we were there. The captain cut the engines to a purr instead of a roar, and we floated back and forth in front of the two lava flows, experiencing the billowing steam and the explosions and the heat of the ocean warmed by the 2,000°F lava. The hiss of the steam and the pounding of the waves made an elemental soundscape, while the bright lava and backlit clouds contrasted beautifully with the deep blue twilight at this time of day. I couldn’t have asked for more … except for more time at this place of wonder. There is never enough time for a photographer on a schedule … so I’ve learned to work fast!

The elemental sight and sound of lava pouring into the sea at twilight

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiA portfolio of photographs I took from the bobbing boat at twilight

Alas, time was up, and the captain surged back into the waves for our journey back.

But sometimes things don’t go according to plan. About halfway back, the engines suddenly went quiet. Our momentum came to a halt and we began bobbing in the sea, with no power, not too far from the sharp lava cliffs. The captain and his two crew began struggling the with engines, and discovered that there had been a fuel leak and the fuel tank had been sucked dry of the 100 gallons that had been loaded earlier that day. That was a problem. Meanwhile, the ocean here was too deep for an anchor, so we drifted toward shore. Eventually, it would have become shallow enough to drop anchor, but that would have been close to the shore.

Fortunately, the captain had friends, and he called in a favor from another boat from the harbor to bring out 20 gallons of gas. Meanwhile, we bobbed, and not gently. One person became seasick over the side. Karen called on her Midwestern roots of helpfulness, and walked around the boat offering ginger to the other passengers, and holding her headlamp to help the crew while they fiddled with the engine parts.

The other boat eventually arrived, and the crews transferred the five gallon containers of gas from one bouncing boat to the other. Then the other boat backed off and began slowly circling us as our crew poured the gas into the fuel tank. Eventually, the engines started and we were underway again.

When we returned to port, it was two hours later than we expected. We changed out of our saltwater-soaked clothes and started driving. Fortunately, we had the foresight early in the day to reserve a campsite at the national park in case we didn’t feel like driving back across the island to our vacation rental near Kona that night. As it turned out, we couldn’t drive that far. It was late and the non-drowsy seasickness medication was probably making me drowsy. So we slept in the rental car in our campsite overnight.

The next morning, camp was voggy. Yes, voggy, which is a word coined to describe the Hawaiian toxic soup of fog and volcanic sulfur oxides emitted from the volcanoes. It burned our throats and made us tired and uncomfortable, but I’ll leave the rest of that day for another story.

As you can see from my pictures, the experience of seeing the lava greet the sea was elemental, and another high point of our lives. We feel like we were present for the dawn of creation–as new land was added to the Big Island of Hawaii.

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

Explore posts in the same categories: Adventure, danger, geology, Hawaii, image, landscape, lee rentz, national parks, nature, photo, photography, science, tourism

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4 Comments on “HAWAII VOLCANIC ADVENTURE: When Lava Explosively Collides with the Sea”

  1. lns1122 Says:

    One of my favorite places on earth – right after Glacier NP Montana – so I really appreciate your description and the fantastic photos. I’ve seen the lava flow from the shore but not from the sea. That is outstanding! Thanks for sharing.


  2. AMAZEBalls Captures – thanks so much for sharing!


  3. Unbelievable photos, sounds like one kind of an adventure!

  4. leerentz Says:

    Thank you all for your comments. We were apprehensive about the rough boat ride, but it was a terrific experience!


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