Hawaiian Hot Shots
Each winter the world’s best photographers flock to Hawaii’s North Shore to shoot the waves breaking the volcanic lava reefs that rim the islands. Almost two years ago local lensmen CJ Kale and Nick Selway took the challenge a step further, swimming out into the surf next to an active lava flow. Last Sunday they posted some of the pictures, the first in-water images of waves breaking onto lava, on Facebook, where they got 1300 likes, 180 shares and 100 comments. We tracked down CJ to find out about the shoot...
CW - Can you tell us a bit about the active volcanism in the Islands? What are the lava fields like and where do they meet the ocean?
CJ Kale - All the Hawaiian Islands are formed by one volcanic hot spot. This spot comes up through the center of the pacific plate and as the plate moves a few inches every year its location on the plate is changed. The islands slowly build up from the sea floor over millions of years and as the spot moves new islands are formed while old islands slowly erode away into atolls this can be see by looking at both ends of the chain. Midway atoll to the north west (old) and Big Island of Hawaii to the south east (new) and being born now, and the newest island Loihi hasn't even broke the surface of the water yet.
The active lava is on the Big Island and under the sea at Loihi. Lava flows will make their way from the vents on the sides of the mountains to the sea. The river of lava will crust over forming lava tubes insulating the lava from the cooler air and allow it to keep its 2000 degree temperature all the way to the sea when these two forces meet it can be quite a violent display.
When did you first start photographing lava?
About 15 years ago off and on then steady for the last 10 years.
How many locations are there like this in Hawaii – where the lava meets the ocean?
Most of the coastline is jagged cliff left over from the many bench collapses. When the lava hits the ocean it breaks into many small pieces (volcanic glass, cinder and lava bombs) the lava will then build on top of this loose material and after awhile of being hit by surf and currents the loose material will be removed and the bench will collapse under its own weight into the sea, leaving a shear cliff. The cinder and volcanic glass will eventually over many years be rolled smooth into black sand and a beach can form. The beach that Nick and I entered on was a small patch of Kalapana black sand beach that was left after Kalapana was covered by lava over the years.
Five years before I did this shot I jumped in off a beach that had formed on the edge of a bench. By the time I came back with a surf housing the bench and beach had fallen into the sea. Glad I wasn't in the water then. The Idea was in my head though, so all I had to do was wait. I waited over five years. Then my photographic partner Nick Selway and I were able to get in the water three out of six days that we went down. Finally the beach was covered by lava and now the next closest beach that the lava could ever hit again is over 8 miles away from where it normally hits the sea. Who knows if we will ever get another chance to shoot the lava like this again.
How long was the window of light when you could capture the shot?
The best light was just as the sun was rising but we stayed in longer each day.
Tell us about swimming around the lava outflow.
I entered the water first to make sure it was still doable as I was the only one who had done this before. The water dissipates heat very quickly but remember the lava is 2000 degrees so it flash-boils the water that it hits. We would vary our distance from the lava to control the heat. The more volume that was hitting the sea the further we had to stay away, the less volume the closer we could get. The water was about 40 degrees (celcius) where we were, but it was boiling six metres in front of us. If we swam back another three metres it was about 32 degrees [the average water temperature in Hawaii is around 25 degrees]. The floating lava bombs and volcanic glass were the biggest concern. I also scuba dived on the flow before - the heat rises into the surface water so we could view the flow like a roof above us – but I had only swum in the surface water on one other occasion before this.
What sort of equipment did you use to capture these images?
These were shot using a Canon 5d mark 2, Canon 15 mm fisheye and my favorite surf housing made by SPL (now lava tested).
Are there any special considerations when shooting around Lava?
The lava is ever-changing. It can be safe one moment and life threatening the next. You have to stay on your toes and be ready for anything. Always have an escape route in you mind in case conditions change. And never get to caught up just by what’s in front of you as conditions can change behind you as well.
Here are some examples of CJ's Photography:
Tell us a bit about your career as a photographer.
I have been shooting from my childhood days but really got serious about 15 years ago. I have always liked extreme photography I take pride in truly risking my life for my work not just pretending to be hardcore while standing at a viewing area on TV. I photograph all over the world but I am at home on the active lava field or in the ocean in pounding surf or playing with sharks. Seven years ago I met my best friend and photographic partner Nick Selway and we opened a gallery together in Kailua Kona Hawaii and I have been living the dream from then on. I don't make a lot, and am not world famous, but I get to follow my passion everyday. And I get to do it with a great friend who is always there to watch my back in extreme situations. Last year I dropped into a lava tube on my way out and fell 20 feet into the tube, shattering my ankle. Nick and my buddy Don were there to help me hike back out after I climbed out. We strapped my foot to my leg with a tripod, camera strap and a belt. Four hours after falling in I was in surgery getting a plate, 7 screws and 2 pins. It slowed me down for a while but two months later I was using a cane to get into the surf with one fin and my SPL. A lot of the extreme shots Nick and I get are possible because we watch each other’s backs and can then get into even more extreme locations.
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