Lava tours only see slight drop in passengers despite accident

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Tourists board a Kalapana Cultural Tours lava boat Friday in Wailoa Boat Harbor in Hilo.

The flow of tourists to the lava ocean entry slowed but did not stop last week after a tour boat was hit by a “lava bomb,” injuring 23 passengers.

The boat, one of two operated by Lava Ocean Tours, was hit by debris from an explosion, possibly caused by the rupture of an underwater lava tube that’s part of the eruption on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone.

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Owner Shane Turpin has not returned phone calls since the incident off the Puna coast last Monday, which remains under investigation. He told the Associated Press the boat was about 250 yards from the lava.

Andrew Dunn, a captain with another company, Kalapana Cultural Tours, which also operates boat tours to the ocean entry from Hilo, estimated they had seven cancellations because of the incident as of Friday.

At the time, their boat, which has a capacity of 39, was about to leave with 35 passengers.

“Prior to that accident it was full everyday,” he said. “So there’s been a slight drop.”

Passenger Benjamin Menz, who was visiting from Germany, said he heard about the incident but wasn’t deterred.

“I think the danger is big but I think they are looking, this company is looking to keep all the passengers safe, I think,” he said.

The U.S. Coast Guard introduced a 300 meter (328 yard) barrier around lava ocean entries in 2017, when lava from Pu‘u ‘O‘o was flowing into the water at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Tour boat companies, which were operating out of Pohoiki at the time, objected and were granted exemptions as long as they met certain criteria and reported when they were crossing that limit.

The 300-meter limit was reinstated for all boats on Monday.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Muir said how close tour operators could get changed depending on conditions.

As of May 5, approved operators could get as close as 100 meters to where lava was entering the ocean, she said. That was reduced further to 50 meters on July 11 at the request of Lava Ocean Tours.

Muir said the Coast Guard checks with scientists before making such changes. Janet Babb, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory spokeswoman, said she didn’t know if they were consulted.

An HVO report dated July 15 notes that hydrovolcanic explosions have been occurring without warning up to 100 meters offshore.

“They burst through the water, sending fragments of lava and hot water as high as 25 meters to hundreds of meters,” the document says. “It is likely they are caused by the underwater emplacement of ‘a‘a lava where large amounts of molten lava suddenly comes in contact with seawater during collapse of a lava conduit.”

Will Bryan, who received minor injuries from the explosion, said there were smaller explosions where lava was hitting the water before the big one occurred.

He said he was surprised they kept getting closer.

“Everyone was getting a little nervous,” said Bryan, who was visiting from Portland, Oregon, with his girlfriend, Erin Walsh.

He said a smoke plume increased from 10 to 30 feet. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, that plume is huge,’ and then it happened,” Bryan said.

“I remember seeing the rock fly at me, and the first thing I did I turned around and stood up so I could cover my girlfriend. I remember it hitting me in the back. It went pitch black on the boat.”

A rock, which he estimated a was a foot in diameter, landed on a woman, breaking her femur. The captain used a jacket to clear the rock from the boat.

Bryan estimated they were about half of a football field or more from the ocean entry.

He said passengers were helping each other on the ride back, which took about two hours, and he credited the crew for how they handled the situation.

“The crew did a good job doing what they could in such a crappy situation,” Bryan said, noting a crew member gave him his jacket to help stop the bleeding on his leg.

“I think (Turpin) tried his best,” he said. “It’s one of those things there’s nothing you can say to make anybody feel good about it. You could tell he was genuine when he was apologizing.”

Turpin was previously fined $15,000 by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources for using two boats at Pohoiki when only one was permitted at that site. A DLNR spokesman said both of his boats were approved for use at the Wailoa small boat harbor in Hilo.

Bryan said he wouldn’t discourage people from going on one of the boat tours.

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“It’s hard to say not to see it,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful thing.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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