Seeing flowing lava up close on the Big Island of Hawai’i is truly a breathtaking and unforgettable experience. There are very few places around the world where people can walk alongside active, vigorous volcanic activity and hear it crackle, hiss and actually see the creation of new land.
The Big Island Visitors Bureau does not recommended that travelers engage in this type of risky activity that potentially puts them in harms way, as there are much safer alternatives for visitors to experience the lava flow with experienced guides.
But one Hawai’i native gets close enough so others can live vicariously through the moments his lens captures.
Living here in paradise in Kailua-Kona, Kawika Singson, 50, has the opportunity to see nature’s beauty and ferocity up close. Whether he ventures to Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, or Huala¯lai, he has a front row seat to the magic, witnessing the ongoing spectacle of Goddess Pele‘s wrath.
With a passion for life, adventure and landscape photography, Singson, who works as a carpenter, feels privileged to be able to visit these locations throughout his homeland, which are often times inaccessible to the public, and share his experiences with the world, especially with those who would have never seen such majesty.
“For nearly every lava or volcano shot I have captured, I leave my house at midnight and drive for two and half hours to the volcano or remote valley. Then, I hike for another hour or two to get to the lava flow and wait for the sunrise. That’s when I take my shot. When the light gets too bright, I hike back out, drive home and download my photos. I’ve probably logged over 5,000 miles going back and forth to volcano-side and have clocked more than 150 hours of hiking throughout the early morning,” he says.
Sometimes, he pushes the limits to get the most difficult shot with his Canon EOS 7D and a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom lens. Last week, the amazing power of social media brought one of these such photos international attention from as far as Brazil, India and Malaysia. The image, taken at the Pu`u O`o flows of Kilauea by his friend and fellow photographer Chris Hirata, shows Singson standing on a lava flow, with both his shoes and tripod on fire.
Since this photo went viral, many people have chosen to voice their negative comments regarding the fact that this was simply a PR stunt. No, his shoes and tripod did not combust due to the lava. But this photo wasn’t taken to mislead people. It was simply captured to be used as his Facebook cover photo.
“I knew it would be a cool photo of me taking a pic of lava while standing on lava with my tripod and shoes on fire but never expected it to go where it’s going now and still climbing. I knew it was a gem and am excited with the response I have gotten,” he says. “It was very difficult to breathe because of the corrosive fumes from the lava. It gets dangerous if too much is inhaled. But for this shot I didn’t wear my respirator. I was actually holding my breath.”
For a guy who once struggled just to get a few likes and shares on his photos in the past, over the past week, those stats have drastically changed. Since Friday, that one photo, which he says “depicts his life,” has received more than 180,000 likes, 42,000 shares, it has been posted on 120 web pages on over 30 websites and has garnered over three million views.
“That’s real lava, real flames and it was really hot! I could stand the heat only for a few seconds,” the adventurous Singson explains. “I live alone so I have the freedom to go wherever I want and come home as I please. But if I was in a relationship, I probably wouldn’t be living this lifestyle. A lot of these images wouldn’t be possible if I was with someone. I know that for sure.”
The trek is not without its perils. Molten lava is more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. Regardless of how much experience a person may have with lava, the very nature of liquid rock means that there is always a chance for something to go wrong.
“As many times as I’ve seen lava, it never ceases to amaze me. It’s incredible. I have seen many lava shots, but never any at the angle I’ve captured. It’s too dangerous to get out there with a camera. Luckily, I know the lava really well. Although I do take many risks out there on the field, I’m not a fool,” he says confidently. “I have lived on the island for the majority of my life and am familiar with the ocean currents, the waves and the conditions of the lava. I can just look at the lava and know how it’s flowing underneath–that it won’t come after me. The largest danger is a collapse of a lava bench. With my techniques and knowing where to go, I don’t fall through the crust.”
Risks notwithstanding, Singson says he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
As the volcanic eruption flows down and reaches the sea, creating a towering plume of steam above the coastline, Singson walks out onto the active lava field and is ready to dash out onto the sand as the waves recede, getting up close to the advancing lava as it explodes like underwater lightning.
“When a wave hits the shore and you can hear a slight rumbling underneath you – there is of course fear. But my passion will override the fear factor most times. Anyone can hop on a boat with a zoom lens and take a photo, but that’s the easy way out. My goal is to get dirt in my teeth. That’s the way to do it. I not only take a cool photo without a $1000 lens, but also get the satisfaction of getting up close and knowing that I was running up and down the beach risking my safety.”
Armed with compassion, a love for life and the thrill of the moment, he never attempts to decipher meaning behind the path he is on. He takes this life for what it is and relies on his na’au (a person’s gut-level feelings and intuition) for guidance.
“There’s nothing wrong with everyday life, but people get so caught up that they don’t tap into their instincts enough. You have to find a balance in life by taking a step back and looking at the whole picture in order to ground yourself. It’s important to always keep yourself in check,” he says smiling.
Growing up and witnessing his father giving, even though he didn’t have much, is embedded in Singson’s lifestyle. The truth is, he isn’t interested in the monetary value of his photographs. He’s just doing what he loves.
“I always remember him giving back to others and helping people out,” he says. “I’m not out trying to make money or get famous. I don’t want to be put up on a pedestal. Taking photos is just something that I enjoy doing. I’m a well-grounded guy and I can tell you that this attention has not gone to my head. I’m actually losing money while capturing these shots and that’s okay.”
When he travels to the volcano, instead of paying a bill, he chooses to put gas in his truck. By choosing to live out his passion, 90 percent of the time he puts himself into financial restraints–finding some other way to pay his bills.
“You know..I don’t have a lot of money, but I do have a burning passion,” he humbly replies. “The response I get from people is enough. It’s enough that I can go home at the end of the night and sleep with a smile on my face. Sure, I need the money but I have a giving heart. This is the first interview I’ve done. I don’t want to be that person who gets caught up. Even if I were to make a ton of money, I would be giving half of it away to those more in need. If I were to charge people for things, I would get satisfaction for that moment. But once I spend the money, the gratitude is gone. When I give things away for free, I’ll have that feeling forever.”
From swimming daily with dolphins by the Kailua pier in Downtown Kona, to saving Mynah Birds from Porta Potties, preventing tortoises from getting run over on the highway, or saving a butterfly chrysalis from being crushed, Singson’s respect for life and the land keeps him grounded in positive energy.
If he could give the world one piece of advice, it would be this:
“Follow your inner instincts and always greet another person with a smile. You have to embrace life. We only have one shot so why not make the best of it? Everyone has a self-fulfilled prophecy. We are all going to die but what are you going to do with your knowledge? Are you going to sit at home and watch television, or are you going to go out and explore this beautiful planet that we live on?”