We went on a lava boat tour and this was our experience

It's an unforgettable adventure that leaves you in reverence of Mother Nature.

It’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m sitting in the second row aboard the Ohana, a covered aluminum catamaran, en route to see 2,000-degree lava plunging into cool seawater. We’ve been bouncing along the choppy ocean for about 30 minutes when, in the distance, the sky transforms from inky black to a radiating reddish-orange. A collective “Whoa” is heard on board. We are halfway to our destination and although the sun has yet to rise, the glow from the lava creates its own light show in the dark early morning sky. 

A lava boat tour with Kalapana Cultural Tours is an intimate experience that left me in reverence of Mother Nature. The company is Native Hawaiian owned and operated by Ikaika Marzo and Andrew Dunn. The two are familiar with Kilauea’s power; their families come from Kalapana, a cozy residential town along the eastern shore of the island that once was a historic Hawaiian fishing village. It has been impacted by lava more than once.

On a cool, overcast Thursday morning, Marzo captains the Ohana to the now obliterated Kapoho Bay, also on the eastern shore of Hawaii Island. The bay was a popular spot for Big Islanders and visitors, known for its calm waters, tidepools and diverse marine life for snorkeling. It’s also where, since June, the lava’s 8-mile journey to the sea culminates, filling the former bay and once again altering the island’s landscape. 

Getting to the lava flow’s ocean entry is not for the faint of heart, or those inclined to seasickness. It’s a one-hour boat ride from Hilo. Tours depart twice daily from Wailoa Boat Harbor next to the Suisan Fish Market; it ends in an immersive, pyrotechnic display you won’t forget. It’s even better when you endure the early morning wake-up and book the 4 a.m. tour. 

As the sun rises, the bright orange and red reflected in the laze are becoming muted by the brightness of day.
Photo: Jack Wolford

It’s still dark when we arrive at what was once Kapoho Bay. Marzo inches about 300 yards off the coast as Dunn narrates the scene in front of us. I immediately get chicken skin, in awe of being up close to something so destructive yet so mesmerizing. I see the red, orange and yellow lava before it reaches the deep blue sea. The flow is entering the ocean from around a dozen points. At the most dramatic spots, it’s fast and explosive, while in other areas, it sluggishly oozes. Dunn tells us the lava is seeping around 200 feet into the sea. The smell from the rolling white steam plumes fill my nose as they rise hundreds of feet in the air. We even feel the steam explosions along the shore, as small thuds vibrate the underside of the boat. Dunn explains that we’re not in danger; it occurs when lava interacts with ocean. 

We cruise around the ocean entry for an hour. Five minutes after we leave the lava flow site, Marzo stops the Ohana. He’s spotted two bottlenose dolphins. The mammals swim alongside the boat, only adding to our already incredible adventure. As we make our way back to the harbor, the sun is up and peeking through the clouds. I get lost in my thoughts, thinking about the community impacted by the eruption, while simultaneously in wonder at its beauty. That’s the power of the lava. 

(Editor’s Note: Kalapana Cultural Tours was not the operator involved in the July 2018 incident in which a boat was hit by lava. As of press time, all tour boat operators are still running and business remains steady.)

Tour Info

$250 per person, departure times: 3:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily, kalapanaculturaltours.com

Categories: Activities, Hawai‘i Island