Updates from the Field: Swimming with Lava

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 they 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 Kilauea volcano. Emmy award-winning cinematographer Paul Atkins took his HD camera underwater to capture this rare event. He had to brave ocean water temperatures of 100 degrees to film fire underwater. First, check out the footage:

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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” that 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 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 1980s. This, combined with clear, calm weather on a usually turbulent coast, was the special set of conditions for which I had waited 25 years.

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 — as much as 100 degrees fahrenheit in places. A few feet beneath this scalding layer, however, the water was 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.

- Fred Kaufman
Executive Producer

  • jim whalen

    Outstanding! This is what I expect fromNature.

  • Phil Pitelka

    Fantastic description of what this is like. Are you going to post any more of the footage?

  • Jennifer

    Wow, awesome video!

  • ann culpepper

    I am constantly grateful to PBS for content like this.

  • Shane Turpin
  • christy

    great movie ill never see a volcano for shure but stiil cool vidio

  • matt

    Holy Cow, HOT WATER

  • nilanka

    this web is one of the best in the world

  • Mark Gordon

    Awesome footage…looks like those charcoal snakes on the 4th of July….good stuff!

  • pdxdiver

    great footage and interesting article. maybe by now you’ve learned some gas management skills so you won’t run the risk of running out of air so easily.

  • jonathan

    nice video

  • Victoria

    It is now confirmed that Paul is a superhero!!

  • Dag Vongraven

    I would rather recommend the cold waters off Lofoten, Paul. But stunning footage and performance.

  • Gae Rusk

    My comment disappeared before finished, if another shows up. As I was saying … These filmmakers continue to produce mind-expanding, beautiful and provocative work by surviving all kinds of hot water. This imbues their films with a risk-laden glow that tickles my nerves and makes me want more.

  • Lucia Tarallo Jensen

    Oh my! All that is missing is Paul’s red cape!!! I this point in my life not so overwhelmed by nature, for I know its possibilities…but, oh my, I am overwhelemed by Paul!!! Imua mamua my friend!!! You are a marvel.

  • Ruk Tae

    What a group of underwater cinematographers!

    Amazing video both by paul and the cameramen chasing him I’d imagine!! Quite a once in a lifetime experience. All these divers really put their lives on the line!

    To them I tip my hat!!

  • Ruth V

    Awesome! Just Awesome!

  • Denise

    I was just in Hawaii and saw the steam coming up from the ocean. We were about 6 miles away and it was impressive from that point. This video is amazing.

  • Brian Trenchard-Smith

    Paul shot both my Hawaiian based movies, so I know there is no challenge he cannot handle. But he certainly earns the Big Brass Balls Camera Award for this one!

  • Chris Albertson

    Great shoots but very poor dive planning. The dive should have been planned as an overhead dive using the same equipment and technique as if in a cave or under ice. Doubles, “rule of thirds” and the whole deal. Still, great footage

  • C. Diaz

    Paul Atkins is a stud.

  • matt

    Very very very very very nice

    How do you do all this?

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  • H Lee

    I was trying to figure out what type of camera you were using in this shoot. It is very large. Also, were there special considerations that had to be made due to the water temperature? Was any special maintenance required? Did any part of the camera need to be replaced due to the hot water dive. Thank you anyone who might know the answers to these questions. Hopefully Mr. Atkins, genius or one of his co-geniuses would be kind enough to take time to answer this, If not, anyone skilled in such matters I would love to hear some feedback. Thank you.

    H. Lee (1000 plus hours fresh water diving), (600 plus ocean diving), (150 hours night diving)
    Certified in 1972, I dive just for fun, not expert at anything.
    San Diego, CA

  • underwater camera

    Hey all I am looking for a good underwater camera for a girlfriend of mine. I know I could always go ask someone at a shop but I really donโ€™t want a salesmanโ€™s point of view. What Iโ€™m looking for is the makes and models of some good ones and if you know the price range too that would be great.
    She is a diver so this will be used more than just a one time thing.
    OK sorry more details needed I guess. She dives and I need a camera that can go at about 100ft down

  • Jeff Swick

    I read Paul’s account of his lava dive with great interest. Did he mean to say 100 dgrees Centigrade? 100 degrees Fahrenheit is simply 1.4 degrees F above body temperature which would hardly be “scalding”, but rather “hot tubbish”. Nevertheless, Paul is a brave man, and I thank him for sharing the wonders of our world.

  • Richard Chamberlin

    This was an amazing shoot and a lot of fun. Great footage to be proud of.
    Thanks for the experience.

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