Hawaii Lava Boat Tours

Limited Permits, Lucrative Business

Also, Unbelievably Spectacular 

This clash of the titans is a spectacle for customers and a cash cow for operators.

A lava boat approaches the flow. Photo by Lava Ocean Tours.

I could remove my hat and glasses. The smoke that billowed into the sky was so thick that it partially blocked out the sun, diffusing its brightness and cooling its heat. In front of me was the source of the smoke: a smoldering, weeping stream of hot lava falling into the sea. I could hear the hiss of the hot meeting the cold, the water smacking into the side of the short cliffs, colliding with the lava. I could see the explosions of orange and red, the way the water turned grey from the sediment.

Down the coast, I could just barely make out the people standing on the cliff. They had walked four miles or so to get to that point of closure. There was a time when you could see the lava entering the sea from there. But not anymore. The course changed, and today they can only see the plumes of smoke rising up in the distance. For now, a boat is once again the only way to see the lava enter the sea, up close and personal.

I’m a hiker at heart, but when I learned this to be true, I decided it was a good excuse to (finally) pony up for one of the infamous lava boat tours. Sitting there near the railing, staring deep into the mesmerizing lava, floating upon the melodic sea, watching this clash of the titans, I began to understand what the fuss is all about, why demand for lava boat tours is consistently high, day in and day out.

“We don’t have to market ourselves,” one employee of a company told me.

Over the course of my tour, and in chatting with others thereafter, I also began to understand that this lava boat thing is big-time business. Take, for example, one company that runs a 49-person vessel. It charges an average of $200 per tour (prices vary slightly based on time of day), and runs four trips per day. That’s approximately 200 seats per day at $200 per seat for a gross income of $40,000 per day, or $280,000 per week. A smaller company runs a six-person boat, charging about the same per seat. If they sell out, they gross $4,800 per day, or $33,600 per week.

But the most shocking part of all this is not the big bucks — it’s the limited opportunity to get a piece of the pie. Only four permits are issued by the State to do lava tours, and those permits are valid indefinitely, meaning the humongous demand is showered upon a lucky few.

One boat captain told me that the permits are so valuable that the company recently turned down a $2 million offer for it. Because the permit has no looming expiration, the only risk is mother nature, if the lava turns off. Though it may change course, and go through periods of more or less drama, the captain said, it’s unlikely lava will stop finding its way to the sea altogether. (Although it has been known to take time off — there was a gap between the last flow in 2013 and when it reached the sea again in summer 2016).

The permit includes the right to launch commercial activity out of the Pohoiki boat ramp at Issac Hale Park. It is the only public boat launch within reasonable distance of the lava flow. From there, it’s a 30-45 minute ride to the flow, depending on the boat. Two-hour tours give customers about 30 minutes of face time with the lava.

Given the amount of money at stake, and the dramatic nature of the lava earlier this year (remember the firehose?), it should come as no surprise that many unlicensed, non-permitted tours have emerged, eager to bring unknowing tourists to the flow. Over the past year, news records show several crack downs on such vessels by the Coast Guard in an attempt to uphold the integrity of the permits and to ensure safety, including fines of up to $60,000.

The lava meets the sea. Photo by Wake and Wander.

One person who works for one of the tour boat companies told me they got into the business by doing illegal tours “way back when.” They said tourists would approach them in the harbors and offer to pay them to go out on their fishing boats.

Illegal activity and operators is a topic that’s near and dear for me. The only other time that I’ve seen hot lava up close and personal was on a walking tour a couple years ago that turned out to be an illegal tour (An Accidental, Illegal Hike to Hot Lava, Wake and Wander Hawaii, Issue 1). It’s not a good feeling when it happens to you. But at the same time, as an outgoing traveler myself, I can understand the appeal of jumping on a local’s fishing boat, feeling like you’re getting a unique adventure.

I can also understand the frustration surrounding the limited and lasting nature of the four permits. Despite the work of the State and the Coast Guard to reduce illegal activity, a simple online search reveals that there are more than four companies offering the lava boat tours. On one hand, you blame them. They are breaking the law, end of story. On the other, can you blame them? State and the Coast Guard to reduce illegal activity, a simple online search reveals that there are more than four companies offering the lava boat tours. On one hand, you blame them. They are breaking the law, end of story. On the other, can you blame them?

Some people have suggested that more permits be given out, or that the current permits be split up. For example, instead of 4 companies making 4 trips per day, allow 16 companies to make one trip per day, so that more people can benefit and overcrowding can still be avoided. The Department of Land and Natural Resources said in order for that, or anything else, to happen, legislation would have to be passed to change the existing administrative rules. No word on what would motivate them to start the process. So far, the illegal activity hasn’t.

As we floated in front of the lava flow, the captain instructed us to reach down into the water. When I did, it felt like a hot tub. The temperature gauge on the boat read 102 degrees. The wind pushed the smoke across the sky. I could still feel the heat coming off the flow. I could still hear the hissing when the water hit the lava.

From a distance, safety seems to be straightforward: Keep back from the lava, stay out of the smoke clouds. But there have been incidents. Lava rock explosions — which aren’t exactly rare — have flung debris onto the bows of boats. Deltas have collapsed without warning. And that whimsical, magical smoke? It’s poisonous gas — sulfur dioxide. If the “vog” bothers you when it blows through the islands, imagine what a concentrated amount can do.

One benefit, in theory, of the four-permit system is that it’s easier for regulatory agencies to uphold safety standards. Training and controlling the actions of four companies is more manageable than a dozen companies, for example. People argue that the point is moot, however, so long as illegal tours are motivated to operate.

I thought a lot about the politics of lava. I find it very interesting, this whole tourism thing, and the complicated decisions that must be made. But seriously, I advise you, enjoy the perspective of the politics, but don’t let it cloud your mind. I mean, really, does someone witnessing one of the world’s greatest spectacles — hot lava pouring into the sea, creating new land, shining bright in the twilight hours — needed anything else to write home about?

As we cruised back from the flow at twilight, I let my mind focus on what was in front of me, not the boat or the crew behind me. At some point, lava battled the sea along every inch of Hawai‘i’s coastline, every inch of every island. It’s quite literally and quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for visitors and residents alike. We’re lucky to be here to see it, and whatever the future holds for the lava-boat drama, my hope is that, in the end, everyone still feels compelled to board one. That, I think, is a goal we can all agree on as travelers and adventurers.

Lava tour at sunset. Photo by Lava Ocean Tours.


If You Go – The Rundown on Lava Boats

Only four companies have permits to launch commercial activity from the Pohoiki boat ramp and access the lava flow at Kamokuna. The permit is valid for one vessel only, but that vessel can operate multiple trips per day. Only four companies have permits to launch commercial activity from the Pohoiki boat ramp and access the lava flow at Kamokuna. The permit is valid for one vessel only, but that vessel can operate multiple trips per day.

In general, each of the four companies offers a sunrise, mid-morning, afternoon, and sunset tour time. All companies go to the same place and all companies charge approximately the same price: Between $180 and $250 depending on the time of departure. Sunrise and sunset tours are at the higher end of that range.

Boat sizes between companies vary and dictate the experience you will have. Some can be as large as 50 passengers, others as small as six. The larger boats reduce travel time and are more stable with an elevated view, good for those who are easily prone to seasickness. Smaller boats provide more individual contact with guides and put you closer to the water.

The four permitted companies are Lava Ocean Tours, Moku Nui Lava Tours, Kalapana Cultural Tours, and Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours. All offer a discount if you pay cash as well as kama‘aina and military discounts. Consider the early and late tours. Arriving at sunrise allows you to see the lava glow in the dark as it transitions into daylight. Sunset “golden hour” tours allow you to see the transition into dusk.


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