Looking at lava … from the oceanside

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Photography by Baron Sekiya and story by Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7

At first, only tiny toothpicks of orange and the faint outline of a smoke plume are visible on the pre-dawn horizon.

But as the 34-foot aluminum catamaran LavaKai bangs its way closer and the sun comes up, the Waikupanaha coastline comes into sharper focus.

Visitors are briefed by Keith Starkey of Lava Ocean Adventure Tours at Isaac Hale Beach Park in Puna.

Visitors are briefed by Keith Starkey of Lava Ocean Adventure Tours at Isaac Hale Beach Park in Puna.

The next hour brings lots of things into sharper focus as you realize what you are witnessing.

Sure, I’ve had plenty of chances to experience the wonders of nature since Kilauea began erupting in 1983, spewing lava from the cinder-and-spatter cone of Puu Oo that oozes nearly 7 miles downhill to greet the ocean with a kiss and a hiss.

I’ve visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and stomped across the old lava flow to see Kilauea in action. I’ve seen a bush burst into flames when the molten rock got within yards and I’ve seen a man melt the bottom of his sneakers by stepping too close.

I’ve seen it from the air, courtesy of a very accommodating inter-island airline pilot many, many years ago.

I might have seen it, but I had not truly felt what the world’s most active volcano was doing until last week.

The ocean boils from lava pouring off the Waikupanaha bench west of Kalapana.

The ocean boils from lava pouring off the Waikupanaha bench west of Kalapana.

As a guest of Lava Ocean Adventures aboard Capt. Shane Turpin’s LavaKai, I heard the sizzle as lava poured into the sea, felt the heat and the steam and the roiling ocean, and watched as the Big Island grew ever bigger, drip by glowing drip.

In the last 27 years, Kilauea has dumped enough lava into the ocean to create more than 500 acres of land along the Big Island’s south-eastern coast.

And, Turpin, who owns Lava Ocean Adventures but really has the soul of a fisherman, knows this coastline and this inferno. He tells guests where last week’s lava action was, peels off ancient fables and warrior tales, recounts the histories of individual houses along the shore, and, if you’re lucky, he might drop a hint or two about good fishing spots along the way.

The crew is equally knowledgeable, spouting off volcano and geology tidbits faster than the lava flows.

Still, as interesting as the conversation might be, the real attraction is what one of the world’s most active volcanoes is offering up.

This day, Turpin says, is exceptional.20091204_lavaboat-explosion

“We have some really good flows this morning,” he says. “It might as well be my first day out here, I feel like a little kid in a candy store. All kinds of action.”

Several dozen fingers of lava along a one-mile stretch are reaching the end of the earth, poising momentarily on escarpment lips and tipping majestically over the edge.

Some like delicate ribbons of candle wax; some tongues measuring yards wide and flowing fast like a river. Each shapeless, shifting, glowing blob dropping 10, 20, 30 feet into the surging surf.

The sea roars in, grabbing the lava, sucking out the heat and retreating in puffy expanses of white and gray steam.

An endless, awesome display of power and energy that is hypnotic to watch.

Tour operators have taken to the ocean to give visitors the closest look possible of lava entering the sea.

Tour operators have taken to the ocean to give visitors the closest look possible of lava entering the sea.

Turpin guides the LavaKai close, closer even. It feels as though the bottom of the catamaran scrapes the black sand beach, but the crew assures us it’s really debris, or ‘lava bombs,’ scraping against the boat.

The captain turns us toward a huge cloud pushing thousands of feet into the early morning sky.

The company advertises that it can get as close as 20 yards, and while I am no expert as guessing distances, I swear we spent quite some time a lot closer than that.

Almost within eyebrow-singeing distance.

Steam rises from lava flows cascading down the Waikupanaha entry point west of Kalapana.

Steam rises from lava flows cascading down the Waikupanaha entry point west of Kalapana.

Lava chunks are spit from the steam cloud, bursting out like some kind of volcanic fountain firework and pinging through the air until the debris is swallowed with a satisfying aqua-hiss.

Suddenly, a chunk of lava – black and crusty along the edges; bright and angry orange inside – about the size of a TV snaps off, tumbling silently onto the shoreline.

Sidling along past older flows is no less fascinating. The black and gray rock is cemented forever in odd formations. If you look closely, you can see shapes and faces.

A monkey face here; half a witches face there; even something approaching landscapes or globally known corporate logos.

Our crewman, Sky, dips a bucket overboard and lets guests test the waters.

“Feel the temperature,” he says.

Not scalding, but perhaps hotter than you’d like your bath. Usual ocean temperature is about 70; this felt a lot nearer 100.

The fumes were not especially odoriferous. A little of that sulfur stink, but I’ve certainly smelled worse elsewhere on the island during particularly nasty vog days.

By the time we returned to Isaac Hale Beach Park in Pohoiki some three hours after we left, I was soggy and wind-swept.

Whether the shivering was caused by my poor clothing choice or by the raw display of nature I’d just witnessed, I still cannot say.

If I want to find out, I just might have to do another sunrise tour with Capt. Turpin and Lava Ocean Adventures.

— Find out more:

Lava Ocean Adventures: www.lavaocean.com

USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory: www.hvo.hvo.wr.usgs.gov

Lava streams down the Waikupanaha bench west of Kalapana. The quick moving pahoehoe lava cascades down into the ocean.

Lava streams down the Waikupanaha bench west of Kalapana. The quick-moving pahoehoe lava cascades down into the ocean.

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