Swimming with Lava

May 15th, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: Fred Kaufman, Executive Producer, Nature

NATURE on-location in Hawaii:

Being in the wrong place at the right time is a necessity when filming volcanoes. Unlike wild animals that tend to run and disappear at the first sight or smell of a human, lava flows are unpredictable, quite dangerous and come right at you.

Good thing I wasn’t around for the filming of this extraordinary sequence of lava dripping into the ocean where it expands, pops and explodes for our upcoming film on Hawaii’s Kilaeua volcano. Emmy award-winning cinematographer Paul Atkins took his HD camera underwater to capture this rare event. He had to brave ocean water temps of 100 degrees to film fire underwater. First, check out the footage:

Here’s Paul’s account of the experience:

    a rare opportunity
    Normally, quality underwater images of lava entering the sea on the “Big Island” of Hawaii are next to impossible to obtain. Once the lava really gets pumping in a location, the scene below the surface is too unstable and dangerous, and the water visibility is reduced to almost zero. As the flow continues, the lava hardens and forms a massive ‘bench” which periodically collapses — certain death for any divers caught in the ensuing underwater turbulence.

    catching the flow
    The key is to catch a lava flow in its early stages before a bench forms, within the first few days of entering the sea.

    In this case, the ocean-entry lava flow had stopped for several weeks. Suddenly, a fresh surface flow rolled down Kilauea volcano and began to sizzle into the ocean again. The sea bottom at this spot was relatively old, meaning it had not experienced a lava flow since the early 1980’s. This, combined with clear, calm weather on a usually turbulent coast, was the special set of conditions I had waited 25 years for.

    The first challenge was picking a place to position our boat and enter the water. Out in front of the flow, the ocean surface was steaming hot, in places as much as 100 degrees fahrenheit. A few feet beneath this scalding layer, however, the water is much cooler. The plan was to slip under the hot layer, and swim in the cooler water toward the lava flow at the coast, navigating by compass if necessary.

    getting out
    In a way, lava diving is similar to ice or cave diving. In an emergency — if you run out of air, for instance — you can’t make a vertical ascent and come up. There’s a ceiling of scalding hot water looming above. You must save enough air to navigate out from under this ceiling before you can surface.

    Our filming went well on the first dive, and we got fantastic shots of bizarre pillow lavas forming and exploding in clear, blue water. We thought we saved enough air pressure, 500psi, to make it out. But, as we swam toward our boat, we realized we had a problem. Each time we attempted to come to the surface — sticking one hand up to test the temperature — it was too hot and we had to retreat. We kept trying for 100 yards out. Nothing. The scalding hot ceiling had expanded while we were down under. We couldn’t come up for air and my air pressure was down to next to nothing, less than 20psi.

    For a moment, I thought the rare footage we had just shot would never see the light of day. I looked at my dive buddy, Richard Pyle, and we just shrugged. No choice. We went up through the hot water. By some miracle, we surfaced in a cooler spot — I don’t know where it came from. It was hot enough to steam up our masks, but not enough to boil skin.

Thanks, Paul.