Volcanoes, Ancient Petroglyphs, Human Sacrifices and Mai Tais:

Welcome to the Big Island of Hawaii

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

If you've been following the news, you know that the island of Hawaii, commonly known as the Big Island, has been making headlines. The Kilauea volcano has run wild, spewing underground rivers of hot magma that triggered earthquakes and evacuations in a residential area near Pahoa.

My wife and I took a trip to the Big Island last fall, before the mayhem exploded. We got a close look at the smoldering cauldron of the volcano -- and we explored the other wonders of this spectacular tropical tinderbox.

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The Kilauea volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983, although usually in a calmer, less threatening way than it is right now. During our visit, we saw smoke billowing from the Halema’uma’u Crater, which is a pit crater within the summit caldera of Kīlauea.

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Halema’uma’u was an impressive sight by day -- and an awesome spectacle at night.

(PHOTOGRAPHER'S FOOTNOTE:  To capture this fiery display, I manually blended portions of several different exposures. This shows detail in the dark shadows as well as the bright flames -- a range that could not be contained in a single exposure of a scene like this.)

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Kilauea is one of five volcanoes on the Big Island. The lava from previous eruptions has spilled all across the island, cooling and hardening into swirling and jagged shapes. It makes for an eerie, otherworldly landscape.

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In the Puako Petroglyph field, the hardened lava is accompanied by another fascinating sight: more than 1,000 ancient Hawaiian rock carvings, estimated to date back to 1200 A.D. For reasons still unknown, the Hawaiians who carved the petroglyphs often trekked great distances across harsh terrain to reach this particular spot. Some believe the carvings are records of births and other important life events.

Even without volcanic eruptions, life could be brutal for the ancient Hawaiians. Savage wars broke out between rival kings. Violating any of the sacred laws brought a death sentence. And human sacrifices were made on large flat stones that can still be seen on the Big Island.

Fortunately, if you made it to the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (pictured above), you were safe. This was an official place of refuge.

(PHOTOGRAPHER'S FOOTNOTE: I arrived early and used the Sun Surveyor app to show me the precise path of the setting sun.  I then planned my composition for the straw hut, the wooden fence, the curving rocks and the sky ... and I waited for all the elements to come together.)

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The first Christian missionaries to Hawaii arrived on the Big Island in 1820. This marked the end of the native kapu system, with its strict rules and prohibitions for everyday life -- and where men and women could be put to death for simply eating together.

You'll find charming churches on the Big Island, including St. Benedict's (shown above).  This little wooden church in Kailua-Kona was built between 1899-1902 and is covered with colorful frescoes depicting Bible scenes.

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Speaking of colorful: the Big Island may not be as lush and green as its island cousin Maui, but it's not all rocks and lava here. If you're looking for scenic waterfalls and splashes of tropical eye candy, you can get your fill.

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On a beachside walk, we came across this mellow fellow who was taking a nap. Five of the world's seven species of sea turtles live in Hawaii's waters, with the green sea turtle (honu) being the most common. They can weigh between 200-500 pounds and can live up to 80 years.

(PHOTOGRAPHER'S FOOTNOTE: Visitors to the Big Island are reminded not to disturb the sea turtles, so I kept a respectful distance and used a 200mm telephoto lens to photograph this turtle.)

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Of course, sea turtles aren't the only ones who feel tempted to plop down and relax near the ocean here. When we weren't busy hiking or exploring, my wife and I took time to unwind, sipping a cup of home-grown Kona coffee or a nice cold Mai Tai as we looked out over the water.

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The Big Island: it's a potent blend of raw, untamed natural fury, tempered by beauty and tranquility.

Here's hoping that the Kilauea volcano quiets down soon ... that the danger passes ... and that all the families who've had to evacuate their homes can find a peaceful place of refuge.

Want to See More of the Big Island?

Click on this gallery to see waterfalls, crashing coastal waters and more.


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Mahalo ~