Watching Hot Lava and the Ocean Get Together in Hawaii Will Change How You See the Earth

Lava pours into the ocean

Our tiny boat swayed side to side as it pushed through ocean swells, surrounded by dark black cliffs and the endless blue of the Pacific. Over and over the waves crashed into razor-sharp cliffs throwing themselves higher and higher against the rock walls.

As the boat rolled back and forth through the waves there wasn’t much anyone could say to prepare us for what we were going to see. There are very few days in life when you see something that is so far beyond anything you’ve ever experienced that it changes your definition of unique, sliding it over, expanding your understanding of the world.

Watching the Earth be Born

The first sign that we were getting close was a long plume of smoke that rose off the rocks and drifted across the sky.

Acidic steam drifts off the hot rock
Acidic steam drifts off the hot rock

What looked like steam rising into the air was laze, short for lava haze, created when cool sea water spills onto molten rock creating a mixture of acidic steam, hydrochloric acid gas, and tiny shards of volcanic glass. Not the kind of stuff you want to breathe deeply.

Watching molten rock bubble up from below the waves and pour into the ocean is a singular experience.  Saying the bright orange streams of lava looked like the tongue from an old Rolling Stone’s album or the way the water flowed underneath the rocks made it feel like we could easily slip the gap and be on our way to the center of the earth doesn’t begin to capture the experience.

Lava Slipping Under Rocks
It felt like we were seconds away from slipping into the gap between the rocks and the ocean

All around us waves crashed against the rocks, sending clouds of steam into the air, while streams of liquid orange fire cut through the mist and poured into the ocean causing the dark grey water to spit and hiss. At times the water can get so hot that it has been known to boil fish.

Twenty feet from the back of the boat, chunks of rock opened up and came apart as if someone was peeling an orange.  On our boat, there was a debate about whether we were watching an act of creation or an act of destruction.  Our guides said they regularly hear both sides with some people saying they’re seeing the gates of hell swing open, while others see something beautiful.

For me, it was both humbling and reassuring to watch the earth create something new, something that is likely to last for millions of years. Watching the land and the sea carry on their age-old tug of war made me feel like we were watching the earth renew itself. As if we were looking directly at the beginning and the end.

In some places, the lava poured forth as if someone turned on a spigot.  In others the waves would wash across streams of lava, cooling the molten rock, creating a thin hard shell that would try to hold the lava in until enough pressure built up that the rock burst forth like a flower spraying baby pebbles across the sky.

Lava Flower
With enough pressure the rock burst like a flower opening up

Occasionally a chunk of rock would break off and start floating towards the boat. Floating in the water as if it was a fresh cut tree.  Our guide called these Hawaiian icebergs and said they’re formed when super hot gasses are trapped in the new rock, giving the rocks enough buoyancy that they can sometimes float for thirty to forty minutes.

Seeing lava in person isn’t anything like watching it on TV or in a movie.  When you see lava on a screen it feels distant, as if it’s just another Hollywood effect added to make something feel dangerous.  Seeing an active volcano in person starts to put the lava flows around Kīlauea into perspective and makes it feel as if you’re watching the earth reveal itself.

Lava Stream
Molten hot magma meets the ocean

An Ancient Land Made of Fire

Hawaii feels ancient. Learning how deeply intertwined native Hawaiians’ beliefs and practices are with their islands feels like a relationship that has been going on since the dawn of time.

In Hawaiian mythology, Ha’akulamanu crater at the summit of Kīlauea is the home of Pele, who is the goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes. The story we were told is that the meeting of water and lava at the ocean’s edge is a part of a never-ending struggle between Pele and her sister Hi`iaka.

What I didn’t understand was how the southern part of the Big Island was changing. Traveling along the coast one of our guides described the different lava flows that we passed, how in one stretch a surface flow came over the coast like a series of waterfalls, and how in the 1990s Kaimu Beach, considered one of the most beautiful black sand beaches in the world, was buried under 50 feet of lava at the same time as most of the village of Kalapana was destroyed.

Lava Field along cost of Hawaii
Lava fields were scattered along the coast

The ride between the boat landing and the eruption took around forty minutes, almost half of the area was covered with lava flows from the last fifty or so years that along with hurricanes, earthquakes, and the occasional tsunami are constantly shaping and reshaping the island.  As new land pours from deep in the earth, cliffs crumble, and massive shelves of rock slide into the ocean.

All along the coast, you can see the remains of lava tubes poking out from the cliffs.  The tubes are formed when basaltic lava is exposed to the air. The lava starts to cool from the outside in, forming a river channel that can get bigger as it wears down the bottom of the tube, leaving a layer of rock on the top.  Some of the tubes at Kīlauea run for eight miles and are one of the reasons the lava fields are spread out across such a large area.

Hawaiian Lava Tube
The lava tubes looked like they were poured out of concrete

A National Park that Just Won’t Stop Growing

It’s hard to appreciate the scale of what’s happening with Kīlauea until you take some time to travel around Volcano National Park. The visitor center has hikes and other activities based on how much time you have at the park.  One of the most mindboggling things about the park, which is located about as far as you can get from anywhere in the continental U.S. and still be in the States, is that most people who visit only spend a couple of hours there.

Don’t make that mistake.  If you’re ever remotely close take the time to spend a couple of days exploring the tropical jungles, petroglyphs, lava tubes, and craters.

From the Jaggar Museum, you can see the ongoing gas eruption happening within Halema’uma’u Crater.  The best view is in the evening when the bright glow of the lava lake reflects off the rock walls.

Halema'uma'u crater at night
At night the lava lake lights up the sky

Driving down the Chain of Craters road takes you from the visitors center to the Hleilõ Sea Arch.  The road is around twenty miles long and descends 3,700 feet, along the way you can stop and walk through a lava tube, see 900-year-old petroglyphs, get a facial from a steam vent, and explore a few of the lava fields that have run across the road since 1986.

Lost Tree on Lava Field
A lone tree dots the surface of a lava field

The best way to get a feel for the lava is to hike through the park. Crossing the still smoking, hardened top of the Kīlauea Iki crater, you can see where a short-lived eruption in 1959 produced a lava fountain that shot liquid magma 1,900 feet into the air.

Along the Ha’akulamanu Trail, hot sulfuric gases leak out of the earth, leaving mounds of yellow and green crystals behind.  What makes the park so interesting to hike through is how the terrain changes so quickly from lush tropical forest, to barren desert, to far side of the moon.

Sulfiric Crystals
Sulfur drifts out of the volcano forming crystals and smelling up the joint

Watching the waves pound the shore as lava pours into the sea from a tiny little boat, it’s almost impossible to not think about the endless cycle of destruction and creation at the heart of the Hawaiian Islands and to ponder what it would be like if you could come back in another 10,000 years or so, look to the Southeast, and see Lōʻihi, the newest Hawaiian island, breaking through the surface.

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  1. Thanks for telling us about your trip. I fell in love (is that possible) with volcanoes in 1984. We had friends living in Pahoa that we stayed with. Kīlauea had just crossed the Chain of Craters Road and taken a few houses. Nothing was fenced off at that point so we walked on fresh lava – as in always looking over your shoulder to see if the rivulets were threatening your path. Our artist friends were Making molds and sculptures with the hot lava. Never done anything so exciting, dangerous or transforming before of since.

    1. Thanks for sharing and I know what you mean about falling in love with volcanoes because I can’t wait to see something like this again.