Wild Hawai'i 2018 Trip Report

By Todd Pierce on Jun 04, 2018

There are few places I’ve been to on this planet as dynamic as the Big Island of Hawaii. Its diverse climatic zones, weather, vegetation, and dramatic elevation changes make it one of the most interesting locations in the world to photograph. It’s also one of the most challenging locations, where permission to photograph is granted or denied by ever-changing weather and, in some cases, volcanic activity. Even with 5 full days for photography on tour, our group had a tall order to fill.

Hence, Day 1 of our Hawaii experience started dark and early with a 45-minute drive to shoot sunrise at Laupahoehoe State Park, a small but photogenic piece of coastline north of Hilo. As the sun rose through a gap between the horizon and a layer of soft tropical cumulus clouds, ocean waves thundered, splashed and danced through jagged volcanic rocks in the foreground. It was a perfect place to get the creativity flowing and get settled into our new environment.

Following sunrise, we made our way to the little town of Honomu for coffee and a quick bite to eat, then up the road to Akaka Falls, arriving well before the tour busses showed up. With a vertical drop of over 400 feet into a verdant canyon, Akaka Falls is one of the most scenic in all of Hawaii. A perfect mix of sun and clouds offered different lighting options for the falls and for the wide variety of foliage, blossoms and geckos we found along the trail.

Umauma Falls HawaiiA short drive back to the north brought us to an overview of Umauma Falls, a stunning triple-tiered waterfall set in a lush valley of mature palm and blossoming ohi’a lehua trees. Looking at this pristine landscape below us, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the island looked and felt like centuries ago.

That afternoon we boarded a high-speed catamaran to tour the volcanic formations along the Puna Coast. The rugged landscape along the coast is a dynamic and awesome reminder of the power and scale of Kilauea Volcano. While floating along the base of the sea cliffs, reaching as much as 100 feet in height, we were able to photograph newly-formed sea arches, ancient lava tubes and crashing waves from a unique perspective.

We began Day 2 among the tranquil surroundings of Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden north of Hilo. With over 2000 species of tropical plants, a cascading waterfall and paved trails, this 40-acre preserve is ideal for capturing some of Hawaii’s most beautiful and well-maintained flora. After a poolside lunch back at the hotel, we checked out and began our drive up to Volcano House, a classic and charming historical lodge set on the rim of the majestic Kilauea Caldera. From here, we spent the next two days photographing the otherworldly landscapes of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, including surreal lava fields and formations, ancient rift zones, the glowing Kilauea Caldera, expansive coastlines, and a 200-yard-long lava tube.

Photographing by helicopter over KilaueaDay 3 began with my absolute favorite highlight of the tour—a stunning and exhilarating door-off helicopter tour of Kilauea’s volcanic landscapes. Flying over lava fields, both ancient and active, is an unparalleled photographic experience. No other platform provides such a dramatic perspective on this primordial landscape. It felt as if we had boarded a time machine to fly over the young Earth as it was forming billions of years ago. While hovering over an active lava flow burning into a forest, we could feel the heat from below while the air smelled like a campfire. At the Pu’u O’o crater, breaks in the clouds of steam allowed brief glances straight down into the crackling and bubbling lava lake just a hundred feet below. The experience left us speechless, wonderstruck and wanting more. Although the general consensus was that we needn’t do anything more after that to satisfy our Hawaii experience, we still had a lot left on the itinerary!

On the morning of Day 4, after a breakfast buffet overlooking the Kilauea Caldera, we headed west and then north along the Kona Coast toward our third destination in Waimea. Along the way, we stopped for a couple of hours at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach to find green sea turtles resting beside glassy tidal pools. Despite the periodic rain and noticeable increase in humidity and warmth, it all seemed appropriate to the mood of the subject material. With patience and respect, we were eventually able to move within several feet of the turtles without disturbing them in order to capture environmental portraits of these gentle creatures.

After lunch along the Kona Coast, we continued our drive north to Waimea, the agricultural center of the Big Island. Set in the picturesque, windswept saddle between Mauna Kea and the Kohala Mountains, the area is known for pastoral landscapes that more akin to Scotland or Northern California, for dynamic weather and light conditions, and for farm-to-table cuisine. We spent that evening photographing the windswept Parker Ranch where we were lucky to catch a blazing orange sunset over the pastures.

Tail flukes of humpback whalesOur last day on the Big Island began (after a strong cup of Kona coffee) on a 3-hour whale watching tour around the Kawaihae Harbor, a prime location on the leeward side of the island where humpback whales spend the winter months calving and nursing their young. Thanks to the experience and intuition of our adept captain Bill, the cooperative mood of the whales—and some pure luck—we had several amazing encounters as close as 20 feet. Long periods of inactivity were well worth the dynamite explosions of a full breach or the transfixing experience of a full-size whale passing just feet below our boat.

Weather on the Big Island is always the boss, often unpredictable and sometimes downright stubborn. As a result, we were denied access to Mauna Kea due to a persistent storm that maintained its grip on the nearly 14,000-foot summit. Ice, snow and fog closed the road and dashed any hopes of getting that experience of being on top of the world. However, with such a week full of amazing experiences, we were pretty content to wrap up our tour with more landscapes around Parker Ranch, and then the grandiose view overlooking the Waipio Valley on the north side of the island.

With so much diversity of weather, landscapes, elevations and climatic zones, it felt like we had just been on a whirlwind tour of five different countries, let alone a single island of only 4000 square miles. The Big Island is magical in so many ways, and a photographic treasure that is not to be missed.

Related Tags:  hawaii, humpback, kilauea, whales