Photographing Lava on the Big Island of Hawaii - Tom Walker Photography

Photographing Lava on the Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Tail


January 10, 2017

It's one in the morning and I am in Hilo, Hawaii standing outside in the rain waiting for Tom and Bruce from Extreme Exposure.  Bruce Omari and his partner Tom Kuali are experts photographing Lava on the Big Island  spending 3-4 days and nights a week escorting people out to the Lava flows to see Pele the God of Fire in action.

This was my second attempt to see the Lava up close. The first time several years ago I  was rained out due to a Summer hurricane  with several behind it. This time, the weather looked promising.  earlier in the evening, the four photographers along with Bruce and Tom with Miles Morgan and Ryan Dyar both landscape photography instructors met to do the safety talk at the Extreme Exposure Gallery.  Photographing Lava is inherently dangerous. There's a river of flowing Lava underneath our feet and the flow is constantly changing. Bruce and Tom spend so much time on the Lava flows they know first hand how important safety is. No board shorts and flip flops are allowed and respirators, heavy boots, long pants and shirts are required or, Bruce and Tom won't venture out with you. Our group consisted of a mixed group from 30 ish to over 70 years in age.  

Lava Explosions


Lava Flows

The Vortex

Most of us arrived in Hilo earlier that day so we were running 3 to 6 hours ahead of Hawaii time and with the anticipation no one got much sleep before our one AM departure. 

Bruce and Tom show up right at one  and we all hop into their trucks head off to an all night gas station for some badly needed coffee then, off to the Lava fields about 90 minutes away. Typically it's about an 8 mile hike from the parking to the flow Bruce and Tom have arrangements to park about 4 miles away from the flow.  Once we park it's time to load with our gear.  We each brought everything and the kitchen sink it seems and had back packs of photo gear ranging from 40-60 pounds in weight, add in plenty of water. Then they hand us each an umbrella.  With backpacks on, umbrella in hand and headlights ablaze we set off on a dirt road. 

It's dark, really dark and the stars look like diamonds shimmering. We quickly realize we don't need all the lights so one by one they dim or go off as we walk together. It's warm the Tradewinds are blowing and after a bit you realize this moment is all that matters.  

Shortly after we start hiking there is a pink glow on the horizon and you can start to see the steam cloud from the Lava entering the water. As we get closer you can see the cloud lighting up and the Lava explodes hitting the sea. it's still quiet with the gentle trades and muted conversation as we continue our hike.  As we get closer the steam plume grows and gets brighter. An occasional rain squall passes through, we don't care as each minute passes we get closer.  

After about 45 minutes of hiking Bruce and Tom stop us and tell us here's where we will exit the dirt road and walk out to the Lava benches. The plume is really big now and there's a bright pink glow. Here the Lava is weeks to month old and is shiny, when it's wet is very slippery. We work our way out to the shore and after 15-20 minutes we arrive.  

Seeing flowing Lava first hand is very surreal. It's very quiet except for the hissing of the steam as the Lava enters the sea, kind of soothing.  Seeing land being created, Lava flowing from the center of the Earth to create land is mesmerizing.  Experiencing Lava first hand is one contrast after another. It's peaceful yet violent, it's light and dark, constantly changing-the different varieties of Lava colors, textures, shapes are unending and, did I mention it's dangerous too?

Lava Man