Hawaii volcano boat tours to continue despite 23 lava injuries
Hawaii tour boat operators plan to continue taking visitors to see lava, despite an explosion sending molten rock barrelling through the roof of a vessel yesterday and injuring 23.
The Coast Guard prohibits vessels from getting closer than 300 metres from where Kilauea volcano's lava oozes into the sea.
The agency had been allowing experienced boat operators to apply for a special license to get closer up to 50 metres, but it stopped allowing those exceptions yesterday morning after a falling rock punched a hole in a tour vessel's roof, injuring the occupants.
A woman in her 20s has since been transported to Honolulu in serious condition with a broken thigh bone.
Twenty-two people injured in the rock fall were treated for minor burns and scrapes, including 12 who were treated at a hospital in Hilo.
Moku Nui Lava Tours Captain Kanoa Jones, whose boat was not involved in yesterday's incident at Kilauea volcano, said not running the tours would only withhold income from local restaurants and other businesses dependent on tourism.
"If we stop operating, it not only hurts us – it hurts the community," Mr Jones said.
The Coast Guard, state and local officials were investigating the circumstances around the accident.
Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew West said the agency can't say whether it will change its safety zone rules until it finishes its investigation.
The county strictly limits access to the lava on land for safety reasons, making boat and helicopter tours the only options people have to witness volcanic spectacle in person.
The ocean and aerial tours each cost about US$250.
The restrictions have deterred many travellers from visiting the Big Island in general, and Puna near the volcano in particular.
Shane Turpin, the owner and captain of the vessel that was hit, said he never saw the explosion.
He and his tour group had been in the area for about 20 minutes making passes of the ocean entry about 456 metres – the length of five football fields – offshore, Mr Turpin said.
He didn't observe "any major explosions", so he navigated his vessel closer, to about 228 meters away from the lava.
"As we were exiting the zone, all of a sudden everything around us exploded," he said.
"It was everywhere."
The US Geological Survey says explosions of varying sizes occur whenever 1093-degree Celsius lava enters much colder seawater.
Yesterday's large blast may have been amplified by the relatively shallow water at the point where the lava entered the sea. That's because explosions occur much closer to the surface in such spots.
In contrast, lava that entered the ocean in 2016 hit a steep slope and quickly fell to deeper parts of the sea, said Janet Babb, a geologist with the US Geological Survey.