Chasing the Lava Flows

Lady Lava Rules Hawaii's Big Island

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I first heard of the volcano goddess Pele (pronounced PAY-lay) during a science lesson in elementary school, but I hadn't given her much thought since then. After spending several weeks on the Big Island of Hawaii, I now realize that the temperamental deity of ancient Hawaiian legend is more than a mythical figure. Maybe she hasn't been around in physical form for a thousand years, but you wouldn't know it by the way people talk about her.

During a recent lava boat tour along Puna's southeastern coast, I heard a man named Gerry speak to her directly like he was talking to a real person. "Come on, Pele, give us a show," Gerry pleaded. "We'll give you gin ...flowers ...cigarettes ... anything you want!" Gerry Rant and "Captain Fab" were in charge of the Lava Wolf, a 7-passenger lava-hunting motorboat.

We were embarking on a 2-1/2 hour sunset adventure seeking live lava pouring explosively into the Pacific Ocean. I didn't get the jaw-dropping spectacle I anticipated, but I came away with an appreciation for something more profound.

The ride out from the boat launch at Isaac Hale Beach Park was choppy, yet scenic and exciting. The sunlight was golden, the sea was a glistening aquamarine color, and a mini rainbow appeared on the horizon -- a colorful spectrum shooting up from the intersection of sky and sea. I sucked in a quick, audible breath. Something about rainbows ...

As we rode parallel to the black lava cliffs, Gerry and Fab pointed out some interesting sights: the supposedly haunted McKenzie State Park where Gerry said he saw a ghost; an upscale neighborhood known as "the La Jolla of Puna"; a clothing-optional black-sand beach ("Hey, put your clothes on!" Gerry teased the beachgoers); and Fab's "pet whale," Bubbles, who turned out to be a painting on a water tank behind someone's house.

After 45 minutes, we arrived at an area along the cliffs where the most recent volcanic activity was occurring. From about 40 feet away, we saw steam rise from the hot, black lava rocks, ballooning into clouds every time the cooled seawater smashed against the scorched rocks. A glowing red slit of lava pushed through the rock.

The 2,100-degree molten lava heats the rock so intensely that it eventually breaks off and falls into the ocean. Hot magma then pours into the angry sea. But, Fab explained, it was impossible to predict when this would happen. It could be any minute, or it could be days. "Come on, break off!" a frustrated Gerry yelled at the rock.

According to Hawaiian legend, Pele was part of a large family living in Tahiti until her father exiled her for having a hot temper. Pele fled in a canoe to Hawaii and made many fiery volcanoes. But her sister Na-maka-o-Kaha'i, the goddess of the sea, followed her and flooded every volcano Pele made with a tidal wave. After Pele was killed by her sister, she became a goddess. Hawaiians believe that Pele's spirit lives on the Big Island in the mighty volcano of Kilauea.

Pele is known for her violent temper. Some say she will place a curse on anyone who takes one of her lava rocks. A website offers information for people who want to return any rocks or sand they may have taken while visiting Hawaii to avoid the threat of bad luck. Many still honor Pele with offerings of booze, cigarettes and flowers to spare them from harm.

The U.S. Geological Survey claims Kilauea, which means "spewing" or "spreading," ranks among the world's most active volcanoes. It is classified as a shield volcano based on its low, broad profile created by a gradual buildup of thousands of thin layers of lava. The volcano has been continuously active since January 1983 along Kilauea's East Rift Zone, making it the longest rift-zone eruption in the last 200 years. A rift zone allows lava to be erupted along the volcano's flank instead of at its summit.

Since 1983, lava flows have destroyed hundreds of homes and taken dozens of lives in communities along the southeastern coast of the Big Island. Lava has also buried the villages of Kalapana and Kaimu in the Puna region, and covered the black-sand beaches at Kaimu Bay.

Back on the boat tour, Pele was in an uncharacteristically quiet mood . As the sun was setting, it didn't look as if the lava was going to start pouring into the ocean anytime soon, so we headed back home. The passengers, as well as Gerry and Fab, all felt disappointment. We did not experience the awe-inspiring show we'd hoped for. Gerry even uttered a few "sorrys" as we climbed off the boat and headed for our cars.

But we all knew it wasn't Gerry's fault. He doesn't control the volcano. A fiery female with a millennium of experience does, and it's best left that way.

Several companies on the Big Island offer guided motorboat tours to see the lava. Prices start at $165/person. Sunrise, sunset and moonlight tours are available.

Hawaii Lava Boat Tours
Lava Ocean Adventures
Kalapana Lava Boat
LavaBoat.com
Lava Roy's Ocean Adventure Tours