Chasing Volcanoes

 Bouncing around the planet onboard Dancyn I have developed a fetish with volcanoes. An active volcano is a window with a view of the ocean that lies beneath the blue and green skin of earth sans the sunsets! Even when extinct or eroded away, volcanoes are reminders that the solid planet we live on is in constant motion and the “terra firma” that we take for granted are only large ships afloat on a sea of red hot ocean.

My first encounter with a volcano was with my Dad in 1982 while visiting his twin brother, my Uncle Jimmy out in Oregon. Mt. St. Helens had recently unleashed itself on the Pacific Northwest. On the flight I peered out the window in awe as we flew over thousands of previously forested miles now a wasteland appearing like endless scattering of toothpicks. A week later we hiked up into Crater Lake. There at that young age my fetish developed and I have jumped through some pretty big hoops to be close to these windows on my voyage around our planet!

While a student attending university I was selected to work for a professor in Costa Rica. In between trapping cycles in the jungle, I made a side trip to Arenal volcano national park. I sat in the hot baths and watched the lava flow out down the mountain. The evening vista was magical, especially with the aids of local medicinal herbs. Years later I sailed into Porto Villamil, Isla Isabella. Isabella is the biggest island in the Galapagos Islands. There the biggest window into the earth’s core can be seen from miles offshore. The magnificent view of the 6 large shielded volcanoes that make up the entire island of Isabella resonates in my memory of these enchanted islands. Heading North across the equator once more that year I sailed past the big island of Hawaii after months in the Marquises and Touamotu Islands of French Polynesia. The massive cone of Mauna Loa held clouds that signaled land over 50 miles out.  After screaming down the Molokai Channel, Diamond Head, The volcanic crater off Waikiki beach not 2 days later, was my next encounter. In Alaska working for NMFS on long liners off the Aleutian Islands I saw several of the most active volcanoes in the world. Myself and another biologist even had to turn back to Anchorage on a very long turbo prop flight to Dutch Harbor because of so much ash in the air.

Once back in the South Pacific on Dancyn again I did not have to steer to far off course to find more vents. The peak of the extinct volcano Tafahi loomed not 3 miles away from the anchorage in Niuatoputapu, an island in the northern group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga. Heather my mate at the time and I climbed to the crater’s ridge of Tofua Calderas south in Tonga’s Haipai group. Tofua is where Capt. Bilgh’s Navigator was eaten after being cast off the Bounty by Mr. Fletcher Christian during the mutiny. After exiting The Kingdom of Tonga en route to New Caledonia I sailed around the 2 unpopulated volcanoes, Hunter and Matthew Islands to fish and rest! Hunter was surrounded by yellow sulfur water and had vibrant yellow mineral deposits on the down current side under the active vent. Mathew Island is a 5-mile wide column of hardened lava left behind from a volcano that has worn away over millennia by the relentless SE trades blowing across the Pacific. Weeks prior to Dancyn’s arrival to the area other boats reported motoring through miles of floating pumice and scratching the boats bottom paint off.

The silver medal goes to a very active volcano that is currently reforming after it changed the world in 1883. Krakatau was 8 miles from east to west inside the original crater before it unleashed a power seldom seen in recorded history. The eruption changed the climate for years and left only pieces of its self in the aftermath. Today baby Krakatau is growing again in the middle of the remnants of the exploded volcano. Today it warns all vessels transiting the Sunda Straight, between the islands of Sumatra and Java in Indonesia, as it burps every few minutes. The Sunda Straight and the east coast of Sumatra are well known for small boat piracy. While sailing from Christmas Island to Malaysia via these waters, I found boat folks around there to be mighty friendly! It might be because after sailing into the exploded crater of the old volcano then anchoring I witnessed the growing “Baby Krakatau” billowing ash for miles and threatening to change the world again! Makes being good to others easier if you are all equally under constant threat of DEATH! I remember instinctively pouring my cocktail over board when spooked after lighting flashes “exposed” the huge ash plumes on that moonless night. The Sunda Straight is less than 50 miles wide and when the “big bang” comes that distance wont keep you alive so why not sail right up to and have a gander at the temperamental adolescent? After that wild squally night at the base I headed north but on the way out I got this video clip of one of the more subtle burps!

The western Pacific nation of Vanuatu on Tanna Island has the gold medal winning volcano. There I followed a young boy from the village 4 hrs through the jungle up to the crest of the volcano. There, standing on the rim at sunset on the windward side of the crater I looked down into the steaming cauldron. That night I witnessed bubbling lava with eruptions that spit hundreds of feet above my head. Against the night sky glowing red blobs the size of Volkswagen Beetles rocketed to altitude from a glowing red pool hundreds of feet below my feet. One could only experience this ultimate display of nature’s fireworks when the pumping trade winds were blowing more than 20 knots. The piles of molten lava spit into the sky and the wind blew them away from where I stood! The power of the grenade like gaseous exchanges with the surface would knock the wind from my chest and hurt my ears! The village boy told me it was safe. His perfect white teeth glowed against his dark skin when he innocently said “nobody has died up here in 2 years!”

I guess that keeps everything in perspective now doesn’t it?
With some luck the adventure will continue to present volcanoes along my path!

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