The Kilauea volcano, the youngest of the five volcanoes that form the Big Island of Hawaii, first erupted in 1983 and has continually been spewing lava ever since. One of the most spectacular ways to view this natural phenomenon is at sea, where the lava drips into the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, for the tourists, it’s also the most accessible.
Lava Ocean Tours is one of a few operators with a permit to navigate close to the lava flow. The company offers a lava sight-seeing boat tour throughout the day, but the dawn tour provides the most beautiful views of the lava flow into the ocean.
The boat launches at dawn from the Issac Hale Beach Park near the town of Pahoa, a 45-minute drive south of Hilo. It takes about a 40-minute boat trip to reach the lava flow. From a distance, the molten lava is visible like wildlife against the dark sky. The hot lava hisses as it hits the sea producing smoke as if water was dousing a fire. The heat rises as the boat inches closer within twenty feet from the cliff. It feels like a sauna, and smells like sulfur. The lava appears so bright in the darkness. The waves crash into the cliffs rocking the boat from side to side. Hot air bubbles collide with the hull with a knock. The seating is similar to a bus with an aisle in the middle. The boat maneuvers around to ensure both the port and starboard passengers can see the lava with unobstructed views.
As the sun rises, the fiery skies can match the embers of the molten lava. The lighter skies also allow passengers to take some selfies after witnessing the spectacular light show. The entire tour lasts about two hours, and but the experience can last a lifetime.
The lava boat tour is not without peril, however. In one of the Lava Ocean Tours trip, an errant lava explosion hit the boat and ripped open its roof. It hit one of the passengers causing a severe injury.
The lava does stop flowing into the ocean or somewhere visible from time to time. The pauses could last several years! You can check the status at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Web site at https://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/lava2.htm
Moreover, because of the lack of flow and COVID-19, Lava Ocean Tours appears to be in hiatus. Once the lava flows again, you may search for lava boat tours and see if there are operators available.
It is challenging to photograph in the dark handheld from a moving platform (the boat). Keep your shutter speed at least 1/200s or faster for sharper photos unless you are experimenting on motion blurs or ICM (intentional camera movement). Ideally, shutter speeds at 1/500s or 1/800s freeze the action. Slowing down the shutter speed to 1/200s gives motion to the water and lava without sacrificing sharpness. Because you’re moving, it is also essential to maintain the camera focus. Here are some tips:
- Use high ISO, say 1600 or higher, to maintain a faster shutter speed.
- Use fast lenses at f/2.8 or faster (if you have one)
- Use Manual settings (or shutter priority) to keep your shutter speed and exposure from changing. The light is changing, however, as the sun rises, so adjust your settings accordingly if using Manual.
- Use Back-button instead of the Shutter button to focus. Using the Back-button technique keeps your camera from focus hunting as you move with the boat.
- Use burst mode to shoot several images in sequence. The advantage of digital cameras is that you can always discard photos that you don’t want. With burst mode, you will have more options for keeper photos.
- Use a large memory card. You don’t want to miss the action if your card runs out of space. Same with batteries. Make sure you’ve fully charged them!