Tag Archives: Kilauea

The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of Hawai’i.

The Hawaiian Islands were formed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by tumultuous volcanic activity – this is still happening and is presently centred on the Big Island, Hawai’i. Mt Kilauea on the south-east side of this island remains active and has been spewing lava almost continuously since 1984. Put simply, Hawaii is moving steadily over a hot spot that lies beneath the Pacific Plate.

To the west and more central to the island is the volcanic mass of Mauna Loa which rises just short of 13,700 feet; it has erupted only twice since 1950: once in 1975 for a day, and again in 1984 for three weeks. At the moment things are quiet, but it is still considered the most active volcano of recent time, having erupted 33 times since its first historical eruption in 1833. Not far away to the north across a saddle of lava stands the sister peak of Mauna Kea – presently dormant it rises to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level and I was fortunate enough to travel up it quite recently – this sounds impressive, but getting there is a doddle because you can drive more or less all the way. It is however the toughest road journey anywhere in the world should you choose to do it on a bicycle!

Of greater interest perhaps is that the slopes of these impressive volcanoes provide a variety of habitats entirely determined by changes in altitude. The most obvious way to experience climatic change is to travel from the equator to polar regions, which takes time and money, but there is an alternative: go to Hawai’i and ascend either Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea and experience similar changes over a much shorter distance.

A good start: photographing a green turtle on the local beach.

A few weeks ago my friend David Barlow and I did exactly this, driving from sea level to within a few feet of the summit of Mauna Kea, on the way rising through a variety of different habitat types to arrive above the tree line in a very short journey time: from a tropical beach to a stark arid landscape in a matter of hours, experiencing changes that were both marked and abrupt –  and I was able to make a visual record of species before we returned to sea level in less than twelve hours without rushing about.

The first bird of the day showed up during breakfast – a member of a flock that was picking off grass seeds on the lawn behind our apartment. Introduced from South America in the 1960s this attractive bird is now well established.

We then took a short walk to the beach and along the track saw a red cardinal in a non-native acacia tree. This bird was introduced to the islands in the late 1920’s from the Eastern States of North America; it has a formidable beak essentially for seed eater, but this colourful creature will take insects and other small animals, putting it into direct competition with native birds, or would, if there were any about! Almost nothing endemic exists at sea level apart from the occasional sea bird – a shocking situation that usually passes without comment. Few people realise the birds they see are recent introductions, and no tourist operator would break the mood by broadcasting that at lower altitudes, the most commonly seen creatures are as alien to these islands as snow at Christmas.

The yellow-billed cardinal is also common, it was introduced from South America in the early 1970s and is spreading. These birds occur mostly at lower altitudes, but have been seen more recently at around 6,000 feet where they come into contact with endemic species; this causes not only straight competition, but the possibility of spreading diseases such as bird malaria which the natives have no tolerance of.

Continuing on to the beach we came across a beautiful but nevertheless non-native tree under which a silver eye was feeding two fledgling youngsters. I know this bird well because it was often in our New Zealand garden, although it originates from the opposite end of the Pacific; the NZ version arrived from Australia sometime during the 19th Century, and this version is from Japan.

A Japanese white eye Zosterops japonicus feeding its young.

The Hawai’i white eye was introduced in the late 1920s; it is an agreeable song bird and an absolute sweetie, but like the yellow-billed cardinal, has spread to higher altitudes where it too competes with native birds. White-eyes are opportunistic feeders and as nectar makes up part of their diet this puts it in direct competition with native honeycreepers that have evolved on the Hawaiian Islands and can be found nowhere else.  Back in its homeland this is a delightful bird, but on Hawai’i it is becoming a problem.

One animal that seems to be everywhere at lower altitudes is the Indian mongoose, particularly where there is broken lava flow that provides this efficient little predator with ideal hiding places. This seems an odd choice for an introduction because the Hawaiian Islands have many delicate ecosystems that until recently were totally devoid of mammalian predators.

This less than ideal newcomer was introduced in the 1880s to take on the rat population so prevalent on sugar plantations. As rats are nocturnal and the mongoose diurnal the two seldom met, and together worked around the clock consuming Hawai’i’s native birds – in particular the ground nesters. It is claimed that the mongoose is responsible for the elimination of at least 6 native species from these Islands.

Rikki Tikki Tavi appears just about everywhere including the back of the barbecue on our deck.

I could continue working through a list of all the beautiful plants, butterflies and birds around where we are staying that are clearly non-natives, but if I did, we wouldn’t get much beyond the car park  so it has to be onward and upward. 

David and I began our drive to altitude by crossing the island using Route 200, or the Saddle Road as it is commonly known. This runs between the two volcanic masses of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, and as regards native species, we saw nothing until we got to around 6,000 feet.

Along the Saddle Road in the many areas that have experienced recent lava flows, plants are now re-establishing, a situation that has been repeated itself many times on Hawai’i.

At these higher altitudes in national park areas, plants appear very different from the exotic introductions commonplace at sea level. There were similarities to my New Zealand experience, with many native plants carrying smaller, more subtle flowers that many of us ignore in preference to bigger blousier forms that are easily introduced…. But what the heck, people just love dressing up their islands the way they decorate their Christmas trees  with exotic colourful tat that makes them feel more cheerful. Perhaps if we were better informed we might be inclined to consider our native plants more sympathetically, but the chances are… we  probably wouldn’t.

Pink Knotweed Perssicaria capitatum has small flowers, but isn’t a native, having arrived from Asia.

It is tempting to suggest species evolving on islands are delicate, but the reality is, most are well adapted to their surroundings, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived.  It is only when rapid changes occur that natives are found wanting, as was the case when Homo sapiens arrived on the Islands  adaptation through natural selection simply couldn’t equip the natives quickly enough to allow them to compete successfully with the many introduced pests they encountered.

Once up on the hill a mossy forest of native trees adds something quite hopeful to the stark surrounding landscape.

Just before turning off to Moana Loa we stopped to visit Hairy Hill on the opposite side of the road. It was a gentle walk up the old cinder cone that rises just a couple of hundred feet, providing enough height to survive a more recent lava flow that obliterated the flora of the surrounding area; what remains is a reservoir for native plants and trees, and amongst them there is a pleasant ambiance to the small isolated mossy forest that exists near the top, although moss is not be a surprise here because the area is often swathed in dank mists, imbibing the open lava flow below with a certain atmosphere – and it is no wonder that such places have spiritual significance for native people.

Looking down from Pu’u Huluhulu or Hairy Hill. This is a Kapuka, an older volcanic hill surrounded by a more recent lava flow.
I was surprised when a turkey crossed my path near the top of the Hairy Hill a bird very much out of place here.

On the opposite side of the road John Burns Way leads us up towards the summit of Mauna Kea. We stopped just short of the point where the tree line changed abruptly into a high altitude desert to emerge from cloud cover into bright sunlight. I pulled the car off the road at 9,000 feet so that we might acclimatise to the altitude; but had an ulterior motive: I’d hoped to photograph native birds in the area, but this would depend entirely on finding plants carrying nectar filled flowers to attract them in, otherwise we could search all afternoon and perhaps see birds only fleetingly. There is little to be gained by chasing wildlife about – if there was nothing to draw birds in to where I could stand quietly, the chances of getting worthwhile images was slim.

Common Mullien is everywhere.

 

We start searching on foot and it is at once clear that a great many unwanted plants have been introduced here, some accidentally; and eliminating them is likely to be an ongoing problem for park authorities. In fact, the weeds are so numerous and producing such copious amounts of seed, it might be a case of ‘know your enemy’ and prioritise those that are competing most harmfully with native species.

There was no shortage of Common Mullien Verbascum thapsus, originally brought to North America by settlers from Europe for medicinal purposes. It has now reached Hawaii and doing well at altitude on Mauna Kea.

David time lapses clouds as they roll up between the two volcanic peaks; every half an hour the top of Mauna Loa is revealed then disappears again, we however remain just above the cloud-line in full sunshine.

This volcanic mass we are on is the tallest mountain on the planet, but not recognised as such because the height of a land mass is always taken from sea level to provide a standard for the measurement of altitude. However, if Mauna Kea was measured from the ocean floor it rises to around 33,000 feet and there is nothing on Earth that will match it  – apart from the peak we can see across the saddle in front of us  that of Mauna Loa, which is around a 100 feet short of the volcano we are standing on.

At the time of writing Kilauea was very busy doing its thing.

To have two such massive features on an island that takes only a couple of hours to cross is remarkable. Everest is considered the highest mountain in the world at just over 29,000 feet it is part of the Himalayas – a mountain chain that pushed up like a rucked carpet when two continents collided: 50 million years ago the India plate started crashing into the Euro Asia plate and they continue to do so; but the Hawaiian peaks are perhaps even more impressive, thrusting as they do from the ocean floor driven entirely by the dynamism of volcanic activity.

Flowers of the Mamane tree Sophora chrysophylla.

It doesn’t take long to see a yellow flower, a member of the pea family, that is similar to the kowhai flower that I know from my time in New Zealand, which demonstrates that the relatedness of some plants can be clearly followed across the Pacific region, although how this member of the Sophora family arrived in Hawai’i remains a mystery.

I set up on a mamane tree and wait to see what visits.

The blooms I set up on hung from a mamane tree, a species integral to the upland forests of Hawai’i with flowers drooping down seductively from a canopy that can reach up to 50 feet. Unfortunately, the tree’s survival on the Hawaiian Islands has not been plain sailing: prior to and during the 1980s the upland slopes of Mauna Kea were ravaged by introduced grazers, and legal action was taken against the government at both local and federal level on behalf of two bird species. The resultant court case ended with a win for the endangered birds, in particular the Palila (Loxioides bailleui), a honeycreeper that relies heavily on Mamane tree seeds for food, as do  caterpillars of the Cydia moth which also feed on the young seeds of this tree and the birds in turn feed on them. Both bird and insect must avoid the mature seed coats because they are highly toxic, although these animals have developed a degree of tolerance to the alkaloid poisons that are present.  It appears the fauna remains just ahead of the flora in this evolutionary arms race and having gained the advantage, utilise the mamane seeds as an essential part of their diet.

As for the other battle – the legal one: on paper it was clearly a win for the birds and the environment, but in reality this wasn’t absolute. Soon after the judgement sheep and feral goats that for years had been decimating the upland forests were at last being removed, but the court order was never fully complied with until another court order was made in 2013 backing the protective measure, and renewing efforts to remove the pests that were pushing the Palila bird in particular to extinction. I am not certain of how successful this has been, but we at least didn’t see any alien grazers during our visit.

A tui in our New Zealand garden making use of nectar from a kowhia tree which carries one of the earliest blooms of spring. The birds beak is curved, and has co-evolved with the kowhia flowers to aid in pollination: pollen can be clearly seen on the upper side of the beak. This bird is of the honeyeater family and quite different from the honeycreepers of Hawaii, some of which have evolved similar beaks for the same nectar feeding purpose.

This is just one of a host of conservation issues that plague delicate island environments. Conservationists and volunteers do their best, but pest problems are frequently overwhelming, and there is usually a struggle for adequate funding.

The Sophora flowers blooming on Mauna Kea are as important to the native nectar feeding birds of Hawaii as the related kowhai flowers are to the tuis and bellbirds that regularly visited the trees we had planted in our New Zealand garden. Understanding such alliances is important and may prove instrumental in both protecting and bringing associated species together.

Certainly not the most exciting looking bird, but exciting for me…. I have no interest in ticking off birds, but as most of the park areas were closed due to the volcanic activity, the chance of seeing native birds was substantially reduced.

Back on the mountain I stood in the mid-day sun waiting… and it wasn’t long before a small bird came flying in to my chosen tree, but it was soon away with a dipping up and down flight that is probably peculiar to its species. I was pretty well set up by then and hopeful of a return visit – although this was not an entirely pleasurable experience, as standing in the sun at altitude with increased levels of UV will quickly sear exposed skin.

The bird made three further visits at approximately twenty to thirty minute intervals and remained completely untroubled by my presence. The little nectar feeder spent three or four minutes feeding on groups of flowers before flying off to presumably visit other flowers in the area; certainly it flew some distance beyond a point where I could see it, which suggested that it was feeding over a fairly wide range. 

Something about this bird might suggest a non-native immature white eye, but then the curve of the bill and the short tail makes me think it is a female or immature Hawai’i ‘Amakihi (Hemignathus virens virens) – not the rarest honeycreeper on Hawai’i  but nevertheless considered a distinct species for the island. This bird is also often confused with the Hawai’i Creeper (Oreomystis mana), but the creeper is rarer and does not feed so regularly on nectar. Hopefully, I might be forgiven for an uncertain identification of a bird I don’t regularly see. Even ornitholgist sometimes have trouble identifying these ‘little brown jobs’ and it might in the end come down to movement or behaviour… but most likely somebody will know from my pictures and I will soon be better informed.
Once I get to see the curve of the birds beak more clearly I feel confident that I have observed a native bird – a honey creeper with a beak adapted to feed from flowers, but still useful enough to dig out insects.

After a couple of hours acclimatisation we had achieved all that was possible and continued on to the summit. Almost at once we were on Mars, albeit a Mars with blue skies and genuine atmosphere; but the views were not as spectacular here as the Mars-scapes I’d previously seen near the summit of Haleakala which rises to just under 10,000 feet on the neighbouring island of Maui. From our vantage point we could at least see Haleakala coming and going some 35 miles away as clouds moved across the substantial peaks of both islands. Now close to  the 14,000 foot summit David framed the view and set his time lapse in motion.

David time lapsed cloud formations behind one of the Mauna Kea Observatory Telescopes with Haleakala on the island of Maui in the background – my still is rather a poor substitute.

I finished my photography fairly quickly – because wildlife opportunities are limited at this altitude – and was just admiring the view when David arrived with a young lady he had found, he left her with me and returned to his camera— the altitude had got the better of her, although her boyfriend had fared better and decided to walk back down to the visitors centre from where they had started out. David had agreed that we would drive his girlfriend down because of her condition. I sat her on the back seat of our car amongst the gear and told her how lucky I had been to photograph a honeyeater, but she seemed disinterested, obviously she wasn’t big on wildlife and so I stopped talking, at which point she shot out of the car and began projectile vomiting in a quite spectacular manner… I must admit that I did think about taking a photograph, but refrained from doing so.

The summit of Mauna Kea is not much further away, but I never made it up there, nor any other summit on any other mountain I have visited — it’s the kind of thing that can make you throw up, and I have no idea why people feel a need to do it.

Soon back in the car she began telling me how much better she was feeling. I smiled and nodded encouragingly and at once she took a turn for the worse and did it all over again. Hopefully it wasn’t the company she was keeping… more likely, having taken a meandering walk up in 40% less oxygen than there is at sea level and going that little bit further to the summit she had developed altitude sickness. It was clear that we needed to get her to a lower altitude as quickly as possible and so David’s time lapse came to an abrupt end and I was soon driving us towards the visitors centre considerably faster than when we had made our way up – thinking all the time that a four wheel drive would have now been quite useful. The dirt road had been rutted and tricky to negotiate on the ascent and I had driven slowly to look after the vehicle, but on the way down it was a different story.

Away in the distance Kilauea has a little spew.

 We were going quite fast — why wasn’t I sliding us off of the volcano? Then, it suddenly occurred to me — the grader I had noticed parked close by the visitors centre had been doing its job at an opportune moment and the track had been graded all the way to the top.

Half way to our destination, away in the distance Kilauea had a little spew of her own – signalling that tomorrow would be another murky VOG sky day, even on the other side of the island.

Hawai’i it seemed was presently troubled by one of  it’s little volcanic phases, but sadly the island also displays a good many environmental problems concerning the preservation of its endemic species… Nevertheless, even a true story should have a happy ending – so here it is. The girl and the volcano have stopped spewing now and both are doing fine.

Up above the clouds Mauna Kea is a Mars-scape but with atmosphere, where things can get very hot and very cold, but thankfully not to Martian extremes… because really, this is a very down to Earth sort of place.

There is also a moral to this story: a little bird recently told me that we all spend too much time obsessing over how beautiful things are, rather than how beautifully things fit together. Unfortunately, the latter requires far greater imagination and understanding than does the former, and more often than not, like many a good mixing of metaphors, we sometimes find ourselves on the right volcano, but chirping up the wrong tree. 

It wasn’t a great surprise that we didn’t see a Palila, but I have at least attempted a sketch.

I started the day with a little yellow bird that doesn’t belong, but didn’t manage to finish with the Palila – the yellow-headed bird that does – it was just too hopeful. Science has informed us quite thoroughly of what this rarity requires, and in that sense the tricky work has been done, but the will to save this beauty from extinction may simply not be there. And the way things are going – in the natural world at least – happy endings are increasingly difficult to find.

 

 

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Kilauea: Over the Volcano – Hawai’i Makes New Ground.

When our friends David and Rosie said they wanted to fly over from the U.K. and visit us near Vancouver, my wife Jen and I didn’t think it a major leap to keep going west until we reached the Big Island of Hawai’i, well, it wasn’t for us… Jen hadn’t been well and needed a rest, and David has for a long time wanted to photograph volcanic activity. The Hawaiian Islands it seems have something for everybody. 

Way out in the middle of the Pacific a crustal plate has been moving across a volcaninc hot spot (which is stationary) at about three and a half inches a year forming this unique group of islands. Kaua'i the oldest at around 4 to 5 million years old and Hawai'i the youngest at around 300,000 years, this is presently the most active and has grown in the last few weeks as lava has been pouring into the sea. But there is also fresh activity to the west of the Big Island where Lo'ihi is slowly rising under the ocean. and it will probably show up above water in around 50,000 years.
Way out in the middle of the Pacific a crustal plate has been moving across a stationary volcanic hot spot at around three and a half inches a year to form a unique chain of islands. Kaua’i is the oldest at around 5 million years of age and Hawai’i the youngest at around 300,000 years: this is presently the most volcanically active and has grown in the last few weeks as lava has began to pour into the sea. There is also fresh activity to the south east of the Big Island as Lo’ihi slowly rises from the ocean floor and will probably break the water surface in around 50,000 years.

Sadly, if your holiday is going to be a good one, you now need to book well in advance to ensure affordable flights and good accommodation; it was Rosie and Jen who organised everything a year before we started out – an alien concept to me as I can’t plan much beyond Tuesday and that’s only if I start thinking things through late on Monday night. If it were left up to me, the whole thing would have fallen to pieces, but it got done; our Hawaiian adventure was perched somewhere on a distant horizon… and I promptly forgot all about it.

Then, just before our friends set out for Canada I had an e-mail from David with new information, “Kilauea is clearing her throat” he wrote, “and if the fat lady really starts to sing it might affect our flights”. I started watching the news – it seemed that Pele the Goddess of volcanoes and fire was wreaking havoc on the south east of the Island we were about to visit.

P1350165Nothing however is quite what it seems, especially with news. The first camerawork I ever did for the B.B.C. was news, this at a time when news was more important than the people who presented it; but these days ‘news’ comes with a degree of spin as reporters no longer simply report, they also have to give an opinion.

It was true that after a quiet spell, Mt Kilauea was active again, or to be more precise,  fissure 8 on the east rift zone was, but the situation was more localised than we had been led to believe. So, when we arrived at our apartment the sky was hazy, but otherwise we were unaffected by the activity on the other side of the island. Nothing was about to blow and the locals remained philosophical – news is only news it seems when it ends up somewhere else.

On the eastern side of the island, looking into the hills from sea level, air pollution would build on days when the volcano was especially active over on the opposite side.
Looking into the hills from sea level on the western side of the island, air pollution would steadily build whenever volcanic activity became more intense.

Our day usually started well, but around 10.00 a.m. the vog (volcanic smog/fog) began to build in the hills behind us until any remaining patches of blue sky disappeared. It was a bit like being in L.A. on a warm still day, when smog hangs around, but in this case it was the trade winds bringing vog around the bottom end of an island and running them up the west coast to our base in Kailua-Kona, but the pollution was continually shifting and dispersing on the wind and it wasn’t a huge problem.

Nobody was making a fuss where we were, but the international news was building the situation into an insurmountable problem and pretty soon people were cancelling their holidays here, much to the detriment of the local economy.

A beach on the east coast fails to disappoint despite a haze due the poorer air quality.
A beach on the east coast fails to disappoint despite the haze produced by the poorer air quality.

Tropical islands with stable governments, and agreeable climates attract multinational companies: they buy up beachfronts, plant palm trees, enhance beaches, and sometimes trash local environments to create the gated coastal communities that are now so popular with many holiday-makers, not so much for me though, because locals should be part of the experience, even when they are trying to sell you something.  There is however more to consider than lean times for wealthy investors, small businesses that rely on tourism are also suffering.

Nobody can say for certain that a volcano won’t suddenly go off and wreak havoc across a whole island, but the science of the way Kilauea presently operates makes this unlikely. There have in the past been violent explosive events, but in recent time lava has tended to ooze rather than fly. The key is in the name, Kilauea means to spew or spread, and not ‘explode or boom’. Presently there are no major problems for those who are not directly in the path of lava flow, or immediately down wind of the plumes of noxious chemicals that volcanic activity produces especially when lava enters the sea.

In areas where larva has recently flowed, in this case across land between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea the landscape sometimes has an unworldy feel and may remain free of vegetation for many years and is largely depending upon altitude and weather conditions.
In areas where lava has recently flowed, in this case across the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, landscapes have become unworldly. Many will remain free of vegetation for years to come depending on altitude, weather conditions and proximity to unaffected natural areas.

Spare a thought then for the people losing their homes to lava on the south east of the island, although some locals on the west coast seem pretty unsympathetic, suggesting that anybody who choses to live on the slopes of an active volcano is asking for trouble, which may be true, but the disturbing rise in land prices across the Hawaiian Islands has largely been pushed up by property speculation; in consequence local people are stuck with buying what they can afford and those with the least money must suffer the consequences. It is a sad condemnation of the way the world operates by simply following the money; and presently there is no sign of change, in fact quite the opposite.

These guys are unlikely to be defeated by a bit of claggy air on the beach.
These guys are unlikely to be defeated by a bit of claggy air moving down our local beach.

Despite problems for some, our visit to Hawai’i seemed fortuitous – clearly this was the right time and place to photograph volcanic activity, but as always, the better the situation gets the more likely authorities are to close down options in the interests of safety.

We decided to drive southwards around the island from Kailua-Kona to see how far we could get before the situation deteriorated, stopping for a picnic close to the South Point of the island, and soon discovered that this was a great place to get blown off the lava cliffs into the Pacific – all you had to do was stand up.

The wind was gusting so oddly here I was pleased when Jen stopped taking pictures on the cliff top.
The wind was gusting oddly at South Point. Jen had become tired of resting and started taking pictures… I was pleased when she stopped because she was standing close to the cliff edge.

Viewed from our picnic site, the ocean appeared to be dragging itself away from the coast as the winds whipped across it. Things inevitably get rough here because trade winds coming down the west coast whip around the southern tip to meet the Kona winds running up in the opposite direction.

Down around the South Point of the Island is not an ideal place for a picnic, but we did it anyway.
Anywhere around the South Point seems less than ideal for a picnic.
Trees in the area seemed to be in a continual battle to stand up and in the end gave up.
Trees in the area continually battle against harsh winds and in the end appear to give up.

The Hawaiian Islands are a small blip on the surface of the Pacific, formed by volcanoes that at some stage in their lives pushed rapidly upwards on comparatively small land areas. Hawai’i supports the volcanic masses of both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa thrusting up as they do to just two or three hundred feet short of 14,000 feet respectively. If measured from their base deep on the Pacific floor, both would rise considerably above Mount Everest and their weight is telling: Hawai’i  is subsiding by about an inch every year because it is right over the hot spot where the lithosphere is both thermally weakened and heavily laden with lava.

Standing just above the cloud line on Mauna Kea just before the tree line runs out into volcanic ash at about 9,000 ft, is possible to look across the saddle to Mauna Loa, here just peaking above the clouds.
If you stand just above the cloud line on Mauna Kea at about 9,000 feet just before the tree line runs into cinders, it is possible to look across the saddle to Mauna Loa peeping above the clouds.

P1340834The presence of these volcanic masses also disrupts air flow across this area of the Pacific, redefining the trade winds flowing around the Island and their power is something to be reckoned with. If Captain Cook had been able to avoid the winds that broke his mast when leaving Hawai’i he wouldn’t have returned to the Big Island and been killed by locals on Valentine’s Day 1779; instead, he would have continued on in search of a north west passage and history would have turned out differently.  It is also a sobering thought, looking out to sea from the South Point, (which is  just a few hundred miles south of the Tropic of Cancer), that the next landmass above water is the continent of Antarctica.

We continued on, driving around the southern part of ‘Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’, looking for an entry point to photograph native birds. The best park for this is to the east and presently closed due to a plant disease and it isn’t possible to go in unless you are with a group and have an official guide.

A spotted dove I think in the forest - taken to demonstrate the vog skies that make bird photography impossible
A spotted dove (I think) in the forest – taken to demonstrate how vog skies can make bird photography pointless.

The vog in any case makes for very poor viewing conditions and it is impossible to make a good exposure of birds against such a bland colourless sky when it only produces images known in the trade as ‘pee holes in the snow’. As it happens, I saw nothing of interest and we continued on eastward towards the lava zone.

We know that getting close to the action from the ground is unlikely, although it is possible to drive along certain roads in the affected area, but it is illegal to stop. We later discover that a local has taken outsiders in to witness the activity first hand – all have since been arrested and face legal action.

As we don’t live in the restricted area there is no reason why we should be allowed to drive in. We’d like to take pictures that tell a story, but roads are breaking apart and some are now impassible whilst others have completely gone. There is also a danger from airborne gasses: it would be wrong to underestimate the dangers of carbon monoxide, which doesn’t warn of its lethal potential because it is odourless; there is also sulphur dioxide which may combine with water vapour in the air or, as it is presently doing, react with sea water to produce airborne sulphuric acid, which you really don’t want to be breathing, anymore than the micro glass particles that are also airborne in the area. On occasions it is easy to walk around a lava flow, but sometimes, especially when  close to the source, the lava flows quickly and if you don’t know the lie of the land, it is literally lethal to put a foot wrong.

We continue as far as Na’alehu some thirty five miles outside of the restricted area, here there are people who have been evacuated out for safety reasons. 

Edward Hopper should have painted in Na'alehu - it would have cheered him up a bit.
Edward Hopper could have painted in Na’alehu – the sky is appropriately dismal, but the people might have proven too cheerful for him as they don’t appear cowered by present adversities.

IMG_0354

As I get out of the car my back goes rogue by the road and a woman working in a food van on the opposite side hurries over to check I’m O.K. –  as if these people don’t have enough to worry about.

A few miles up the road homes are being lost to lava, but in Na’alehu life carries on much as usual and nobody is moaning. It’s a great example of the best of small town America, and a different side of life from the one that usually gets reported on world news. 

Jen hangs out with coffee from the food van in Na'alehu.

Jen is resting over at the food van with a cup of coffee, Rosie remains in the car, and David and I set about getting information on the current situation from a man who’s house was destroyed by lava back in 2005, he has subsequently rebuilt, but it looks as if he might lose his house all over again.

His name is Gary Sliek and he’s recently moved out of the danger area; he shows us a picture of the first house as it was hit by a lava flow at 4.30 in the morning – it is burning intensely. The idea that your house on fire is a photo opportunity seems perverse, but what else can you do in the circumstances – it is almost a displacement activity and Gary is surprisingly philosophical about his loss.

David speaks with Gary Sleik in A'alehu about the local volcanic activity.
David talking to Gary Sleik in Na’alehu about volcanic activity in the lava zone.

Back when it happened, he remembers the lava reaching the house, with a release of methane the building quickly ignited and burnt until the roof came down to the ground and then went back up again supported on the bulging flow.

Gary has retreated to Na’alehu, working out of his van because his new house is now under threat, but there are no hard feelings. Like a lot of Americans Gary has an adventurous spirit, he doesn’t want to be trapped by a conventional life-style and makes a living photographing the volcanic activity that goes on around him – and does so with considerable skill. It might seem like madness to keep returning to an active lava zone, but clearly there is a thrill to living close, and recording the most fundamental destruction and creativity our planet has to offer.

Like water lava flows to the lowest point and high ground often preserves natural areas and if they are large enough to remain viable, will retain species to eventually recolonise the area.
Like water lava flows to the lowest point and high ground often preserves natural areas; if they are large enough to remain viable, species may eventually recolonise from these, but it takes many years.

Once above ground magma is defined as lava – its most prominent feature is that inevitably it is unstoppable. To get the best pictures, you need to be in the right place at the right time and Gary’s pictures make it clear that anything David and I might get in a couple of days would be inferior – we can’t match what Gary has done on the ground and it is clear that to achieve anything useful we need to get into the air. 

The best option is to rent a helicopter as there are presently no heavy restrictions to stop us taking a look from the air, and we will need the doors off to get decent pictures.

Enquiries are made and pretty soon we have a flight booked for our last available day here on 4/6/18, when we take a drive across to Hilo International Airport for an afternoon flight from Paradise Helicopters, Our pilot Daniel Speller knows exactly what there is to see and we rely entirely upon his judgement as to how we might cover the three main areas we will visit.

The problem with flying over a volcano is that conditions are not always ideal for taking pictures.
The problem with flying over a volcano is that conditions are not always ideal for taking good photographs.

It didn’t take long to fly to the source of the activity, but as we flew I was shocked to see that there was nothing natural about the land below us. Most of it had been plantation in one form or another for a couple of hundred years, eventually divided in places for housing, and holiday resorts, in particular along the coast. It is naive to think that visiting a tropical Island will demonstrate the best of the natural world; it’s never like that with commercial ventures mostly taking precedence. Nobody needs it anyway, because our children will all go and live on Mars!  It’s the new big thing, although the surface of the red planet is about as hospitable as the lava flow we are about to witness and as welcoming as the complete desolation that lies ahead of us between the scudding clouds. Then on the surface a red raw gape in the distance suddeny appears and then disappears into another bank of cloud. Now I’m preoccupied with how many other helicopters might be up here, but this is suddenly forgotten as we come out the other side, to arrive almost over the raw churning rent.

IMG_0606The magma is clearly visible bubbling in the fire beneath us and I begin taking pictures. Rather prosaically it is called ‘ fissure 8 on the east rift zone’, which is presently the most active point of magma release from the slopes of Kilauea and it’s totally impressive, constantly coughing and spitting red fury; and in contrast to the steady flow of lava that  oozes from the side of this angry gash, as if a punch drunk fighter has been smashed in the face, hit the deck, and is now dribbling spittle and blood from an hideously swollen mouth, but the brutality here is on a very different scale; and had it been night time we would have picked out the glow of the lava as it slid away from the newly developing cone.  

Looking down into fissure 8, I seemed to be directly over it and if I had released my seat belt I am sure I would have tumbled straight in.
Looking down into fissure 8.

I had set a 100 – 400mm lens on my camera because I wanted close ups, but was surprised now at how close we were getting as Daniel banked the helicopter almost over the vent, avoiding a plume of dark smoke issuing from one side, the clarity was exceptional as he continued to bank in my favour, until the rent came into view full frame. It occurred to me that if I released my seat belt now, I might easily tumble into the fiery work of the Goddess Pele – the others commented on the heat, but for some reason I didn’t feel it.

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Our seating positions were organised according to body weight in order to balance the aircraft; Rosie sat centre front and I was positioned on the opposite side to the pilot. At times, I seemed to be almost hanging out – it was a tight squeeze, but we didn’t get the buffeting that David and Jen were experiencing in the back. If I refrained from poking my lens too far out, the shaking familiar to a helicopter with its doors off was manageable for pictures, although when I did lean out to pull a little extra into frame the camera felt as if it might be whipped from my hands: for this reason everything we carried was attached to us, because losing an item into the tail rotor might be fatal. For the steadiest pictures, it made sense to stay within the confines of the aircraft canopy and for most of the time I managed to do so; things were easier still when using a smaller camera for the wide shots.

Jen was on the opposite side at the back and Daniel moved the aircraft into position so that she might also get a view and take photos of the fissure, and despite the turbulence she managed a series of good pictures.

Jen's wider picture of Fissure 8 puts the lava flow into context with its surroundings.
Jen’s wider picture of fissure  8 puts the lava flow into context with its surroundings.

Daniel repeated the process positioning the helicopter to allow for further photo opportunities and then flew on a short distance to the north west to see the now quieter volcanic cone Pu’u ‘O’o which had until recently been responsible for much continuous activity in the area since 1983. In the last 10 years this and the summit crater were the most active regions, but more recently some 20 fissures have opened up along the east rift zone.

The previously active cone of Pu'u O'o and yes, I really have no idea how this is pronounced.
This, then is Pu’u ‘O’o – its crater floor collapsed on April 30th and the contents drained away. Two days later the summit lava lake began to drop and nobody is certain where that has gone.

This summit crater was active earlier in the year, but is presently quiet, the lava that once filled it is no longer there and the same is the case for the contents of Pu’u’O’o. If this lava were now flowing from the newly formed fissure 8, it would account for only about 2% of what has gone missing. Volcanologists are naturally concerned. “Where can it be?” I hear Daniel say over the headphones – I think it was a rhetorical question, but I’m far too busy to respond by suggesting that it might well be in our bathroom; more likely it is moving east and relates to the activity of the fissures on the east rift zone. 

A case of deja vu: once again I had that feeling that I might easily topple in.
Deja vu? Only a few minutes have passed and once again I have the feeling that I might easily topple into a crater, this one seems quieter but it remains active.

We bank once again, but this time follow the lava flow which conveniently for us has reached the sea today, throwing up clouds of toxic steam and gas, although my pictures of the event don’t seem especially dramatic.

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The lava has entered the sea in the lower Puna district and it was a surprise to see how close some houses are to the flow but so far escaped  – it is a bit of a lottery – I notice a couple burning. Getting home insurance here is of course impossible and it’s sobering to witness the loss.

Near the top of frame the sea fizzes creating a plume laden with sulphuric acid as larva hits the water and lower in the frame, houses are on fire.
Near the top of frame the sea fizzes creating a plume laden with sulphuric acid as lava hits the water; lower in the frame, houses are on fire.

As I am writing this, it is clear we returned to the airport without event, exhilarated, but with bad hair; wealthier in experience but not so much in pocket – it is as if we had poured our dollars directly into the volcano which in a sense we had, but without doubt, it had been worth it. Others hoping to make a later flight would not be so lucky as conditions were beginning to deteriorate.

P1350031The ground plan of the area we photographed has changed quite a bit since our flight: beach-side holiday resorts have completely disappeared and Kapoho Bay has pretty much filled with lava. There has been more activity from fissure 8 in the last month, more than during the whole of the active period of Pu’u ‘O’o that lasted nearly 35 years. The 8th fissure is now building a more substantial cone and lava is spewing higher than when we were there. It is time perhaps for the new fissure to be given an unpronounceable name! More than 30 billion gallons of lava have been thrown out of it over the last month and this has completely changed the shape of the island.

arva flowing away from Fissure 8.
Lava flowing from Fissure 8.

In reality we don’t have much control when nature confronts us so directly, although essentially it is indifferent and doesn’t target us specifically. What is certain is that we are powerless to do anything other than observe and record the extraordinary changes that are taking place here; and what a humbling experience it is to witness first-hand, this, the most fundamental process of creation.

 

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