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The left-handed hermit crab, one of the many creatures living in Hawai'i's intertidal zone
Vol. 11, No. 6
December 2008/January 2009

  >>   Teaching Aloha
  >>   Inside Fortress O'ahu
  >>   What Lies Beneath

Restless Mountain 

story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Olivier Koning

Shane Turpin cuts the throttle and lets the boat drift down on the writhing column of steam and ash. This is where the lava flows into the sea, and it’s an awesome and infernal scene. From this close, the gigantic plume seems alive, coiling and coiling upon itself as the trade winds blow it low over the steaming water. Sea witches—delicate, evanescent water spouts—undulate like tentacles from its dark underbelly. And, at its churning center, a seemingly endless succession of explosions pummel the shore with a hailstorm of scoria and splattered lava.

“That’s Madam Pele,” Turpin says, hoisting a video camera to his shoulder.

Turpin, the owner of Lava Ocean Adventures, is obsessed with lava. He likes to get close to it. He likes to smell its sulfurous fumes. Under the right circumstances, he’ll even touch it. He and his father are famous for scuba diving on the flow; in grainy YouTube footage, you can see the two of them underwater using stout gaff hooks to sculpt the livid pillows of lava. For people like Turpin, the recent lava flow has been a bonanza. Over the last several months, it’s been flowing almost continuously, pouring from the Pu‘u o‘o vent high on the flanks of Kïlauea and running down along the old Royal Garden flows and into the sea. For most of that route, it’s buried in a lava tube, a kind of natural plumbing that forms when a tongue of lava hardens on the outside but continues to flow underneath. For real lava hounds like Turpin, the place to see actual, flowing lava is here off the Big Island’s wild Puna Coast.

Probably no one has been here as much as Turpin. Several times a week, at the helm of a battered old tour boat he calls the Lava Cat, he brings small groups of visitors to view the spectacle. Today, continuous steam explosions obscure the lava. Turpin lets the boat drift in the afternoon swells just beyond range of the falling debris while we watch for a glimpse of lava in the surging plume. Suddenly, a shift in the wind parts the column of steam, and we all stare with amazement into the incandescent maw of a fresh spatter cone. It might as well be the center of the earth.