Wild Hawai'i 2017 Trip Report

By Todd Pierce on Apr 24, 2017

The Big Island of Hawaii left me a little speechless. In all my travels, I’ve never experienced a place with such fascinating variations of geography, weather, microclimates and vegetation. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it, but only leaves you wanting more. The island didn't fit my preconceptions of a soft tropical paradise at all. I found it to be raw, powerful and dynamic, fascinating and mysterious. The energy of the volcano is always palpable and bewitching, as is the rich culture and history of the Hawaiian people. All the way from my home in the Colorado Rockies, I already feel it drawing me back. 
Our tour began before dawn in the open-air lobby of our hotel in Hilo, from where we would base our adventures for the first couple of days. We had no problem with early morning starts, given that Hawaii’s time zone is a generous five hours behind the eastern US. We headed north to Laupahoehoe Beach Park where, on a typical morning, sunrise light illuminates waves splashing and dancing through jagged volcanic rocks. Although our first morning was rather cloudy, it yielded wonderfully moody images of this rugged section of coastline. After a relaxed “rain-delay” breakfast at a local coffee shop in Honomu, we visited Akaka Falls, a 420-foot-tall ribbon of water that plunges into a steep gorge lined with lush vegetation. The tranquil morning was a perfect way to greet the island, get some creativity flowing, and work out any technical glitches in preparation for an action-packed week ahead.
The action began right after lunch as we boarded the “lava boat,” a 40-foot open-air passenger catamaran with four 250 horsepower outboard motors. This sturdy US Coast Guard inspected vessel would ferry us along the Kalapana Coast at over 30 miles per hour until we reached one of the most amazing sights on the planet—glowing lava pouring into the ocean like a blazing waterfall. The experience of being in such close proximity to such a primordial process was mesmerizing, exhilarating and unforgettable. Thankfully we all left with hundreds of images and video clips as proof of it all.
As if attempting to outdo the pure exhilaration of the lava boat the day before, Day 2 began just before sunrise as we boarded two Hughes MD500E helicopters on the tarmac of the Hilo airport, located just 10 minutes from our hotel. With helicopter doors off, we set off in formation to the southwest as the sun rose over the Pacific. Within minutes we found ourselves hovering over lava fields and active flows along the eastern rift zone of Kilauea. The highlight of the flight was capturing wide-angle views of the fractured lava lake of Pu'u'Ō'ō Crater, where the radiating heat felt like someone had opened a giant oven door beneath us.
After all this action, the tranquility of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden was strangely alleviating. Photographing beautiful specimens of orchids, tropical plants, cascades and creeks grounded us before moving on to the higher elevations of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that afternoon. Perched on the edge of the Kilauea Caldera, Volcano House Hotel was the perfect base to access all the park has to offer. Over the following two days we explored otherworldly lava formations, stunning vistas, steam illuminated by sunrise light, and lava glowing from the Halema'uma'u Crater at dusk. Along the way, we experienced a wide range of elevation, weather, temperature and light conditions that only added to the depth and diversity of our images.
Day 5 of our Hawaiian adventure began with a visit to Punalu'u Black Sand Beach where we mingled with green sea turtles as they swam gently in warm tidal pools while crystalline blue waves pounded volcanic rocks nearby. After a scenic drive up the Kona Coast and checking into our lodge in Waimea in the afternoon, we enjoyed a more rural experience amongst the rolling hills of Parker Ranch as the sun glimmered off the ocean more than 3,000 feet below before disappearing over the ocean horizon in a flash of green.
The final day of our head-spinning tour proved to be a worthy bookend to a week that began with diversity and excitement. Shortly after breakfast at the Waimea Coffee Company, we boarded a boat on the warm, leeward side of the island to find and photograph gray whales and spinner dolphins in placid blue waters. After more than two dozen sightings and hundreds of images, we decided to relax a bit and drop the hydrophone into the water to listen to the whales. The beautiful cacophony of whale songs belied the relative stillness of the water’s surface. Even though we had no idea what was being said in this alien conversation, it felt peaceful, playful, intelligent and reassuring.
In contrast to the warmth of the morning’s boat trip, we spent the latter part of the day bundled up with jackets, gloves and hats, as we walked on patches of snow on the lunar-like landscapes of Mauna Kea. With our custom-built 4-wheel drive van, we made our way all the way to summit to photograph the drama of sunset from 13,800 feet above the ocean. To the east, the shadow of Mauna Kea projected down on the top of the cloud ceiling that covered the east side of the island like a wool blanket. To the west, the orange sun grew more saturated with every passing minute. The colors were as intense as the air was thin. It was a perfect finale to an amazing week.
In the end, it all seemed like a lucid dream, a whirlwind of sights, sounds and feelings so divergent you would swear they were all from different countries or continents. The Big Island of Hawaii is fascinating and addicting, a place like no other on our planet.