Thursday | December 14, 2017
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Crack down on illegal lava-boat tours

The U.S. Coast Guard boarded two vessels operating illegal lava tours from the Pohoiki Boat Ramp between Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon.

No arrests were made, said Melissa McKenzie, Coast Guard public affairs specialist. But, she said, the two boat operators ceased offering tours.

She cautioned residents and tourists alike, who plan to take a tour to see the Kamokuna lava ocean entry, to be certain the boat has a Coast Guard certificate of inspection displayed before getting aboard.

“If it’s not visible, ask for it,” she said. If the operator can’t produce one, don’t get aboard, she said.

So far, McKenzie said, no injuries have been reported.

But Cindy Orlando, superintendent of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, said there are safety concerns about the operation of boats so near to the lava bench, which replaced the recently collapsed delta that fell into the ocean.

Park officials, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hawaii County Civil Defense and Mayor Harry Kim are working together to assess potential dangers to park visitors.

“We want them to have a life-changing experience,” Orlando said. “But certainly not one of injury or death.”

The boat tours are outside park boundaries. Orlando said getting close to the spot where lava pours directly into the ocean has potentially life-threatening risks.

Super-heated steam, ash, hydrochloric acid and glass particles in the steam combine to produce a potentially deadly mix. That’s why it’s important to go with a licensed boat operator.

“The lava bench can collapse at any time, without warning,” Orlando added. If that happens, debris can be thrown 300 meters or more.

“We do everything we can to get the message out there,” Orlando said.

A temporary flight restriction of 1,000 feet was put in place.

Coast Guard officials are worried illegal tour operators put themselves and their passengers in harm’s way — without training necessary to safely navigate near the lava flow.

“We have had some visitors complain that they felt like they were endangered,” Orlando said.

McKenzie said that about two months ago, she traveled on the Big Island and considered taking a lava boat tour herself. But she decided against it.

“I personally don’t feel comfortable relying on someone else’s assessment of what’s safe,” she said.

As a passenger, she said, “you’re reliant on your boat operator to make good decisions.”

Orlando said she worries about boat passengers regardless of which boat they’re on, and regardless of whether they have a permit.

“Just because you’re permitted doesn’t mean you’re making the right decisions,” she said.

According to the DLNR, four lava boat tour operators are currently licensed: Lava Ocean Tours, Moku Nui Lava Tours, Kalapana Cultural Tours and Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours.

Email Jeff Hansel at


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