Zen and the Art of Lava Hunting
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Wednesday, May 30, 2018
By Gregory Cuvelier
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ISO 2000


Full Frame Sensor



Unedited single exposure directly from my camera



    I heard the chime of my alarm, but it felt surreal. I finally woke up and looked at my iPhone, it was 1:45 AM, and my alarm was calling for me me to get out of bed. I heard the ocean, and the palm fronds percussively beating against each other. I felt the breeze on my face, and I could smell the sea air. My body didn't want to get up, but my mind knew I would regret it if I didn’t. I turned over to say goodbye to my wife, but she wasn’t there. I sat up, and I heard her making coffee for me in the kitchen. I’m lucky, I know. I packed my gear and prepared for the drive, followed by the 6-mile hike over the lava fields to the G61 ocean entry. The Volcano Goddess Pele



had recently awakened from her slumber, and I was hoping she would smile upon us that day. My local guide, Bruce, picked me up at 2 AM and welcomed me with a shaka gesture . We arrived at the lava fields around 3 AM, and started our journey into the night. We were trying to use our red headlamps to protect our night vision, but they didn’t provide much light for navigating over the rough terrain. After walking for a while, I checked my iPhone. I felt like we must be getting close to the lava flow, however, we had only travelled a mile and a half and I realized there was still a long way to go. At this point, some words from Robert Frost entered my mind. 


“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep…. ~Robert Frost


         Bruce looked up at the inky sky and asked me if I could identify a constellation. I recognized the shape, but I could not name it. After some debate, we agreed it was the Southern Cross.





    Hawaii is the only US state where you can see the Southern Cross and the North Star together in the night sky.


         We were finally getting closer, and I saw the huge smoke plume from the lava entry into the ocean. I could feel the wind at our back, which was good because this was blowing the steam plume generated by the lava entering the ocean away from us. However, I could still smell the sulfur. Bruce handed me a respirator mask, and told me to be prepared to don it if the wind shifts. The plume carries sulfur dioxide (SO2), which can cause permanent scarring to your lungs if it is breathed in. Furthermore, when the 2,000 - 3,000 degree Fahrenheit lava falls into the ocean, you get another chemical reaction. Salt water consists of water (H2O) and salt/sodium chloride (NaCL). The hot lava vaporizes the salt water, and you end up with hydrochloric acid (HCL) in vapor form. The warm vapor rises and then condenses as it cools manifesting itself as acid rain over the ocean. It is a little surreal seeing a cloud of acid rain over the ocean. I paused for a moment and was in the process of pondering this when Bruce told me to be prepared to use the umbrella as a shield from any volcanic ash or airborne silica that might blow our way. If there was a wind shift, we also needed to be prepared to cover ourselves quickly. We were traveling to the recent G61 ocean entry lava flow, where a bench collapse occurred only 2 weeks ago on New Years Day, 2016. The collapse swallowed 26 acres of volcanic bench and 4 acres of the lava fields into the ocean. We were walking adjacent to that area, and I noticed that Bruce was tapping the lava field with his umbrella. I was laughing to myself because it looked like some form of primitive seismic testing. It was not quite as funny when I queried Bruce, and he told me he was listening for hollow reverberations, which may indicate a collapse or unstable ground. He was serious, and told me the story of how this process had literally saved his life before. I must have had a look of concern on my face, but Bruce showed me the shaka gesture to instill some semblance of calm within me.  We continued to approach the plume. It was completely dark out, and the silica glass on the lava field was extremely slippery. I considered everything that could go wrong, and started to question the sanity of this endeavor, but the thrill of seeing the lava kept my adrenaline pumping. When we looked over the 80’ cliff, all we could see was a plume of white smoke, and I was disappointed. Then, the wind shifted slightly, and revealed a huge gush of lava pumping out of the cliff like a fire hose.


    Before I could even start to get my camera out, the smoke plume returned, and the lava was gone. There was a rather large crack on the rock where we were standing, so we dropped back to what we hoped was a safer location. Once we got our cameras set up, the first order of business was to set our iso, aperture, and shutter speed. This was a little bit of a guessing game because the scene intermittently went from pitch-black smoke, to white smoke, and then to bright glowing lava. There was a huge dynamic range to deal with in this environment. Furthermore, the scene was constantly changing. Therefore, it was difficult to get our camera settings dialed in correctly. We also had to try to achieve focus manually, which is difficult if not impossible when the scene is dark. Then, the wind shifts allowed only a 2-3 second opportunity to set your focus on the lava. If you missed the opportunity, the cycle repeated and you had to wait for the next lava burst to try and obtain focus. This was frustrating because you couldn’t start shooting until you completed this step. Finally, after about 15 minutes, we obtained focus, and then it was a waiting game for the next clear shot. Bruce was shooting a Canon 1D, and could whip off about 14 frames per second. His camera sounded like a silenced machine gun going off during each lava opening. My Canon 5D plodded along at about 5 frames per second, but it was getting the job done. It was about 4:30 am, and we had a couple of hours to shoot before the sun started to rise and the crepuscular rays showed up on the horizon. Shortly after that, the light becomes harsh, and the good photography light would be gone for the day. It is important for me to occasionally take a break from the technical aspects of photography and simply enjoy being in the moment without worrying about capturing the perfect image. To truly live in the moment and appreciate what Mother Nature is offering to us. This is where the Zen and technology continuum truly intersect, and you start to understand that you are not in control. Mother Nature will dictate the terms, and you are simply a Nano-cog in the wheel of life. Like my dog Chui, I have learned to enjoy the sunbeams in life, and worry less about things I can’t control.


    The time passed quickly and before we knew it, the sun had started to rise. It was a bittersweet experience and the sunrise was beautiful, but we both realized that the lava photography was over for the day. However, we were thankful for the amazing display Pele put on for us. As we started the long walk back to the truck, Bruce picked up some volcanic lava scale to show me. On one side, it is black, but the other side has green, blue, and gold crystals.



It is very beautiful, and I quickly dubbed it Pele’s jewelry. I wanted to collect a sample to put in my little Zen garden at home. I asked Bruce about taking a piece of the rock, but he informed me that local legend says it is very bad luck to collect the rocks. I am not superstitious, but I wanted to respect the local customs, so I put the rock back down. Bruce picked it up and gave it back to me. He told me, I can’t collect the rock, but he is giving it to me as a gift so it is okay to accept it. That made me smile, and I thanked him for it. After thinking about it more, I decide it probably isn’t appropriate to take Pele’s jewels, and I put the rock back down. Bruce later explained that after the rock is exposed to oxygen for a while, the color starts to fade. Next, Bruce bent over to pick up some of Pele’s hair to show me. Thin droplets of lava that have been squirted into the air and then cooled rapidly create Pele’s hair resulting in something that looks exactly like human hair.  



    As we were walking out, I couldn’t help but think what a swath of death and destruction occurs when lava flows over the landscape. It almost looks like the surface of Mars. Then, I noticed little ferns starting to grow from the cracks of the lava, and what I thought was death and destruction, was actually bringing about new life. 





The lava is rich in nutrients, but due to its density, only certain species of plants can survive in its aftermath.



             With every hill I crested, I was looking for Bruce’s pickup truck, but it was never in sight. I was tired and anxious to get back to the truck, but there was nothing to do but plod on. Suddenly, on the distant horizon, I saw a shimmering object. It was like a mirage, a pool of water in the desert. I looked over at Bruce excitedly, and he gave me a smile and a shaka, we were almost there! When we arrived, Bruce had snacks and Gatorade waiting for us, which we consumed quickly. Then, we unloaded our packs and started our way back home. We were rumbling down a gravelly road, and the stones were crunching under our tires. I had the window down, and a beautiful breeze was blowing in. There was no sign of humanity, only the lava fields, and new forms of life cropping up. I was happy and experiencing a Zen like euphoric state. I looked over at Bruce with a smile, and gave him a shaka. When we got back, I gathered my gear out of Bruce’s truck, and he came around to shake my hand. It was awkward because my hands were full, so Bruce gave me a hug. I looked at his face and smiled, knowing I had made a new friend that day. Bruce drove off and gave me a shaka out the window.






PS: As I walked back to my room, more of Robert Frost words came to me.


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference… ~ Robert Frost


Stay tuned for Part II of Zen and the Art of Lava Hunting as Bruce and I shoot Kilauea Caldera under the stars, and then go on a doors- off helicopter ride over exploding lava lakes. 

Leave a comment:
Greg Cuvelier - Hi Sherry,

Its great to hear from you. I hope all is well with you and your family. Thank you for leaving your comments. I always appreciate the feedback.

Sherry Verstraete - What a happy coincidence finding you and your passion for photography and gift for storytelling. Warm regards ....sherry
Greg Cuvelier - It's good to hear from you Jon. Take care and have fun in Zion!

Jonathan Miller - Beautiful pictures , as always. Thanks for sharing!
Summer - What a great story, thank you for taking us through your adventure