The Big Island
I'm hiking across a field of black lava at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Off in the distance a roiling, billowing cloud of steam vaults into the sky as a river of lava reaches into the cooling sea. Hawaii is growing right before our eyes, and by the time we reach the shore and the flow, the active Kilauea Caldera will have added several feet of terra firma to the Big Island, the youngster in the Hawaiian Island chain.
Hidden beneath our feet, there was once a road. "No Parking" signs poke out from the lava. This is probably the one place in the world where no one could break such a roadside edict even if they wanted to. There's no path for us to follow, just the distant violent column of steam and acres and acres of black lava. Up close the lava has a blue sheen and comes in every shape imaginable. My favorite is the soft, sensual folds of pillow lava crinkling beneath our feet. As we get nearer, we can actually feel pockets of heat. "I like to come out here at night," says my guide, photographer David Fleetham. "That's when you can really see the fiery glow of the lava."
We get as close to the flow as possible and work our way upwind. We stay upwind because the popping, hissing steam cloud is filled with tiny droplets of hydrochloric acid and airborne particles of what is the equivalent of glass shards not generally part of a healthy daily regimen. We'd brought painter's masks to cover our mouths and noses just in case, but right now the offshore breeze favors us. Before us the earth strains through growing pains. The sight is at once dramatic and fierce, haunting and poetic. I can only imagine what is happening beneath the waves at the spot where two forces of nature collide.
The results of the hot hand of Mother Nature can be seen by divers. The entire seafloor offshore is built on this volcanic substrate, and the dive sites off Kona (as the west side of the island is known) are riddled with arches, lava tubes, striking caverns lit with streaks of light that slip through cracks in the ceiling, and ancient calderas that have been transformed into aquariums of wildly decorated butterflyfish, tangs, angelfish and triggerfish. In the silence of the vast Pacific, the violence that gave birth to this island world has been transformed into a blue wonderland.
Hawaii is also a crossroads. Humpback whales show up every year from November to March, filling the water with otherworldly refrains. Pilot whales, dolphins, mantas and sea turtles come in droves. For divers, Kona is a rite of passage. Almost from the moment one gets a C-card, Kona comes calling, and rightly so: It's a world all divers should experience. Like the song of the humpback whale, it will not soon be forgotten.