Archive for February 2014

WITNESS TO CREATION: When Lava Battles the Sea

February 19, 2014

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island ofLava greets the sea in a swirling cloud of elemental forces 

I already knew the answer I’d get, but I decided to ask the ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park anyway:

“Where can we go to see lava flowing into the ocean?”

“You can’t. It’s on private property and it’s unsafe to go out there” she replied.

We went anyway, and had one of the most astounding experiences of our lives.

We were fortunate. Our first trip to the Big Island of Hawaii in May 2013 coincided with the awakening of Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire. She was sending small rivers of lava down the slopes of Kilauea to the sea, where they sizzled and exploded and steamed and hissed in anger at being awakened. We just HAD to see it, after reading about the experience and seeing photographs of the frequent eruptions over our lifetimes.

We had intended to walk out on our own, but there were some inter-cultural conflicts brewing at the time, and decided it would be culturally and physically safer to go with a guide. Aside from that, the lava beds we would have to cross were indeed on private property, so it was worth going with someone who had permission to pass. We planned a time when we could hike out in late afternoon so that we could see the lava flowing at twilight, then return in the dark, and signed up for just such a trip led by a guide from Kalapana Cultural Tours, a private company that had access to the area.

Our group gathered at the funky cluster of temporary buildings in Kalapana, which now consists of a bar and places to eat and listen to music out in the open. Kalapana was once a thriving little village, but an eruption starting in 1986 buried most of the town under lava, and eruptions in the area have continued sporadically ever since. Houses and subdivisions are no match for Pahoihoi lava.

Group Hiking to View Hot Lava Entering Sea on Big IslandWe started hiking in late afternoon across a lava plain; here we had our first glimpse of the billowing steam

We took a van to the trailhead, then struck off at a fair hiking pace toward the lava. We walked over hard ropy lava and rounded Pahoehoe lava in fanciful shapes, with the last sun of the afternoon glaring down above the slopes. There was no trail at all, so it was comforting to have a guide to lead us over the clanking plains of loose lava rock, not knowing where a river of melted rock might be lurking just below the surface.

The hike out to the cliffs where lava was flowing was roughly two miles over some of the roughest terrain imaginable. Our guide was a native Hawaiian from Kalapana who had lots of extended family in the area, and had stories of the lava’s impacts on village residents. We dressed in long pants, carried two quarts of water each, wore headlamps, took some energy bars, and carried extra batteries and a jacket in case of rain. Not everyone prepared so well. A lot of people wore shorts and were not well prepared for the rough terrain. Alas, most of them were young and resilient and carefree, so what did it matter? Actually, it does matter for some people; while we were in Hawaii, a photographer had a heart attack and died while walking with a friend on the route to see flowing lava. I think he found it harder than expected.

Hiking on lava was not difficult for us, since we are hikers from ‘way back. But we did have to be careful, since the rock was incredibly sharp. Karen used a hiking stick; I didn’t because I was carrying a tripod. Fortunately I didn’t fall, but one older lady in our group (actually, she was about our age) took a nasty stumble, and needed first aid for bloody scrapes on her arms and legs. Fortunately, we didn’t have to carry her out.

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Toes of Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Toes of Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

One aspect of hiking on lava was unexpected, and that was the sound of fragile shreds of lava tinkling underfoot–a sound that reminded me somehow of broken glass.

When we reached the overlook, there was a sensory explosion of lava hitting the sea. There was hissing and arcs of hot orange lava exploding within the steam cloud. Waves crashed into the decending stream of hot and dripping lava and a column of steam billowed up continuously. We wondered how far away from the lava a swimmer would have to be to avoid being cooked. All of us stood mesmerized by the sight, and I took hundreds of photographs, not wanting the experience to stop. It was simply astounding.

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

We stayed long enough that we watched early twilight blend into black night with an orange glow. The guide nicely asked me if I had gotten enough pictures, and I replied that I had, so he gathered the group and told us that on the way back he was going to look for a breakout–a place where a small stream of lava comes up through the older, hardened lava and starts oozing out in a bright tongue.

At the first location we stopped, we saw orange lava intermixed with cooled lava, looking like hot coals after a campfire. Then the guide spotted a place where a nature was sticking out a good-sized, Rolling Stones-style lava tongue at us. We walked over to experience the lava from just a few feet away and felt the elemental challenge of Pele. It was extremely hot, of course, and there was the uncertainty of just where it might break out next. At one point, I looked down and saw an orange glow in the narrow cracks just beneath my feet. THAT put me on edge, along with the intense heat of the place. Along with everyone else, I took photographs of Karen standing right in front of an oozing tongue of lava–which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Hot Molten Lava at Night on the Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Karen Rentz with Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of

I took photograph after photograph during the hike back, riding on a hot cloud of elation at having experienced this earthly event. At times, I would be taking a photograph and Karen would be next to me, and the group would disappear over a rise. This made us both nervous, because with the danger of the area we really needed to stay with the group. But I needed to photograph. So we were endlessly conflicted. Eventually we would scurry along to catch up with the tag end of the group.

Hiking Group Returning at Night after Viewing Lava Entering Ocea

Hiking Group Returning at Night after Viewing Lava Entering OceaOur group hiking ahead, lit by flashlights and headlamps

Finally, our group’s headlamps found the van, and we boarded for the short ride back to Kalapana. It had been a magnificent experience, reminiscent of the eons of elemental forces that shaped the earth, and which continue to build the planet.

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Freshly Hardened Lava Shapes on the Big Island of Hawaii

Volcano Update:  As of this blog post on 19 February 2014, there is no lava entering the sea. The National Park Service advises of the state of the current eruption at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask 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 NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

GALAXIES OF DUCKS: Science and Telling a Story

February 8, 2014

Seattle_Green_Lake-203A swirling galaxy of Northern Shovelers feeding

Inspiration can come when I least expect it. The winter day was gray and dry, and cold for Seattle, with temperatures hovering around 25°F. Ice was forming where small waves lapped against the shore of Green Lake, one of my favorite places to get some exercise when visiting the big city. But I was cold today and couldn’t get up the gumption to go jogging, so I took my camera for a bird walk.

The crows were having a convention, and looked strikingly sinister when silhouetted against a gray sky. I found some tiny birds foraging in the birch trees along the waterfront; several ladies stopped and asked what the tiny birds were; I wasn’t sure yet, because they were moving rapidly and were a little ways away from me. One of the women thought they were Bushtits, which I had seen in this location on my last trip to Green Lake, but it turned out that they were Golden-crowned Kinglets, feeding and in constant motion among the birch branches. They were so fast that they were extremely difficult to photograph.

Seattle_Green_Lake-378Crows high in a birch tree, facing into the wind

Then a couple from Boston came up and asked if I had seen the big bird with the long legs standing in the water. I hadn’t, but I explained that it was almost certainly a Great Blue Heron. Almost immediately, an enthusiastic young woman came up, pushing her baby in a stroller, and asked if I would like to see the picture she had just taken on her iPhone. I said I would, and she had a good photo of what was probably the same heron. I asked where she had seen it, and she pointed across the bay to “where the ducks are.” Since I wanted to see the ducks, and they were not floating on this cold and windy part of the lake, I decided to head that way. I stopped at my car to pick up a layer of puffy down, because I was getting chilled.

When I reached the dock near the community center, I noticed a lot of Northern Shoveler ducks intensely feeding, and thought that someone was illegally tossing bread to the waterfowl. Then I realized that the ducks were crowded together in three clusters, each group swirling around in a tight circular pattern. I estimated that there were between 50 and 100 birds in each circle, so it was a lot of ducks engaging in a behavior I had never seen before.

At this point my sense of wonder kicked into high gear, and I wanted to know more. Northern Shoveler ducks have a disproportionately large and spoon-shaped bill, which is structured for surface feeding. Their mouth anatomy reminds me of baleen whales in the way they filter tiny plants and animals from the water. Typically, I see a Northern Shoveler motoring along, with its bill just under the surface, busily gathering its food as it swims. But I had never seen shovelers working together while feeding.

Seattle_Green_Lake-350Northern Shoveler male feeding in a typical manner, with its bill just below the surface; with this behavior, it filters small plants and animals from the surface

Seattle_Green_Lake-260In contrast, this group of Northern Shoveler ducks was feeding communally; there must be some advantages to clustering and feeding together

Apparently the circular motion stirs up the water and sediments, and I suspect that it generates a current that brings food from the bottom mud toward the surface. This kind of current has been scientifically demonstrated in the feeding behavior of phalaropes–a small bird that must make itself dizzy spinning in circles on the surface of the water. Perhaps the action of many shovelers working together can create a similar effect.

This shoveler behavior has, of course, been described before, but it was new to me and perhaps not commonly seen, at least with so many birds at once. A fellow blogger, Greg Gillson, described it in this entry: Feeding Habits of the Northern Shoveler. And I saw one video on youtube of three shovelers engaged in the same behavior, going ’round and ’round and ’round.

My challenge in the field was to show the behavior through photography. I snapped a few photographs to record the scene, but quickly realized that freezing the action in a quick shot did not show the pattern of movement and was not an artistic portrayal of the ducks. I decided to concentrate on long exposures to blur the movement of the ducks, but hopefully record the sense of motion. It worked! The motion shots told the scientific story of the feeding behavior, but were also beautiful in their own right. The form reminds me of the spiral shapes of galaxies.

Seattle_Green_Lake-237

Seattle_Green_Lake-224These two photographs show the difference between freezing the motion and using a longer exposure to show the motion

When I am photographing, I constantly face choices like this, and my analytical left-brain and artistic right-brain skills have to work together to solve a problem. When successful, the pictures can tell an effective story.

Seattle_Green_Lake-267

Seattle_Green_Lake-291

Seattle_Green_Lake-220I ended up really liking the motion shots; I took nearly 300 images while experimenting with the rapidly changing composition and while trying different shutter speeds

Seattle_Green_Lake-99One of my Golden-crowned Kinglet photographs that started the afternoon

Seattle_Green_Lake-76Crows noisily flushing from a battered tree that seemed somehow perfectly appropriate 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask 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 NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.


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