As Blue Hawaiian helicopter pilot Wesley Wells flew between two 13,000ft mountains on the Big Island on Wednesday morning, 11-year-old Ian Garcia of Miami couldn’t believe his eyes.
To his left, atop Mauna Kea, he saw snow for the first time. Looking to his right, he saw another bright orange molten rock spurt out of Mauna Loa and down its massive slopes.
“You’re in luck. … You’re witnessing history,” Wells told Ian and his family.
Tourists who were already on the Big Island late Sunday night when Mauna Loa erupted for the first time in 38 years soon realized their timing was indeed lucky.
Watching red and orange lava flow over the largest active volcano in the world is an unforgettable experience. But for potential tourists who are far away, an erupting volcano can seem scary.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority and Hawaii County are working to publicize that the current location of the lava flow is in a remote area with no imminent threat to people or property – and scientists are not don’t expect her to become a danger.
“There’s no better time to come to the Big Island,” Mayor Mitch Roth said Friday.
Several flights were canceled to Hilo immediately after Mauna Loa erupted, when little was known how bad it would be. But by the end of the first day of the eruption, November 28, airlines were already resuming their normal schedules to the Big Island’s two main airports: Keāhole Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (KOA) and Keāhole Airport. Hilo International (ITO).
T. Ilihia Gionson, public affairs manager for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said Friday the agency did not have hard numbers on how the eruption affected tourism on the Big Island or around the world. ‘Aloha State, but she was getting a lot of questions.
“Is he still sure to come? Yes it is. Should I change my plans? No, you shouldn’t,” Gionson said. “Other than that, tourism has seen a very robust recovery, especially on neighboring islands, including the island of Hawaii. So too early to say if there are any big trends, but that’s what we have so far.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority issues regular updates with tourist information about the eruption.
The biggest concern is the lava that crosses Saddle Road, cutting through the main east-west corridor that connects the population centers of Kailua-Kona and Hilo. On Saturday the leading edge of the lava was about 2.5 miles away and moving very slowly.
But with all communities out of harm’s way, Mauna Loa’s eruption, with its glowing orange lava flowing down the northeast flank, has become a global tourist attraction, especially at night.
Companies like Blue Hawaiian strike when it’s hot, offering a new one-hour “Mauna Loa eruption tour.” The company also offers a longer 1 hour and 45 minute tour that includes a stop at a breathtaking waterfall and a flight over the lava flow.
“It’s amazing. We’re taking guests to see something that hasn’t happened in 40 years and who knows if it will ever happen again in our lifetimes,” said Quentin Koch, CEO and President of Blue Hawaiian. To have people from all over the world come to see history in the making is truly the chance of a lifetime.”
Wells, a Blue Hawaiian pilot for eight years, said Mauna Loa’s eruption was already more expansive than the 2018 eruption of nearby Kīlauea.
“There are two main flows and they kind of move through different areas and flow,” Wells said. “I can tell they are much wider and deeper but not as fast.
“He’s here right now and who knows when he might disappear. The lava is cooling rapidly and some flows already have a layer of hardened lava, that black stuff that is still close to 600 degrees Celsius. Below is orange, which is still flowing. … I love how excited people are to see it.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane said the park is operating normal hours and all scheduled ranger programs, events and other activities in the park are still ongoing. They include the Kamehameha Schools Holiday Concert on December 10, the Discover Your Park Through ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi program on December 11, and a performance by Grammy and Nā Hōkū award-winning artist Hanohano John Keawe on December 14.
For more information, click here. (http://www.nps.gov/hawaiivolcanoes).
Ferracane also said the national park is a great place to see two volcanoes erupting at the same time. Kīlauea also spews lava, in the Halemaʻumaʻu crater.
Simultaneous eruptions of both volcanoes occurred regularly prior to 1924, when Kīlauea was continuously active. But now it’s rare. According to the US Geological Survey (https://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/hawaii/page15.html), the only occurrence of double eruptions after 1924 was in March 1984, the last time Mauna Loa had erupted before Sunday.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority reminds visitors that viewing conditions may change at any time depending on eruptive activity and weather conditions such as fog or rain. Consider factors such as viewing experience, long waits and crowds, hiking ability, and available time when selecting where to view the eruption. View the park map and download the new NPS mobile app to help you find your way around during your visit.
“People are excited to see the double eruption, but I think Mauna Loa and the new county area, that’s kind of where the drama is happening right now, so that’s probably where most visitors go,” Ferracane said.
The new county area she refers to is a 4.5-mile, one-way route through the lands of the Pōhakuloa Training Area, where people can safely park and get out of their cars to see lava flowing over Mauna Loa. It was set up in response to congestion and traffic accidents caused by thousands of people flocking to Saddle Road every night to witness the eruption.
Nearly 5,500 vehicles traveled the new lava viewing route on the first two nights of operation. There were also steady streams of people entering the Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area, directly across the highway from the Lava Viewing Road entrance.
“It allows people to safely cross, off the highway, and see the lava,” Roth said of the new viewing route. “I had been there [Thursday] night. It’s actually the best viewing available; it’s a safe place to go.
Amy Phillips, public information manager for the Pōhakuloa Training Area, wholeheartedly agrees. She told the press conference on Thursday that people are still wandering off the new observation road and onto the grounds of the US Army training area in the dark.
“It’s very dangerous, even in broad daylight,” Phillips said. “Don’t do this. Stay on the designated route the county has established.
Unfortunately, there are no trash collection sites on the new lookout road, so the county asks people to keep trash in their vehicles. There are clean bathrooms in the Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area, which is open 24 hours a day for lava viewing, and there are portable toilets on the new viewing route.
The mayor didn’t see many people parked on the side of the highway Thursday night and traffic was moving fairly well, although there were some issues Friday night due to fog obstructing the view of the lava flow , preventing people from moving through the area because quickly.
The Hawai’i Tourism Authority also warns that people with asthma, emphysema, COPD or other types of respiratory problems should take precautions to avoid the ash and vog characteristic of volcanic eruptions. At this time, the vog remains mostly high in the sky and does not mix much with ground air.
Big Island reporter Nathan Christophel contributed to this report.