By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
In 1982, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park welcomed 1,995,397 visitors. The following year, that number spiked 12.6 percent, to 2,247,974.
“While we don’t ask guests when they come in the gate why they came … I feel confident that was largely because of Pu‘u ‘O‘o,” said park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane of the attendance jump.
On Thursday, park officials recognized 30 years since the ongoing eruption at Pu‘u ‘O‘o began, sparking a renewed interest in Hawaii Island’s unique volcanic attractions.
While the current lava flows emanate from Pu‘u ‘O‘o Crater and run southeast all the way to the ocean, they are hard to reach for most tourists. However, they have helped to publicize and popularize Hawaii’s volcanic activity, attracting millions to the volcano’s more accessible Halema‘uma‘u Crater, which can be viewed a few dozen feet away from a parking lot within the park, said Ranger Kupono McDaniel.
“We’ve seen a huge increase as a result of the eruption activity,” he said. “‘Where’s the lava?’ is probably the question we get the most, other than ‘Where’s the bathroom?’”
McDaniel said he feels privileged to have worked at the park since 1997, and in that time said he has seen the repeated rise and fall of the vent, as the Hawaiian goddess Pele displays her awesome destructive and, simultaneously, creative power.
“It’s been an exciting time,” he said. “I totally connected to this eruption, emotionally.”
The early days of the eruption, beginning Jan. 3, 1983, were perhaps its most spectacular, with fountains of lava shooting more than 1,000 feet into the air. That activity has largely pervaded the public perception of what goes on at Kilauea Volcano year-round, McDaniel said.
“There’s a lot of hype,” he said. “But once they get here, they get to see so many of the other spectacular things the park offers. They get to see these moments in time, that they probably couldn’t see anywhere else. … Very rarely do I have someone leave who is disappointed.”
With nary a raindrop in sight, Thursday morning was a perfect opportunity for visitors to take in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s many attractions.
Toronto-area residents Bill and Christine Bryant had just arrived at the park with their children, Liam and Ella. It was their first trip to the Big Island, and the park was near the top of their list of things to do. The first thing Liam did was fog up his glasses by standing at the mouth of an open steam vent.
“Wow, it sure is hot!” he exclaimed, as each parent documented the encounter with their own camera.
Up at the Halema‘uma‘u Overlook, throngs of tourists jockeyed for coveted positions atop the volcanic rock wall to have their pictures taken in front of the smoke rising from the crater. An attractive young woman in a black and white dress stood atop the wall, arm outstretched, putting on a pouty look as she posed for her own cell phone camera.
“Hold it up higher, dad! Higher!” said one man as he and his family patiently posed for an elderly man who appeared to be having trouble operating the digital camera. Just then, a friendly Good Samaritan swooped in to the rescue and offered to take the picture so the man could join his family.
Meanwhile, a man sat on the rock wall near the entrance to the museum, holding a cell phone to his ear: “Aloha!” he said. “It’s a beautiful day, I’m looking at the volcano, and it’s doing its thing. … It’s probably the size of 20 or 25 different stadiums.”
David and Lauren Pratte were visiting from the Bay Area.
“I was here a long time ago,” Lauren said, “but he’s never been.”
The couple said a trip to the park was a must for their vacation.
“It’s a pretty amazing sight,” David said.
Puna resident Pat McCarty was leading a private, guided tour for tour company Nui Pohaku at the overlook, but unaffiliated bystanders pulled closer as she spewed facts with authority and gusto. One moment, she was pointing out birds that were seemingly impervious to the noxious sulfur dioxide fumes of the caldera, the next she was describing the rise and flow of the lava lake, which has kept volcano lovers crossing their fingers that it would rise into view from the overlook.
“In October, the lava came as close as 75 feet,” she said, breathlessly. “It only needs to make it to 60 feet to be visible.”
While taking a break to let her charges explore the museum on their own, McCarty explained her enthusiastic approach.
“There’s just so much to tell, and I know when we get here, people want to know everything,” she said. “There’s just not enough time.”
First-time visitors hailing from outside of Manchester, England, Philip and Barbara Jones said their expectations for the volcano had been more than exceeded.
“This is more spectacular than we imagined,” Philip said. “I’ve seen other volcanoes before, including in Italy, but this …”
“It’s just so vast,” interjected his wife.
“Yes,” Philip agreed, “like much of America. Vast. … I just didn’t expect it to be so spectacular.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.