Saturday, 17 September 2011

Hawaii: Travels In Paradise

Hawaii's enormous attraction for visitors is based on it's fabulous climate and staggering array of beaches.  I, too, was initially lured to the islands by the promise of endless summer and palm trees swaying in the breeze.
In fact one of my earlier visits was supposed to be for two weeks and I wound up staying for a year and a half. My photographic career was just beginning in those days.  For subject matter I concentrated on beaches, sunrises, sunsets, sailboats, and big surf.  But after a while I became restless with the usual fare and gravitated towards the Big Island and, more specifically, to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Kilauea Volcano started erupting in January 1983 and has remained continually active since that time. The eruption is centered on a vent called pu'u O'o.  The amount of lava coming out of the vent varies greatly, even from day to day, with enough lava sometimes being produced so that the molten basalt flows all the way to the ocean, creating a great cloud of steam as the 2000 degree lava meets the cold sea water.  My first photographic visit to Volcanoes National Park was in 1991 when the pu'u O'o eruption was very robust
and red chunks of lava shot up through the air from various openings as the molten stream flowed slowly downhill.  I could feel the heat when these small glowing pieces of molten rock went flying over my head. 

I made trips to photograph the volcano several times over the next decade and saw a dramatic change in the attitude of the Park Service.  At first the rules were very restrictive and fines were issued for wandering too close to the lava. Rope barriers had been erected in places to keep visitors back.  But over the years people insisted on getting close to the action, fines notwithstanding, so the Park Service decided that if you can't beat em, then join em. They started loaning flashlights to visitors and put up a blinking beacon so hikers would not get lost in the dark.  In order to experience the most dramatic views, it was popular to hike out on to the lava field in the late afternoon and remain there until after dark when the red hot rock glowed most impressively. With the aid of the park service flashlights and the flashing beacon you could find your way back to the parking lot, if it wasn't too foggy. Some people stayed on the lava field until dawn.

On that 1991 visit I was very excited to be around lava for the first time.  I got as close as I dared to the flow and set up my tripod.  The ground was so hot that if I stood in one spot for too long, the soles of my shoes began to melt and it was an effort to lift each foot and break it free of the hot ground. The camera lens became too hot to touch and focusing was a problem in those days before I had an autofocus camera.

I personally never stayed out all night near the lava flow.  But I did get out there first thing at dawn on one occasion and came across the scene above as another visitor strolled past the steam cloud at the water's edge where the lava entered the ocean.  By coincidence, on that same morning I got to see an incredibly bright silvery streak move across part of the sky. It was surreal and I had no idea what I was observing. It wasn't until later in the day that I got to hear an explanation on the radio--Hawaii's governor was complaining to NASA that that agency should have warned state officials that part of a space project would be reentering earth's atmosphere directly over the Hawaiian islands, causing the lengthy flash in the sky.  Without any forewarning many residents had panicked upon seeing the prolonged flash across the sky.

Being around fresh molten lava is a seductive experience. It's hard to tear oneself away.  There's a certain primeval power associated with a volcanic eruption.  That's what accounted for my returning to the Big Island again and again over a ten year period. I was drawn to this tropical paradise mainly by the volcano and not by Hawaii's other charms.  But despite the fact that the Kilauea eruption has been continuous for 28 years, each visit is different. The eruption, although ongoing, is always changing in character. It is not always possible to obtain compelling images of the action. The lava may smolder instead of flow.  There is not always a large steam cloud at the interface with the ocean. And red lava in quantity is often lacking from the scene or is hidden below the surface of old, hardened lava.  As it turns out, my best photographs of the Kilauea eruption were taken on that very first 1991 visit.. Despite various later efforts I was never able to improve upon, or even equal, those initial images.

Mark Newman

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