Breakfast with Pele

My face glows with heat as our helicopter weaves through steamy clouds. Below, Pele's thick lava fingers ooze over the edge of jagged rocks to kiss the waves. The ocean explodes, and then evaporates, sending up smoke trails of steam and particles.

The Kilauea volcano on Big Island been brewing quietly for the past three years, but in May she boiled over, sending fat ribbons of scorching lava cascading down towards the ocean's edge. 

For those of you who aren't familiar with Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire & volcanos, she has a reputation for being quite.. capricious. Legend says you'll be cursed if you remove lava rocks from Volcanos National Park (and as I found out later, it's also illegal). I was skeptical, at first. During my first attempt to explore the park five years ago, I threw a couple sassy remarks at Pele. "Oh do your worst Pele, I'm not superstitious!"

I placed a small black lava rock in my pocket and turned to step away. As if on cue, my foot slipped on the wet rock, and I went flying face-first into the razor sharp A'a rock. "OK, OK, YOU CAN HAVE IT!" I shouted, hurling the rock out of my pocket with my bloodied arm. Needless to say, my relationship with Pele has taken on a much more respectful dynamic since our first encounter.

I recently had a chance to fly over the flow with helicopter pilot Kris Gourlay of 2 G Group and photographers Rob & Allie Cox of AquaNalu. From the helicopter, we could observe Pele's powers from a safe distance. 

The morning sun illuminates steam rising off rivers of lava.

Since the lava began flowing, Volcanos National Park has seen an increase in visitors to over 6,000 lava-lovers daily. Most are content to view the eruption from the park, but a few brave souls make the six hour approach by foot to get a closer look. 

Boat tours make their approach through boiling ocean waters.

A few brave hikers watch the morning sun stream through clouds of steam formed where the fire meets the ocean. These clouds, while beautiful, can also prove deadly. The plumes contain levels of hydrochloric acid, which can wreak havoc on a body, if inhaled for extended periods of time. In 2000, park rangers recovered two bodies inside Volcanos National Park. Their bodies showed no sign of trauma, and the rangers were stumped. But little bits of their skin were eaten away by acid rain, and an autopsy revealed they had died from swollen lungs, caused by inhaling large quantities of hydrochloric acid. For clouds such as these, they are best appreciated from a safe distance.

From the helicopter, we were able to avoid the clouds and still get some pretty spectacular views up close. I always assumed the lava would turn into black, hardened rock the moment it touched water, but it turns out the ocean is not able to cool the lava as fast as it enters. If you look closely, you can see orange fire continues to glow beneath the surface of the ocean.

The rocks form a variety of shapes as they meld with the water. This one resembled Darth Vader blowing smoke out of his mask. 

On the right, you can see waterfalls of lava trickling downwards.

From above, you can watch ocean waves kiss the newly hardened lava rock formations.

Skeletons of the trees killed by the lava flow are strewn across the newly formed rock surface.

But death creates new life. As we flew back towards Hilo, we soared over forests of new trees growing on land formed by lava flows from many years before. 

In the end, my second trip to visit Pele was much more friendly than my first. If you do go to check out the lava for yourself, it pays to do so with caution and respect.

You can consult the National Park for more information about conditions and safety precautions here: