Followed By a Week in Hawaii

Flowering vine in the petrified tree park in Puna.

My poor brain was so confused after my China and Hawaii trips that it gave up all semblance of a time-zone and obediently returned to Pacific Standard Time in only 24 hours.  Truly a silver lining to the most exhausting two weeks of my life.  But Hawaii!  Like last time, it was an unbelievable experience, both observing-wise and snorkel-wise.  We got at least some data on all four of our half-nights on Keck, and my observing partner graciously let me sit in the drivers seat and press the image exposure button (as well as the other less interesting parts of observing like making sure the instrument is setup correctly and sending new astronomical targets to the telescope operator… they only let astronomers control the instrument — basically the camera — and hire other people to control the telescope and dome).

Hapuna beach again, one of our favorites.

Before and after our four nights of observing, my observing partner Vardha and I revisited some of our favorite snorkel places and then explored a new region of the island: Puna.  Oh my, is all I can say.  Puna is so different from the rest of the island, less touristy, with the most impressive canopy of trees overhead as you drive down country roads.  And then there were the tide pools large enough to snorkel in.  Apparently in the 1970s, scientists “sprouted” some coral in the tide pools and oh man has it taken over since.  I’ve never seen coral so varied: large mushroom coral, small delicate coral, in all different colors.  The tide pools also added an element of danger, since as you swam between them, you had to be careful not to be torn to shreds by said coral.  And of course there was a surf that jostled you around a bit and threatened to beach you if you didn’t swim quickly enough between deep pools.  Basically it was the most fun ever.  I want to go back.  As soon as possible.

Hidden valley with a black sand beach.  You can't get down there without a special vehicle; the easiest way is actually to hike.

After snorkeling in the tide pools until we were both rather chilled, we headed off to a pool heated by volcanic activity.  Puna is very close to the active eruption on the Big Island, so it isn’t surprising that there should be heated pools in the area.  This pool is especially fun because it is heated by water from underground and cooled by a channel to the sea.  You can hang onto a rope in the channel to the sea and be pulled out to sea and then back into the pool as the waves come in and out.  It’s basically a roller coaster ride and I was rather afraid that the slimy rope would give out under the weight of a few of us (it didn’t.  We survived).  There are a lot more interesting heated pools in Puna that we didn’t get to see this time, so I’m anxious to return with a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to some of the more “out of the way” ones (really just ones at the end of a bumpy dirt road… nothing there seems to be more than 10 miles from anything else).

Petrified tree, killed by lava and then made permanent...

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Hawaii, Part 3

After exploring the north side of the Big Island, we headed south towards a stunning string of waterfalls.  The north-east side of the Island is exactly what I imagined Hawaii would look like: a rainforest of big intensely green plants.  There was plenty of backtracking in the car to drive down little one-way roads at 20 Mph while we gawked at the scenery, windows down to breathe in that humid forest air.  And every once in a while, when we reached a waterfall, we’d actually get out of the car to take a look.  Favorite falls: Akaka Falls (for sheer drama alone).  Falls with the most segments: Umauma Falls (3 segments).  Falls where you actually have a chance to climb up to the top and scramble around rocks (although we didn’t have time to do this ourselves, it looked extremely popular): Rainbow Falls (right outside Hilo, also check out Boiling Pots down the road).

The day ended at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where we arrived just in time to take a short hike through more tropical forest and a field of steam vents smelling strongly of sulfur.  Less dramatic than Yellowstone, but at least Hawaii has an active volcano to even the playing field.  We stayed in Volcano village, literally a mile from the national park entrance.  I comforted myself that if the volcano exploded in the night, nowhere on that side of the island would be safe, so there wasn’t any point staying 20 min further away.  At least we were able to arrive back at the park early enough the next morning to start on the KÄ«lauea Iki crater hike before most of the tourists (and before it go too hot).  The hike takes you around and down one of the older craters so that you can walk across a bed of solidified lava.  Of course the steam vents across the crater bed made me wonder if it was more of a “dead” crater, but since I noticed a number of scientific instruments stuck into the rock, I figure someone’s keeping an eye on things… right???

After the crater hike we walked through Thurston lava tube, drove down Chain of Craters Road, and ended up at the bottom of the mountain by the ocean where you could see the cooled lava beds falling into the ocean.  Seven miles down the coast one could clearly see the steam/poison plumes of hot lava flowing into the ocean.  As awesome as it would be to hike to the active lava flow, there are a couple serious problems.  First, during the day, it is absurdly hot, exacerbated by the fact that you are walking on black rock.  Second, the black lava rock you are walking on is uneven, has huge cracks in it, and is sharp as glass.  Third, the area where the lava flows into the ocean is highly unstable, and huge pieces of “new land” break off and fall into the ocean without warning (so don’t go too near the ocean cliffs).  Fourth, if you decide to do the hike at night to get around the first problem, you will not be able to clearly deal with the second and third problems due to lack of light.  The only good thing about doing the hike at night is that you can more clearly see the lava flows.  And, if you’re ballsy, you can take the 4 mile route from the other direction over private land.

The day ended with a glimpse of reflected lava lake light in the main KÄ«lauea crater.  During the day you can only see steam (poisonous gas) from the lava lake just below your line of sight, but at night, the steam glows red from the lava.  It’s pretty spectacular.  If my camera battery hadn’t died earlier in the day I would’ve taken pictures, I promise.

Hawaii, Part 2

On our first official day of vacation, my travel companion and Hawaii guide (another astronomer) and I drove to the northern side of the big island to visit a black sand beach a short hike from the Pololu Valley lookout. Not only is the lookout stunning, with cliff after cliff of lush tropical forest rising from the ocean below, but the hike down to the black sand beach offers even better vantage points, until at the bottom you find yourself in a forest of sorts looking out onto a beach of black, grey, and red rocks worn smooth by the relentless pounding waves.  These rocks (of volcanic origin) are eventually ground into a fine black sand.  This is not a beach for swimming, but for looking and walking, trying not to re-sprain your ankle on the very unstable rock beach surface, for sitting and staring at waves, cliffs, and that crazy person who thought they could surf here.

After a black sand beach morning, we hit up Bamboo, a Thai/Hawaiian restaurant, and the homemade ice cream parlor across the street.  Feeling very belly-full, we drove to a place that will forever be the location of my first successful snorkel-swim (Mahukona Beach Park).  I had never seen so many beautiful fish in such crystal clear water before in the wild.  You could literally look off the dock and see bright yellow fish darting about.  Unfortunately, being fin-less (and thus unable to swim quite so quickly out of the ocean currents), I wasn’t brave enough to check out the shipwreck farther offshore.  This disappointment was short-lived, as at the next snorkel spot (Kapa’a Beach Park, unfortunately too advanced for me) we saw probably 8 humpback whales spraying water into the air, flipping their very impressive tails, and generally accumulating a human posse on the beach and in the water (my astronomer friend tried to go snorkel with them, but the whales were too far away).

Hawaii, Part 1

It was a busy week.  A couple Saturdays ago I caught a 5:30am flight from California to Kona, Hawaii (the big island) following what ended up being the worst night of sleep in recent memory.  I flew to Hawaii to observe on the Keck Telescopes, which means after a day of flying and a three hour time-change, I still had to stay up until midnight to ease into a nocturnal existence.  That’s 3am PST, and on 2 hours of sleep you might forgive me that my first day in Hawaii was a blur.  What I do remember is the surprisingly desolate landscape around Kona and some unbelievably beautiful beaches.  And what else does one do to stay awake but go swimming?  A snorkel was bought, tested, and quickly abandoned due to persistent waves, but I was perfectly content floating in the ocean staring at the cloudy sky (because in Hawaii, my friends, you can still go swimming when the sun don’t shine).

The food was good too, I might add.  Being friends with Italians has its benefits, number one being that they know where to find good food.  I was prepared to put up with normal observing fare, which generally consists of anything that comes pre-made from a grocery store or that can be cooked in under 15 minutes, but oh no, even the little town of Weimea (from which we do our observing) has multiple good restaurants and at least one funky coffee shop.  Saffron, Marriman’s (for lunch), and Weimea Coffee Company (two words: coconut macaroons) are all worth frequenting.

Unfortunately the mountain weather did not cooperate, and both our observing nights were cancelled.  The silver lining of wasting much of the last few weeks preparing for this observing run is that as soon as we learned we were not going to be able to observe, at all, we high-tailed it back to the beach (Hapuna instead of Mauna Kea this time).