To the Flow by Sea

There are four ways to get to the lava… You can hike it, you can bike it, fly to it, or go by sea. I had done all of the other ways, it was time to take a boat.

Lava from the Kilauea volcano enters the ocean at Kamokuna

The 61G lava flow has been flowing into the sea at Kamokuna for several months now allowing the lava tour boat business to resume after a three year pause. I have biked to this flow, but a view from the water was an attractive option for photography. After multiple discussions with a few photographers I know I had decided to go out with Kalapana Cultural Tours, a local business with years of experience on these waters, a choice which proved to be a good one!

Lava Watching
A lava watching boat rises on the swell in front of the steam plume at Kamokuna

There are only four boats licensed by the DLNR for these tours, one 40 passenger boat and three six-packs. I opted for one of the six passenger boats to insure a clear view of the lava and a more personal experience. As there were only four guests aboard on this trip it proved to be even more personal and the view could not have been better!

There is only one boat launch on this end of the island, the ramp at Issac Hale Beach Park, known as Pohoiki to local surfers. From here it is fourteen miles on the ocean to the current ocean entry for the 61G lava flow. The sea on this side of the island is a different beast that the calm turquoise waters on the Kona side that is seen in postcards and vacation videos. Four to six foot swells are normal, it would be an exciting fourteen miles. Choosing a competent boat and crew was something to consider on this outing.

To meet the boat at 4:30am required a 2am departure from the house for the run across the island. A very early alarm clock indeed, Deb and I both grumbled as we packed up the cameras and started out into the night.

Much of the run is uneventful, an easy jaunt across the saddle, it is Puna where the drive gets weird. While I had driven along the coastline here I had never used Pohoiki Road before, this is a truly spooky road in the dark. The road narrows as it nears the coast to one lane that weaves through heavy jungle. Trees seem to appear to be in the center of the road as your headlights become totally inadequate. The jungle closes in with vines draped from tree to tree above the road. It is a bit like driving into a horror movie.

Pohoiki Predawn
The boat launch at Pohoiki in the predawn darkness

We do arrive safely, emerging from the jungle. Arriving a half hour early for our appointed 4:30am check-in I left Deb to nap in the car and wandered around in the dark for a bit with a camera and tripod.

Orion and Canis Major were high overhead, ghosting through patchy clouds, combined with the windswept trees there were the ingredients for a decent photo or two. A beautiful morning to sit for a moment and listen to the waves break on the shore. Pohoiki is also one of the best surf breaks on the island, it looked like it would be a good day for the surfers once the sun came up.

The darkness is shattered at 4:30am with the arrival of multiple vehicles. The lights illuminate several boats on their trailers as crews prepare for departure. I head over to the activity and find Andrew and Ikaika, our crew for the day preparing our boat alongside the others. The boat is a converted fishing boat, one of the twin hulled semi-catamarans that are so popular in local waters for their stability and seaworthiness.

We board the boat on land and ride as they launched. The Pohoiki boat launch has some protection in the form of a short jetty, but is no means protected, the water surging up and down at least two feet on the ramp. Boarding after the boat was in the water is not a good option except for the most agile and sure footed.

Even with the challenging boat launch conditions our launch was a smooth operation. Andrew driving the truck while Ikaika piloted, holding the boat just off the little dock in the surge while the truck was parked. Any fears I had about the competence of this crew dissipated as I watched the evident skill and experience displayed in the launching. Even in complete darkness they made it look easy.

The swells are on our stern as we speed south through four foot to five foot seas. It is a surreal experience, the swells seem huge in a small boat, the coastline a dark mass in the starlight, specks of luminescence glimmer in the wake. We have a 45 minute run ahead of us to reach the ocean entry.

Photo Tour
A Paradise Helicopter doors off photo tour hovers over the ocean entry at Kamokuna

In the waxing light of dawn the steam plume is visible first, we have arrived at last! The lava has created a delta several acres in size at the base of the sea cliffs. The delta is a a shelf about ten to twelve feet off the water, quite low compared to the sea cliffs that tower sixty feet or more overhead. At the center of the delta is a massive plume of steam punctuated by occasional small explosions evidenced by the rocks thrown about and appearing out of the steam.

Lava from the Kilauea volcano enters the ocean at Kamokuna

Clear of the central plume and along the eastern extent of the delta things are more sedate. Here steady streams of lava pour into the sea like syrup over the edge of a stack of pancakes. Occasionally a stream will slow and cool, fading to black. Just as often a new stream will appear, breaking through the crust as the pressure forces a new opening.

I shoot, I shoot, and I shoot some more, everywhere along the shoreline is an excellent photo each created by the multiple breakouts along the edge of the lava delta. Over my shoulder I listen to Deb’s camera shutter hammering away. Ikaika backs the boat into the black sand beach where streamers of red lava drip from the cliff face into the surf below. We get close, close enough to feel the heat, closer than I would feel comfortable driving a boat. With the bow pointed out we are provided a perfect view and could quickly jet away if needed.

Hand of Lava
Lava from the Kilauea volcano enters the ocean at Kamokuna

One of the outbreaks of lava has built a structure that looks just like a giant hand a dozen feet across. Each of the ‘fingers’ drips red lava as if severed and dripping blood. Here in mid-October with Halloween approaching I thought the effect was particularly apt.

One of the amazing features of the ocean entry are the floating rocks. Yes, floating rocks, actually floating steaming rocks! These chunks of lava broken off the flow by the surf are so full of gassy pockets that they float by the boat steaming as they cool in the water. Grapefruit to football sized rocks float around the boat with wisps of steam rising. Ikaika reported that the boat’s depth gauge was reading over 100°F where normal water temperatures should be about 75°F.

All too soon it was time to put the flow behind us and begin the run to Pohoiki. Going into the swell is a lot rougher as the boat climbs over the swells and drops into the troughs. When you hear Ikaika cut the power to the engines you know to brace, as the drop is going to be a hard one. As we run along the shoreline Andrew tells tales of growing up in Kalapana, stories about each of the places we pass. The ‘cultural’ part of Kalapana Cultural Tours is real, we spend the time heading back learning about life in lower Puna, a world apart from the tourist areas of the island.

Returning to the little harbor we find the surfers out in force, even on a Thursday the break is a little crowded. In a conversation with a local surfer a little later I ask and find out that this is a good surf day for Pohohiki, the swell is pretty good and from just the right direction. Meanwhile the boat threads its way past the surfers and into the ramp area to be plucked from the water as easily as we started out.

Lava from the Kilauea volcano enters the ocean at Kamokuna

In the hour we spent at the ocean entry I shot 387 photographs of the lava with the DLSR, quite a pile to sort through later. Add a few from the iPhone and the total is well over 400. As I wander through the images I recall the wonder and amazement I felt watching the lava pour into the sea. Even after so many visits to the flow I still feel this way seeing such a spectacle. I will go again to see the lava, and going by boat is certainly a good option. I will have to do this again sometime, I know Deb is ready to repeat!

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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