Wild Hawaii 2019 Trip Report

By Todd W. Pierce on Apr 02, 2019

I can think of only one place on the planet where you can photograph a golden sunrise along a rocky, tropical shore at nearly 80°F, then sunset from 14,000 feet above the clouds at 25°F—all in the same day! That place of course, is the Big Island of Hawaii—a land of extremes, diversity, unexpected beauty and ruggedness. Its landscape, driven by powerful volcanic forces over eons, is as dynamic as its weather and light are over the course of a single day.
 
With each passing year, our photo tour to this magical island has been refined to take full advantage of all it has to offer—from the land, sea and air. It amazes me every time. And as one participant recently put it, the tour, “shattered all my preconceptions of what Hawaii was like” (in the best way, of course!)
 
Waves crash along beach on the Big Island of Hawai'iOur first day began with a sunrise at the Puna Coast along the southeast side of the island. When the tide is just right, waves hit the glittering, black lava rock shore in such a way that water splashes 20 feet in the air. The effect is mesmerizing and photographically addictive. It’s a wonderful introduction to the energy of the island.
 
After a delicious lunch at our modern and upscale Grand Naniloa hotel, we loaded our warmest layers of clothing, hats, gloves and supplies into our 4x4 van and began the long ascent to the 13,800-foot summit of Mauna Kea. The steady rain, fog and dim light from Hilo to the visitors center at 9,000 feet was no detriment to our plan since we would soon be ascending above the heavy clouds, up into the rarified clear blue skies around the summit. Aerial photo of the Big Island Hawai'iSunset from that elevation reveals a stunning palette of color in all directions, along with the gentle, conical shadow of the mountain projecting into the atmosphere to the east.
 
However, as impressive as our 13,000-foot shooting platform above the clouds was, nothing compares to the shooting platform of a helicopter with the doors off. Perhaps the hands-down highlight of the tour, flying over the volcanic landscapes and coastlines of the island is always an unforgettable experience. And with a custom, flexible flight plan, experienced pilots, and no doors to get in the way, we obtained some of the most memorable images of the entire week.
 
Vegetation pushing through crack in hardened lavaThe next couple nights we stayed at the historic Volcano House Lodge, located at 4,000 feet in elevation on the rim of the Kilauea Caldera. This classic national park lodge is always a favorite, with creaky floors and expansive windows looking out over an unbelievably beautiful backdrop. From here, we set out on excursions to photograph backlit steam vents at sunrise, first light on neighboring Mauna Loa, astonishing lava formations, and sunsets over the jaw-dropping Holei Pali escarpment that swoops nearly 1,800 feet down to the Pacific Ocean.
 
To round out the full experience of the Big Island, our final hotel location in Waimea offered easy access to verdant ranch lands with fence lines, rolling fog, twisted eucalyptus stands, and views of Mauna Kea to the east and the Pacific to the west. More importantly, Waimea is just up the hill from Kawaihae Bay, where we chartered a brand new 40-foot boat to look for grey whales that winter in Hawaii every year. No matter the outcome, being in the company of these majestic creatures is an honor and a pleasure. With patience and persistence, we were able to capture several whales as they made brief yet impressive appearances above the water at close range. The perspective of the island from the water also offered additional photogenic opportunities as the sun set over the Pacific.
 
Triple-decker waterfall in Hawai'iThe final day of the tour began (after the perfect cup of Kona coffee) with a visit to the Waipio overlook, a quintessential view of a long curved beach and steep forested mountains dropping into the blue waters of the Pacific. Farther down the northeast coast, we photographed Umauma Falls, a triple-decker waterfall set in a pristine tropical forest, then Akaka Falls, a 400 vertical foot waterfall set on a mossy cliff face.
 
Looking back on the images from the week, it looks as if they were taken on 3 or 4 different photo tours to totally separate places on the globe. But that’s what makes this tour so special— it’s like three or four tours wrapped into one. All in one of the most interesting places on Earth.
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