SWIMMING WITH PELE

THE PHOTOGRAPHIC RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CJ KALE, NICK SELWAY AND THE HAWAIIAN FIRE GODDESS.

After a three-hour drive from the Lava Light Gallery in Kailua, Kona, photographers C.J. Kale, 37, and Nick Selway, 29, have a one-to two-hour hike to look forward to. They’ve done this long, arduous journey many times before, and are on their way to shoot magma erupting from the Kilauea Crater on Hawai‘i Island, which has been flowing from the Pu’u’O’o Vent since 1983.

Native Hawaiians believe that the volcano is the fire goddess, Pele, a well-known demi god throughout Polynesia. She is Kale’s and Selway’s muse, and according to them, her beauty is best photographed at sunrise and sunset. Kale and Selway have individually won the Smithsonian Museum’s Nature’s Best Photography Award for their portraits of Pele.

“I can’t tell you how many times Pele has revealed herself to us in the images,” says Kale, who grew up on O‘ahu, and now resides in Kona. “In the first lava tube wave there are three faces in the imagery and it’s really crazy… we see hearts that have formed and all kinds of stuff like that. I feel like the Fire Goddess is on a pretty good relationship with us.”

Planning to camp out on the lava field overnight, Kale and Selway travel as light as possible with just shoes, umbrellas, a jacket, their camera gear, and the clothes on their backs. From the car, it’s a race against time and the setting sun, which provides the ideal lighting to photograph Pele. It’s a five-mile hike to where the lava meets the ocean, but the distance feels much greater due to the treacherously steep terrain of the lava field.

Kale explains, “What most people don’t understand is that every mile over the lava field, you don’t count it as one, you count it as two.”

There is also the chance that they could fall into a lava tube during the hike. It actually happened to Kale once in 2011, and he shattered his ankle. It doesn’t faze him though because he’s been shooting Pele for over 16 years professionally now. Selway has nine years of his own under his belt. Their combined experience and partnership allows them to pursue their passion and avoid danger in the process.

“We’re out there doing something we would normally do for fun, but we’re able to do it for a living and there’s really nothing else you could ask for,” says Selway.

With their extensive experience capturing images of the lava flow they’ve been privy to a few unique instances. One in particular was when all of the conditions lined up a few years ago, and the duo was able to shoot Pele clashing with her sister, Namakaokaha‘i, goddess of the ocean. They shot the lava flow down the barrel of the wave while swimming 20 feet away from the action in 110-degree water. They wore no protective gear during the swim, and didn’t use any scientific instruments to gauge the hazards. Equipped with only their boardshorts, fins and Canon 5D in a SPL water housing, the duo captured the lava pouring into the ocean.

It’s dangerous when Pele and Namakaokaha‘i clash. In addition to the threat of being boiled alive—they’ve measured water temperatures at 150 degrees plus—a highly toxic hydrogen chloride (HCL) gas is created when lava hits the ocean. Steam from the lava contains water vapor, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen fluoride and when it mixes with seawater it causes an abundance of HCL gas called “laze.”

Kale explains, “the key thing with the gas is to make sure the wind is at your back, you don’t have a choice of where you’re going to be shooting. You’re more dictated by the wind direction as to where the steam is blowing instead of where the sunlight is going to be, which is kind of odd for photography because normally where the sun is going to be is where you stand to get your shot.”

Sleeping in the lava field without shelter can be a perilous endeavor as Kale and Selway hear the ominous popping and cracking of the lava moving. Despite the imminent danger in these hazardous conditions, swimming with Pele has been an unparalleled experience for these photographers. They genuinely love being out there, off the grid, ready to go in the early morning hours to capture Pele’s fiery hula at sunrise, their favorite time to shoot the lava flow.

“There’s a lot of people that go to church on Sunday. For me going to the volcano is like going to church,” admits Selway. “It’s the most spiritual thing, ever.”

About the Author:

Daniel Ikaika Ito is a writer and editor for Contrast Magazine. He’s also a HMSA Content Coordinator, Journalist, Surfing Magazine Contributing Writer, ESPN Surf Correspondent, and Kamehameha Surf Team Coach.

You can view more of C.J. Kale’s and Nick Selway’s work on their website: http://www.lavaphotoart.com/