Text by Martha Cheng | Images by John Hook
I don’t generally think of land as being active. The ocean is the tempestuous one, whipped into waves and pulled by the tides, while the earth is steady, a rock against wind and water, its shifts and erosion barely perceptible. But watching lava flow into the sea is seeing waves crash against the mountain, and witnessing the land crash back.
Kīlauea volcano has been erupting almost continuously since 1983, creating more than 500 acres of land along the ocean. Its lava flow has consumed homes and subdivisions, and threatened to obliterate Pāhoa town in 2013, before it stopped just a few hundred feet short of the main road. That same year, lava ceased flowing into the ocean. It took three years for the lava to find its way back to the coast, and now, at least at the time of this writing, it continues to stream into the sea, making for the most stunning spectacle the islands have to offer. While you can also approach the lava flow by land and air, the best vantage point is from the sea.
Getting to the volcano is an adventure in itself. I signed up for Lava Ocean Tours’ sunrise excursion, which meant driving down Kapoho Road at 4:30 a.m. In the darkness, this route feels as if it’s been lifted out of a Brothers Grimm tale, with a canopy of trees sealing in a shadowy quiet. The group I join for the tour meets at Isaac Hale Beach Park, where we board the boat—an amphibious, aluminum, hulking thing that will carry us over 40 miles of rough open ocean to where the lava meets the sea.
Shane Turpin started Lava Ocean Tours in 2006. He has operated tours for the past 12 years on Hawai‘i Island ranging from skydiving excursions to boat rides along the Hāmākua coastline. His father, a fisherman, used to dive around the active lava ocean entry. When Turpin and his dad decided to offer boat tours to see the lava, they spared no expense on the vessel, ordering a rugged, 49-passenger catamaran from Washington state. Seated in this boat as it speeds along the ocean at 30 knots and slams into waves, I bounce around helplessly.
It is still dark when we arrive at the lava, which glows through a plume of steam that billows out, enveloping us. Occasionally, the steam blows clear, and we see veins of lava as distinct and bright as the lightsabers in Star Wars. Ocean and lava clash: The lava sputters and hisses and sends chunks of jagged, black debris into the air. Hardened lava fragments knock against the aluminum hull of the boat. The boat seems to be engaged in a fencing duel with the lava, inching closer and closer, so that we can feel the heat and see the glowing streams, before it slowly backs away, only to approach again, from another angle, for a different view. A bucket of water from the ocean is pulled up and passed around; we dip our hands in gingerly. It is almost too hot to touch. I am glad to be in this sturdy boat, the biggest of the three vessels in the water.
We are also lucky that it is a full-moon night. Everything seems to be glowing: the lava on the coast, the moon behind it, and the lunar reflection on the water, which sends a beam of light toward us. Turpin seems as thrilled as the rest of us about the backdrop. With eight lava tours a day, you would think Turpin would be jaded by now. But when I check in with him a few months later, soon after the volcano sent a stream of lava gushing out from 70 feet above the ocean, like water from a firehose, he says, “the current state of the ocean entry is as exciting as I’ve ever witnessed.” These conditions lasted for almost two months, the first time in the three decades of eruption that such a forceful flow of lava into the ocean continued for that long. It was as if the liquid earth was asserting that it could not be contained, reminding us of its volatility and violent beauty.
To find out the most recent volcano conditions, visit nps.gov/havo.
Cost: Free to hike, bike rentals start at $20. Kalapana Cultural Tours guided hikes, around $100 per person.
Time: About 5 hours
Most of the time, you can hike to the active lava flow from the Kalapana viewing area located at the end of Highway 130. The entrance is open from 3 to 9 p.m., and there are also bike rentals available. It’s about nine miles roundtrip to the flow, a trek requiring a scramble over sharp and uneven lava field (hiking shoes, boots, or sneakers are recommended, as well as gloves to protect your hands). Also make sure to bring water—it’s a long, hot hike—and a flashlight, in case it’s dark when you head back.
Since the lava fields are disorienting and somewhat hazardous if you are unfamiliar with them, joining a guided tour is a good option. Kalapana Cultural Tours offers several daily hikes led by local guides who grew up alongside the flows.
For more information about hiking or biking independently, visit nps.gov/havo.
For more information about guided hikes, visit kalapanaculturaltours.com.
Time: 50 minutes
View the lava lake in Kīlauea’s Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō Crater, and fly past the veins of lava heading toward the ocean via helicopter. Blue Hawaiian’s tours depart from Hilo.
For more information on helicopter tours, visit bluehawaiian.com.
Cost: From $180
Time: 2 hours
Several tour companies offer boat rides to see the lava up close from the water. Board Lava Boat Tours’ 49-passenger catamaran to watch the elements meet. Its boat launches from Isaac Hale Beach Park in Pāhoa.
For more information, visit seelava.com.