Tag Archives: volcanoes

New Zealand and Hawaii. Remote Islands and Why Each One Is Different.

Given the many problems caused by humans to the various species living on Pacific Islands, their rapid decline seems inevitable, but to a degree this process was happening naturally, long before we showed up. Such losses and gains were, and still are, dependent upon many factors, but as a general rule, smaller islands exhibit a greater turn over than do larger islands; and the arrival of man has now pushed the losses to the level of a major extinction event, with both New Zealand and Hawaii exhibiting clear examples of the problem. 

I mentioned Hawaii’s carnivorous caterpillars in a previous article, and do so again because they are such a great example of the unusual directions that evolution can take on islands largely isolated by distance. So far as we know, meat eating caterpillars occur only on the islands of Hawaii.

To remain camouflaged, this carnivorous caterpillar Eupithecia ochrochloris has cut a notch into a fern leaf. It has caught and is eating an Hawaiian fruit fly. The fruit flies of Hawaii are themselves unusual varying greatly in form in comparison to the tiny fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster commonly seen elsewhere and used as research animals in laboratories. 
Eupithecia straurophragma

How plants and animals get to be on a remote island in the first place depends on several things: the size and topography of the island, and its position in relation to other nearby islands is important; as is the distance these islands are from major land areas that might act as starting points for new arrivals, and this is critical both to what will arrive and how frequently; any organism capable of parthenogenesis (the development of embryos without the need for fertilisation) will have a better chance of getting started than will animals that require both males and females for reproduction.

Each and every island has a unique story held in its geology. Consider Australasia – around a 100 million years ago this huge land mass separated from Godwana (which was at the time a supercontinent). The split from Antartica happened between 37 and 35 million years ago as it moved northward. The land that would eventually be New Zealand started moving away from the larger mass we now call Australia between 60 to 85 million years ago. 

New Zealand has many beautiful beaches, but inland the environment is significantly different from the way it was before man arrived. From the seaward side bands of native and often non-native trees give the impression of a still wild place, but once through the trees, more often than not, you’ll find yourself standing on sheep or cow pasture.

It is possible that NZ once formed part of a drowned continent, but for the millions of years the two main islands have remained above water in one form or another, extensive changes  have occurred — including climatic extremes which will have  eliminated many life forms.


Initially, when New Zealand sat alongside Australia, both were set in the same sub-tropical waters and in consequence had similar floras, but as the two separated, the sea flooded into the rift between them and formed the Tasman Sea. In consequence the New Zealand flora became isolated and new species began to evolve.

For the last 55 million years N.Z. has held its current position at around 2,000 kilometres to the south-east of Australia and experiences a much cooler climate than it once did, but ironically it now appears to be moving slowly back.

This Weta is one of around 70 species that occur nowhere else but New Zealand. This individual found its way onto my neck in our NZ garden, and when I tried to brush it off, it slashed out with its rasping rear legs and drew blood.

A lot can happen in 55 million years and the fine detail will  always remain uncertain, but nevertheless there is clear evidence that a great many species have come and gone during that period with most of the present New Zealand species of recent origin.

Everything in this picture is native to New Zealand… but no doubt, some hawk-eyed individual will see something here that proves me  wrong.


Apart from a few marine mammals and a couple of bat species, no other mammals have survived on these islands;           

and none managed to colonise successfully until the arrival of Polynesian settlers less than a thousand years ago; this was followed by a second wave of mammalian competitors that came along with Europeans when they began settling little more than 250 years ago, with dire consequences to the established native species.

Tuatara Sphenodon punctatus– one of the ‘distinctives’  an ancient reptile that evolved in NZ. They appear to live forever and I’ve never seen one move.

Prior to the arrival of humans and their entourage of plants and animals, New Zealand had  been populated by a very distinctive flora and fauna that developed in isolation of the many mammalian predators evolved elsewhere. A European botanist arriving for the first time might initially consider that they had landed on another planet, because the invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles and birds that fill the niches taken up by mammals elsewhere, are so extraordinary.

The North Island Kokako Callaeas wilsoni is also distinctive  and although its survival has been tenuous, isolated groups remain in only a few places on the North Island; the bird is mostly restricted to offshore islands where introduced mammalian pests have been eliminated and the birds then introduced as a conservation measure. Until fairly recently there was a South Island Kokako which had a reddish orange wattle  but this species is now thought to be extinct — the last definitive sighting was at Mt Aspiring National Park in 1967, but there are suggestions of more recent sitings and the species’ conservation status was moved from extinct to data deficient in 2013.
Waimea Falls – Kaui, Hawaii.


New Zealand has been around for some time, but the Hawaiian Islands were formed far more recently and exclusively by volcanic activity — they quite literally erupted from the depths of the mid-Pacific and are about  as remote from any other land area as it is possible to be. The first island, Kaui, started to push above water around 5  to 6 million years ago and is now the most westerly island in the chain. To the east at the opposite end is the Big Island (Hawai’i), and at less than a million years of age is still volcanically active.

 Recent lava flow features prominently on the Big Island Hawai’i in a way that it doesn’t on other Hawaiian Islands where lava is integral to the way the islands were formed but is no longer flowing. The older more established islands have moved on and consequently they no longer sit over the hot spot beneath the Pacific Plate responsible for volcanic eruptions.

Hawai’i is not huge, but nevertheless, it is big in comparison with the other islands in the chain. At around 10,500 square kilometres it is larger than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands put together, making up more than 60% of their total landmass.

Once the islands were formed, the possibility of a new plant or animal arriving on these tiny specks in the Pacific Ocean became a lottery. Miss the islands by only one mile or by a thousand, and the result would be the same  oblivion. Small organisms produced in large numbers will have had the best chance of arriving, with spores, seeds and tiny creatures the most likely candidates to be carried successfully on mid-altitude air currents to land against the odds on distant islands, although most of course will have perished. 

Small creatures like shore crickets might have arrived carried on flotsam.

Some species might have arrived carried across the surface of the ocean on any material that could stay afloat long enough to make landfall, but again the attrition rate would have been high and the chances of success slim.

It was a long shot that birds would arrive on Hawaiian Islands at all, given the distances involved, but when it did happen they would most likely have been carried on mid-altitude air currents. It is quite possible that only one or a small number of finch species arrived to become the honey creepers that radiated out across the Islands filling different habitats as they evolved into the 56 species that have been recorded, 18 of which are now extinct.

This article links: The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of New Zealand. and: The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of Hawai’i.

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.


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.


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.


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.


HAWAII: Haleakala – Flowers Above the Clouds.

On 6th February 1982 I made my first trip to Haleakala – The Sacred House of the Sun – a dormant volcano on the beautiful island of Maui.

This might sound like a grand adventure, but anybody can do it – all that is necessary is a reliable vehicle and a head for heights, because the journey from sea level to ‘almost’ the top, can be achieved by road within a couple of hours; this may well be the fastest land ascent to 10,000 feet anywhere in the world. Only two things will catch a traveller out, the first is the sudden ear popping change in altitude, and the second – what they will find when they get there.
At the top of Haleakala the landscape is hardly a tropical paradise, but it is enchanting.
At the top of Haleakala the landscape is hardly a tropical paradise, but it is enchanting.

Once up on the lip of the crater, it is difficult to believe that you are still on a tropical island, because the landscape rapidly changes to something quite other worldly. Back in the reality of this planet Haleakala has seen perhaps ten eruptions over the last one thousand years, most recently in the late 1700s and it will certainly go off again at some time in the not too distant future.

This extraordinary environment can be interpreted in two ways – either through mythology, or by engaging science.

To the local Hawaiian people this is a sacred place created by Pele, the goddess of volcanoes who was followed here by her vengeful sister Namaka – a sea goddess. The less spiritual amongst us might question what business a sea goddess has roaming around at the top of a volcano, a place totally out of keeping with her natural habitat. If trouble was likely… which of course it was, then I’d have put my money on Pele – but never bet on what the gods will do, because they move in strange ways beyond the understanding of mere mortals. The outcome was a running battle across the crater floor with Pele finally torn apart by her sibling on the far side to the north east. 

The story ends disappointingly for supporters of  the volcano goddess, whilst a scientific explanation runs an equally dramatic course now hidden in the depths of time.

Haleakala, like so many places in Hawaii, is unique. Looking across the plug of the crater you might think that you are on another planet rather than standing near the top of the largest dormant volcano on Earth. The crater is 3,000 feet deep, two and a half miles wide, 7 miles long and takes in an area totalling about 19 square miles. Just like the other volcanos in the Hawaiian chain, this one started on the Ocean floor and over the last two million years has risen to around 10,000 feet and perhaps a little higher when erosion is taken into consideration.

The craters here are like something from another planet - Mars perhaps.
The craters here are like something from another planet – Mars perhaps.

Mark Twain described the views from up here as sublime.

Once above the clouds looking out across the crater floor, it is easy to understand how the mystical legends of Haleakala developed and not at all difficult to accept that a new wave of believers also consider this place intensely spiritual. This is great news because places with spiritual significance are more likely to get protection than those without it. It seems odd that in these more enlightened times conservation can be influenced by faith based belief systems rather than relying entirely upon the facts – but we shouldn’t knock it when worthwhile environments are getting conserved. Mystery excites our imagination, it is how our brains are wired – we are all suckers for a good story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Science on the other hand has the disadvantage of being open ended.

So there was all this interesting stuff to consider on my first day up on the volcano and what was I thinking… that this is Hawaii and I haven’t got a sweater –  I’d totally ignored what 10,000 feet above sea level can do to air temperature. I had come to film for the B.B.C. and my producer Roger Jones had made no mention of needing one, probably because he wasn’t my mother and considered that somebody doing my job should at least have a brain… but mine wasn’t working that day; as we climbed I began to see ice and snow by the side of the road and slowly it dawned on me that when I got out of the vehicle I was going to be very cold.

My wife Jen on Haleakala in 2010. Up above the clouds so high.
My wife Jen on Haleakala in 2010. Up above the clouds so high.

Once you start to climb more steeply, the ascent is rapid; at some point your ears pop, the sky goes grey for a while as you go through the clouds, and on a good day, on the other side it will be sunny with sharp light and deep contrast in the shadows. Up here the air is clean and at night there is no supplementary lighting – perfect conditions for an observatory and it is therefore no surprise to find one.

Haleakala Hight Altitude Observatory. Hawaii's first astronomical observatortry and one of the most important observing sites in the world.
Haleakala High Altitude Observatory. Hawaii’s first astronomical observatory – one of the most important observing sites in the world.

 So what’s the point of going up Haleakala for a wildlife film-maker. 

There is presently no discernible life on Mars  and this place certainly feels the way we might imagine another planet to be, but with the bonus of at least some oxygen to breathe. Look out across the crater and before you is a rolling bed of cinders for as far as the eye can see. 

This place not only has one of the oddest landscapes in the world, it also has one of the oddest plants to be found in Hawaii.  The silversword (Ahinaha) manages to survive, by living life in the slow lane and although it can’t move about like a triffid, it can grow to triffid like proportions – a fully grown plant with flowering raceme seems just too big to be living under such inhospitable conditions.

A silversword slowly increases in size growing upwards for well over twenty years and then having put all its energy into a lifetime of super slow development it goes out with with a bang, achieving one mighty glorious mass flowering – then it dies.

A Silversword in bloom 24th June 2010. I imagine that if Vincent Van Gogh had managed to get here he surely would have painted this.
24th June 2010. The Haleakala silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum) in bloom –  Everything this day seemed better than on my first visit – in particular these wonderful blooms and of course the weather. I imagine that if Vincent Van Gogh had managed to get here he surely would have painted these flowers – if you haven’t guessed already, silverswords are members of the sunflower family.

So, this is what I came to film all those years ago – one of the world’s rarest plants in flower, in one of the world’s most inhospitable places; and by the end of my first visit I was shivering so much I had to lock the camera off and run it without touching, so that my shot wouldn’t have the jitters. A wonderful opportunity, but all I could think about was getting down from the crater before I became the first person to die of hypothermia on a tropical island.

The swordlike silver leaves have evolved a dense layer of silky hairs that reflect the intense solar radiation on a day like today and provide insulation on the days like this one and provide insulation on the cold days when you have forgotten your pullover, unlike you the silversword will be fine. The hairs also slow airflow over the leaf surface and reduce water loss in this arid environment.
The swordlike silver leaves have evolved a dense layer of silky hairs that reflect intense solar radiation on days like today and provide insulation on colder days when you have forgotten your sweater, but unlike you the silversword will be fine. The hairs also slow airflow over the leaf’s surface and reduce water loss in this extreme and arid environment.

I’ve been back to the crater several times since, when thankfully it was warm and sunny and I didn’t need my ‘just in case’ sweater although I now never forget it. But here’s the bit that I like best – the one thing that no self respecting photographer will tell anybody… you can film or photograph silverswords from the car park; there aren’t huge numbers of plants, but plenty enough for pictures that will cover various stages of development, and if you can’t get it all done within 50 feet of the car, then you’re really not up to much. The most difficult part is getting low enough to avoid having bits of car or the road in shot … and missing out the tourists is tricky because well over a million visitors make their way up here every year. 

These daisy like flowers are brash and colourful - quite a surprise amongst the beautiful desolation. They are pollinated by a yellow faced bee; but sadly I don't have a good close up of the pollinator.
These daisy like flowers are brash and colourful – quite a surprise amongst the beautiful desolation. They are pollinated by the yellow-faced bee, found only in Hawaii and threatened by introduced predators. Sadly I haven’t managed a good close up of a bee yet.

I guess when you get to my age and people see you lying motionless on the floor waiting for the background to clear they think that maybe you’ve had a heart attack. The last time I was up Haleakala was a few months ago along with my wife and daughter; and a group of young men began talking about my situation. “Please let me help you up sir”. said one, “Even if you don’t want to be helped up…” Then another “I don’t know if you’re happy just lying there motionless, but please, let us help you up. We really must insist…” This was amusing, but they were far enough away for me to ignore them without seeming impolite – I affected my grumpy persona to avoid conversation and the wasting of time – you never know how long the light will hold. I’ve missed a good many shots with this insular approach… the light has gone, you get back to the parking area and don’t mind a chat. Somebody says, “Did you see that fabulous owl?” And you’re thinking, ‘Owl… what owl?’

Photographing a young silversword in the stark lighting of a sunny day up on Haleakala.
Photographing a young silversword in the stark lighting of a sunny day high on Haleakala.

The most enjoyable thing for me was the realisation that I have probably seen some of the flowering silverswords when they were just starting out in life and now I was coming back to see them at their end as they burst into flower.

The problem is, that at the time of my first visit I didn’t know that a record of the plants might be useful.  Although it had occurred to me when I was younger, that many species were already in trouble, I hadn’t naturally thought ‘take a picture, save the Planet’, and so I didn’t go for a wider reference  picture of the car park. This was an oversight as I later had no clear recollection of where plants were, their sizes, or how many. Back then the last thing on my mind was photographing the car park, and consequently I have no evidence to support my feeling that there are now fewer plants growing in this area than there once were.

Luckily my wife does see the point of taking pictures in a car park but in 2014. I'll come back when I'm 80 and check out the changes.
Luckily my wife does see the point of taking pictures of a car park but not until 2014. Now  I’ll have to come back when I’m 80 and check out how the plants are growing.

However, there may be other reasons for thinking there are now fewer plants growing.

2014 was a great year for the silverswords, they managed a mass synchronous flowering. In other years when there were only a few plants in flower it was perhaps easier to notice the smaller individuals coming on, but when large and impressive plants are doing their thing they really grab your attention.
Whatever the case, the silversword is better off now than it has been for some time. Not so long ago goats grazed here, eating anything vegetative they could find including these wonderful plants, but now there is proper control, the silverswords are making a comeback.
17th Novemeber 2014. A silversword at the end of life. Gone to seed with the promise of future life to come.
17th November 2014. A silversword at the end of life. Gone to seed with the promise of future life to come.

Trails exist away from the parking lot where other silverswords may be seen. Beyond the range of the average tourist it is possible to walk and see plants in a more natural setting, although it is important to stay on the trail.

Another member of the silversword family is Dubautia menziesii. Less impressive in form It also grows up near the crater rim. They have evolved from a rather ordinary ancestral tar weed found in California which arrived on the Hawaiian Islands some time in the distant past.
Another member of the silversword family is Dubautia menziesii. Less impressive in form it also grows near the crater rim. Both plants have evolved from a rather ordinary ancestral tar weed found in California which arrived on the Hawaiian Islands some time in the distant past.

The spiritual nature of Haleakala might also account for the longterm survival of silverswords because until modern times. In the past few people would have come here to simply wander.

Many tribal societies display belief systems that appear to the modern world little more than superstition, but there is often more to appreciate than most of us realise. In the modern world we continually walk in places where perhaps we shouldn’t, destroying the essence of a place by directly damaging fragile ecosystems.

Scientific research is essential to any conservation agenda, but there is another side to the story. Our continual erosive presence in wild places has become a problem: we believe that we have the right to roam wherever we like, often in numbers, with a total disregard to the wishes of local people. But it may be that what most of us regarded as primitive cultures, have belief systems that are more in line with the needs of the environment than our own, especially when they advocate limited access to places that have spiritual significance.

One flowering at the end of a long life of steady growth must be considered a success ending with the production of many thousands of seeds.
Flowering at the end of a long life of steady growth must be considered a success when it ends with the production of many thousands of seeds.

As outsiders we should always tread with care, especially when local people do so for reasons they can’t explain beyond extraordinary tales of the imagination. This way of thinking certainly makes good ecological sense high up on HaleakaIa, as silverswords may be damaged or die if the volcanic cinders around their roots are trampled. In a broad sense the environment here doesn’t look delicate, but in the finer details it is.

Similar myths and legends apply to other beautiful locations around the world. Many of us will visit them to fulfil personal challenges or inner needs. Often we are just tourists looking for fun. For whatever reason, our assumed levels of sophistication have masked our ability to notice the problems we are causing.

One of the great heroes of Polynesian mythology is Maui – his exploits are optimistic and culturally significant on the Island that bares his name.

A story passed down through the generations tells of an evening when the sun set too quickly – this annoyed Maui because the day had passed before all of the chores could be done, and so he hatched a plan. Aided by his brothers Maui would catch the sun in a net when it came up in the morning and refuse to let it go until an agreement had been reached for the sun to move more slowly across the sky. To everybody’s surprise Maui succeeded in his ambitious plan.
Modern day heroes of mythological proportions will cycle up the volcano. It can take 6 hours, although going down is easier... providing the brakes hold out.
Modern day heroes of mythological proportions will cycle up the volcano. It can take 6 hours. Going down is easier… providing the brakes hold out.

And so on a clear day up at the top of Haleakala, it is possible if you stand in the right place, to watch the sun come up and go down without obstruction from foreground hills, mountains or volcanos and in consequence the day becomes longer. But there is more… up here you see a more distant horizon – the sun rises earlier in the east and sets later in the west. Effectively, the higher you go, the longer the day. Polynesian mythology is closely tied to the natural world and local people may have appreciated this, and it makes perfect sense when Polynesian legend claims this place as ‘The Sacred House of the Sun’.

Remember that if you take a picture that might one day help save the planet… tread carefully… even if you don’t know exactly why you should.

For further details of the Tarweed family see:http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ww0903b.htm

For park details on the silversword:

Also, ‘Silver Swords in Bloom’:

With thanks to Dr. Roger Jones for introducing me to Haleakala.