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Beyond Extreme

Text and photography by Doug Perrine

 

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Lava Diving
Diver Bud Turpin observes pillow lava erupting from underwater lava tube at ocean entry of Kilauea Volcano, Big Island, Hawaii, Pacific Ocean
Image #: 035705

Scuba diving, once considered a dangerous sport for adventurous explorers, is now viewed as a popular family activity, suitable for young children and the elderly, and certainly not the sort of edgy, extreme sport that young people like to watch on cable television. However, within the sport of diving are niche specialties that continue to push the envelope of acceptable risk. Over time, the boundaries of what constitute the extreme edges of diving have changed dramatically. Once, a dive below 100 m was considered insane. Now free-divers routinely pass that mark, and tech divers have been three times that deep.

There is, however, one diving niche which has been found to be even more dangerous than initially presumed, and which currently has fewer practitioners than twenty years ago. Those who pioneered diving the Edge of Creation back in the 70’s-80’s, have, almost without exception, sworn off of it, sometimes after staring death in the face. Except for one.

The Edge of Creation can be found on the southeast coast of Hawaii Island. Here hot magma from the bowels of the earth enters the Pacific Ocean, creating new land. A complete description of the explosive interactions that occur when molten rock at 1100 degrees Celsius meets sea water can be found at http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/hazards/oceanentry/deltaexplosions/ For a facsimile of the experience of being underwater nearby, try watching “Saving Private Ryan” with surround sound at full volume. If you feel the explosions in your chest and go deaf at the same time as Tom Hanks’ character, it is loud enough.

Standing on shore, watching lava enter the ocean and dodging the lava bombs that are blasted into the air and fall all around as your eyes are stung by clouds of acid-laced steam, going for a scuba dive in this devil’s cauldron might not be the first idea that would come to your mind. Dr. James Moore, however, wanted to be the first person to actually see the formation of pillow lava, which is created when lava cools underwater. Moore, a geologist assigned to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, had his chance in 1971 when lava from Kilauea Volcano entered the ocean for a brief period. Moore recruited underwater cinematographer Lee Tepley to film the phenomenon. Tepley made about five dives on lava entries in 1972-1973, and produced a film, “Fire Under the Sea”. His footage is still shown at the visitor center at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Lava stopped entering the ocean for years, but when it started again, a new generation of filmmakers was ready.

In 1986, Dick Bradley was the first to shoot video of an underwater eruption and have it broadcast on national news that evening. “Every dive was completely different,” says Bradley. “One dive can be completely mellow, then two or three hours later it can be really explosive… You’d be down there filming on the slope, and all of a sudden it would explode under your stomach, and it would be like somebody sticking a fist in your stomach. The shock waves go right through you… You’re trying to steady yourself for a shot, and pay attention to the explosions and implosions, … and you don’t even notice your hands are getting cut to ribbons by the sharp volcanic glass.”

Even more dangerous than the steam explosions and lacerations, are the frequent avalanches when gravity overcomes the unstable pile of fresh volcanic debris. “Visibility would go to zero,” says Bradley. “It would spin you right around and you’d be going feet backwards. You wouldn’t know which way was up. Your bubbles would be going sideways. Material is falling around you and you can’t see anything… Our worst experience was getting caught in a current that was taking us right in the path of the material that was going into the ocean. The boat picked us up just as the water was getting so hot that we couldn’t stand it.”

Lee Tepley and James Watt were underwater in December 1986 when a major shelf collapse occurred. “I remember two explosions,” says Watt. “All of a sudden I just saw Lee get buried in rock and carried away….The boat driver said that a 200 by 60 foot section split off all at once. It was giant slide… As hard as I would kick, I was still going down. No matter what I did, I went down. I pulled out at about 180 feet and Lee took the plunge to about 300 feet…I thought he was as dead as a doornail.” Tepley eventually surfaced bleeding from gashes on his arm and leg. He and Watt grabbed spare tanks and did an open-ocean drift recompression. After that experience, both gave up lava diving, as did other adventurers who had similar near death experiences.

Not long after this incident Bradley and his “Shark Bait Productions” team were joined for a week by cinematographers Marty Snyderman and Bob Cranston, who had been hired as underwater cameramen by famed vulcanologists, authors, and filmmakers Maurice and Katia Krafft. Snyderman recalls Maurice Krafft as being like “a caricature of a mad French scientist. He picked us up at the airport, and drove us straight to the volcano, looking over his shoulder the whole time and talking very excitedly about the eruption while navigating the curvy road around the island. I quickly realized that I didn’t have to worry about the volcano because I probably wasn’t going to live long enough to see it.”

Upon arriving at Kilauea Volcano, Krafft led Snyderman and Cranston out over the cooling lava field toward the ocean. “He walked and he told us to step exactly, exactly where he stepped,” says Snyderman. “I remember him saying ‘For this you can trust me’, and we got out to the water’s edge, and he stepped, and the shelf collapsed, and Maurice was in the ocean.” Cranston recalls the irony of Krafft’s unscheduled dunking. A very talented cinematographer above water, Krafft had hired Cranston and Snyderman because he himself did not swim and wouldn’t even go on the boat.

They pulled Krafft out of the water, with his flooded and ruined Bolex camera, and went diving the next day. “It sounded like a war zone,” says Snyderman. “You hear these explosions,” he says, “and it took a while to realize there’s not anybody shooting at me, and if I don’t let myself get thrown against anything, I’ll be okay. I remember the water temperature being 120 degrees F, but if you swam 15m away, the water was 75 deg F, and there were butterflyfish swimming around.”Snyderman and Cranston’s footage was incorporated into a film that the Kraffts made. Only a few years later, in 1991, the Kraffts were among 43 scientists and journalists killed by a pyroclastic flow eruption of Mt. Unzen in Japan. Ironically, when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines shortly afterward, the video the Kraffts had made on surviving volcanic hazards was credited with saving many lives.

Bud Turpin, a Hawaii contractor, diver, and fisherman, also made his first dives on Kilauea’s ocean entry during the lava flows of the mid-late 1980’s. “We noticed there were big ulua (giant travelly) around it, so I brought my speargun and we started diving it 2-3 times a week to get the ulua.

Turpin found that he could stick his knife into the semi-liquid lava and pull it around. Later he substituted a gaff and was able to control the lava enough to form it into shapes. With practice he was able to create rough sculptures of animals and other forms. His artistic creations are ephemeral and cannot be removed from the ocean. He is the only artist in the world working underwater in the medium of molten lava. The latest evolution of his technique occurred in 2005 when he discovered that, using welder’s gloves, he could grab the lava with his hands and shape it.

Turpin says he has made over 200 dives on the lava flow over the last 20 years – well more than any other diver. Recently his son, Shane Turpin, has been documenting his adventures on video. Turpin has seen some amazing sights, such as a nearly meter-wide “fire hose” of red lava shooting out of a cliff, after a shelf collapse broke off the lava tube like a severed artery. “You could have backed the boat up to it and filled it up with lava,” says Turpin. He has also had some hair-raising experiences. “I would say it is among the most extreme diving that can be done,” he says. “The conditions are extremely dangerous…. from zero visibility to landslides that can drag you down to fatal depths - not to mention the hot scalding water & lava.”

The only dive tour operation to offer lava dives to the public terminated the program after the massive delta collapse of November 28, 2005 when 18 hectares (44 acres) of solidified lava collapsed into the ocean, instantly transforming the shoreline. They realized that any diver anywhere near the area at the time of that collapse would never have been seen again. Two weeks later, however, Turpin was diving there again. He saw firefalls of red lava and experienced numerous small avalanches. “I think I saw God,” he remarked upon exiting the water.

Turpin picks his diving days and spots carefully, sometimes avoiding the flow for months when conditions are bad, but expects to keep diving it “as long as it continues to go into the ocean.” Asked if he’s crazy, he answers, “I’ve been called that…Sometimes I think I might be, too.”