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On May 9th, 2010, Nick Selway and I made history by being the first photographic artists to ever capture a view of lava hitting the sea―from the surf. Taking on extreme risks to life and limb, we entered the water just 20 feet from where the lava met the sea, and captured the image entitled First Lava Tube:
The water was extremely hot, and varied quickly in temperature depending on our distance from the lava flow. I had to wait more than five years for the right conditions to get this shot. The required conditions for these shots are very rare, and require many variables to come together all at once.
First of all, the lava needs to hit the sea on an established beach. The small beaches that form at the end of a newly created "lava bench" are very unstable, and rarely have the bottom structure required to create surf that has shape. There are very few established beaches in the area that have lava that flows into the sea, as these beaches take years to form, and most of the coast is lined in sheer cliff, left from collapsing lava benches.
The second thing that's required is the proper volume of lava hitting the sea. If the volume is too high, the water temperature will be too hot to get close enough to get the shot. If the volume is too low, it will not be dramatic enough in the frame. Finally, when the lava hits the sea, "lava bombs" are created, as the waves knock loose chunks of molten rock.
The lava bomb rocks are still too hot to sink; as their outside cools, the inside remains molten. They float around in the surf until they're cool enough to sink. If there are too many of them in the water, it's impossible to enter the surf without sustaining major injury. On one morning, we did have to turn back, due to a high concentration of lava bombs in the surf. Nick and I had three days in the water with the lava, capturing what we call Lava Surf Photography. After three days in the water, the lava broke out 50 yards wide and covered the beach.
We are truly willing to risk it all for our art, doing whatever it takes to get the shot. Most of the extreme photography we do is only possible because we choose not to compete but to work together, watching out for each other. By working together, we find a small bit of safety in dangerous environments.
On May 9, 2013, on the anniversary of shooting First Lava Tube, we had the opportunity to get back into the surf to swim with the lava. This occasion required a five mile hike, then we had to cross two active lava flow fields, and descend a 40-foot cliff to get to a small beach that had some curling waves. The lighting was different this time, because we got to shoot into the rising sun. The first image from this shoot was titled "Back Again," because after years of waiting, we were finally back at it. After this shoot, the lava changed its path, and it was no longer flowing onto the beach. A few months later, it stopped flowing into the sea all together. So now, we wait.
About CJ Kale: Raised in Hawaii, and trained at the New York Institute of Photography, CJ's work has appeared in Nature's Best, National Geographic, Professional Photography Monthly, Surfer Magazine, UK Daily Mail, the New York Times, BBC, Ocean Views, and One World One Ocean. He has won numerous awards, and had work displayed in the Smithsonian Museum. He lives in Kailua Kona with his wife and two children, and runs the Lava Light Gallery with his best friend, Nick Selway.