The Volcano Next Door

An island-hop from Maui, the forces of creation are putting on a spectacular fireworks show—and you’ve got a ringside seat.

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My most recent hike, in April 2008, was less spectacular. Officials from the park, the state and the county keep tight control of access—with good reason. One visitor died and a dozen were injured when lava collapsed in 1993, and two others apparently were scalded to death by acid-laced steam in 2000.

But no one is putting fences around the ocean side of Kilauea’s encounters with the sea. And that’s where Shane Turpin comes in. Shane is the intrepid young captain of Lava Ocean Adventures, whose boat took me and two others out to the remote coastal area where giant plumes of smoke and steam mark the lava’s entry to the ocean.

 

We boarded the LavaKat, Captain Shane’s twenty-two-by-eight-foot catamaran fishing boat, at Pohoiki, about a forty-five-minute ride northeast of the lava’s entry point.

The cat sped along the dramatic Puna coastline, where waves splashed white against vertical black cliffs topped with a thin layer of bright green; Hawai‘i’s jungle is always ready to start anew on fresh land.

Here and there, smooth black-sand beaches edged these layers of rock, each beach composed of fragments made by explosions when hot lava hit cold water.

We passengers perched on a bench and held on for dear life while Shane regaled us with local lore, fishing stories and youthful memories of dipping quarters in hot lava to sell to tourists.

Soon we were close to the great puffy clouds of steam and a plume that was the sulfur-dioxide-tainted breath of Pele, spewing vog from seaside vents. Shane steered close, seeking glimpses of red amid the clouds.

With so much lava entering the water, steam drifted everywhere, playing a hide-and-seek game with our little boat. Shane’s experienced hands kept the LavaKat darting around the edges of clouds in water that was bathtub-hot to the touch.

Spiraling puffs of steam known as sea sprites danced over the ocean’s surface, and little blasts of black debris exploded from the eruption’s edge or fell from the clouds.

We could hear bubbles bumping against the bottom of the boat as water boiled up from the seabed. The only thing missing from this primordial scene was the dinosaurs, Shane said with a grin.

And now and again, we’d see what we had come for: glowing steam parting to reveal a river of fire, an incandescent waterfall pouring into the sea. “It’s like the eternal campfire,” Shane said. “It never loses its fascination.”

A daredevil at home on the ocean and with the lava, he pulled the boat in close and held steady, allowing us plenty of opportunity to stare and shoot pictures.

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