Hawaii volcano eruption & cruise ships: what’s going on from a local’s perspective

Hawaii volcano eruptions have historically attracted cruise lines to visit the islands. But this time, some cruise lines have opted to temporarily cancel Big Island ports. NCL Pride of America cancelled both Hilo and Kona stops, citing passenger safety. But is safety really the primary reason cruise lines alter itineraries in Hawaii now? I think not entirely.

The fact that I run a small inn in the Hawaii Big Island community of Kailua-Kona naturally influences my perspective. As a full-time resident of Hawaii, my understanding of the situation differs from that of a remote editor or flown-in reporter crafting a ratings-grabbing TV segment, or a click-bait headline.

Whats really happening on the Big Island?

With the exception of a relatively small area, Hawaii and the Big Island remain as safe as ever. Hawaii’s active volcano (called Kilauea, which has continually erupted since 1983) is one of the top reasons cruise ship passengers visit Hawaii in the first place. At night, the glowing lava can sometimes be seen erupting out of a vent or cascading down a hillside or pouring into the ocean. Lava from this current eruption is now entering the ocean so it’s likely that cruise passengers will soon want to see it again.

Lava meets the sea at Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii Island in 2017. Photo: Jay Huang/Flickr Creative Commons

Lava meets the sea at Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii Island in 2017. Photo: Jay Huang/Flickr Creative Commons

The difference right now is that lava is erupting from fissures in a residential neighborhood (already known as a high-risk area). Also, the majority of Volcanoes National Park has temporarily closed due eruptive events there. These two events volcanic events occur in a relatively a small area of the Big Island– a landmass which almost equals the state of Connecticut in size.

Lava flowing through the Puna community of Leilani Estates, May 2018. While this looks dramatic, the area affected is tiny and far from the communities of Hilo, Kona, Waikoloa, and more. Photo courtesy: USGS.

Lava flowing through the Puna community of Leilani Estates, May 2018. While this looks dramatic, the area affected is tiny and far from the communities of Hilo, Kona, Waikoloa, and more. Photo courtesy: USGS.

The eruptions have very little physical impact on the majority of the Big Island or the other islands of Hawaii. Global press and social media stories tend to focus on stories which induce panic and fear. Such reporting has led ill-informed travelers to believe that Hawaii Island is essentially the next Krakatoa.

Cruise port Kailua-Kona is separated from the eruption area by 70+ miles and a huge mountain (Mauna Loa).  Kona’s many attractions, like coffee farms, Captain Cook with its awesome snorkeling, and the unspoiled beaches of the Waikoloa area — are far away from the eruptions. The adorable cruise port Hilo, the waterfalls of the Hamakua Coast, and the magnificent Waipio and Pololu valleys are also safe distance north of the eruption.

Safety factors to consider

Danger zone: The areas declared off-limits due to lava and fumes include lower Puna and its gay-popular Kehena Beach, plus the main section of Volcanoes National Park due to risk of debris and heavy ash that the main vent may spew.

 Air quality/fumes: As to the question of air quality away from the volcano, on this island we regularly live with “vog,” our name for the volcanic smoke and gasses. This phenomenon is part of life, and for most of the island the air quality is as safe as usual. Reports on the quantity of sulpher dioxide present in the vog (which also includes water particles) vary, but the only part of the island where people are actively being warned about it is near the eruption.

From my vantage point 70 miles away, the presence of vog in Kona can increase and decrease several times a day, and this was true before the current eruptive events as well. There are times when vog collects around Kona, and on occasion it is considered unsafe for certain groups, especially those with respiratory conditions. This was the case prior to the current eruption events but I have never previously been aware of a cruise ship canceling Kona because of it. Short-term sulphur dioxide specific info is here, and overall vog info can be seen here.

A cruise ship is seen near a downtown beach in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Photo: Randall Shirley

A cruise ship is seen near a downtown beach in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Photo: Randall Shirley

 

Can visitors still experience Hawaii’s volcanoes during this eruption?

Absolutely! In my opinion, the entire Big Island of Hawaii could be added to Volcanoes National Park. The island is made up of five volcanic mountains (currently-erupting Kilauea is the one making the news). There is a lot of volcano-related stuff to see and do, safely away from Kilauea’s current eruptions.

Exploring a lava tube in the Kona area is one of many lava/volcano activities on the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo: Randall Shirley

Exploring a lava tube in the Kona area is one of many lava/volcano activities on the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo: Randall Shirley

  • Many first-time visitors to the island are surprised when their plane lands at Kona International Airport, which is built atop an old lava flow.
  • Near the Kona airport is a a wonderful lava tube which can be explored.
  • There are acres and acres of cooled lava flows where visitors can explore, hike, and experience the many textures and types of lava from a’a to pahoehoe to rope lava.
  • It is possible to visit the summit of Mauna Kea–the largest volcanic mountain in Hawaii (and technically the world’s tallest mountain).
  • The Saddle Road drive is open, taking visitors from sea level to 7,000 feet between the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (technically the world’s largest mountain, by landmass); the views are spectacular and there is much cooled lava to be seen.
  • A lesser-known section of Volcanoes National Park, called Kahuku, is open during its regular hours.

Rather than fear what’s out there, I prefer to go explore. Right now, a visit to Hawaii Island provide a safe and wonderful lesson in science and nature—not to mention the magnificent beaches and coffee farms and underwater adventures and more.

I believe it is likely that NCL and others have responded to passenger fear, based on mis-informed media reports. If you’re debating whether to come, you don’t have to rely on either my opinions or the national media. Instead, try contacting a few locals in a questionable port (Scruff, Grindr, Misterbnb all make that easy). Get the locals’ take on the situation. Chances are you’d prefer to sip a Mai Tai on a ship in Hawaii rather than watch CNN instill you with fears.

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Note: all opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own.