Lava boat at the lava

Trip Review: Get Up Close to Hawaii’s Volcano with a Lava Ocean Boat Tour [2018]

Outdoor Adventures

As of late May 2018, lava flows from Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano have reached the ocean. This post reflects my experience with Lava Ocean Tours from May 28th, 2018 and some updates from June 2018 as lava entered Kapoho Bay. Conditions change rapidly, Lava Ocean Tours regularly shares updates from the ocean entry which you should check out before booking.

I’ve seen a lot of incredible sights in my life but there is nothing in this world that compares to seeing lava pour out and into the water right in front of you. To witness the world literally changing is an experience no words describe so when I heard that the lava had once again reached the ocean and a few boats were operating tours, I rushed to book a flight just for the chance of experiencing it again (also see my lava helicopter tour review.)

The Lava Boat Tour Experience, 2018 Edition

For several years, tour companies ran a constant stream of lava bout tours out of the Isaac Hale Park about 17 miles away from the ocean entry at Volcanoes National Park. If you’re searching around, many of the results you’ll likely see are from this era of the tours but all that changed in 2018 as the ocean entry ceased and then came the new eruptions and now, a new ocean entry.

As evidence of just how dynamic, devastating and incredible the volcano is, the current tour which departs all the way out of Hilo now goes to the entry point just a few minutes beyond that same boat dock!

Just reaching the lava is an adventure on its own riding out of the protected Hilo bay and into the open ocean. The boat zips down the coast to Cape Kumukahi, the most eastern point in Hawaii, around the point and all the way to below the Leilani Estates where lava is currently hitting the water. As the captain described it in our pre-boarding briefing, it’s not a dolphin cruise, there are no Mai-Tais on the ride but that’s part of the fun (note: new flows have made the view point a bit closer but still a real ride.)

You don’t have to wait the ride to get volcano views however – from early on, the view of the eruption is unmistakable in the distance. Touring before sunrise, this starts as a glow and evolves into great explosion of clouds as daylight rolls in. That alone is an incredible sight even if you see nothing else (hint: sunrise or sunset, sunrise or sunset!)

Homes along the Ocean in the Eruption Zone

But it’s just the start! Passing around Cape Kumukahi, the ocean entry still miles quickly becomes apparently with its own billowing cloud of steam from the molten hot lava hitting the water. Of course there are signs of the impact too as you continue on past homes along the ocean cliff until you reach the park and boat dock then one last home now with the lava glowing ahead (hopefully!)

Then you arrive.

Lava Viewing at the Ocean Entry

As I said, words can not describe seeing lava and especially lava entering the ocean. The flows change moment by moment as the lava pushes its way out and over the rocks. The ocean impact, the waves, it all keeps making for new views as the boat rocks around in the water.

I’m not sure how close we really were – not lava heating you up level which is another experience to get to if you ever have the chance, but it felt plenty near just the same. Even spots where there is not lava coming out are pretty amazing with steam from where flows must have been or perhaps are trying to break out.

Lava Enters the Ocean from Kilauea Volcano

There’s brand new land, the most incredible looking black sand beaches, and yet all around the clear reality of the impact. Seeing a house in the corner of many views brings it all back into perspective – an incredible view with a devastating reality.

Lava enters the ocean, 2018

Hopefully the photos give you a taste but this is something you just have to experience for yourself if you can.

Riding with Lava Ocean Tours

When I first took a Lava Boat Tour back in 2016, I was excited to get a seat on Kalapana Cultural Tours’ 6-passenger boat so this round, I was reluctant to fork up the $225 for a spot on the 45-passenger boat Lava Ocean Tours runs but the options have changed and they were available. It’s funny talking about hesitation now that I’m back the their tour was absolutely incredible – simply put, if there had been an opening on the tour after mine, I never would have left my seat. Sure, I’d take 6, but not on this ride and 45 was just fine anyways.

The boat at the dock

Getting into the specifics, the boat departs out of a simple dock next to the Suisan Fish Market in Hilo. With the upheaval of everything, the new flow, the Hilo ride, expect a pretty basic setup for the day. A few portable restrooms are available at the park just up the road, a simple parking lot and that’s about it. There are a few hotels just up the road which are an option for staying local too. All said, expect to be gone for 3-4 hours so use the restroom before you go, bring a waterbottle, sunblock, sunglasses and a light jacket for the wet ride.

Lava boat at the ocean entry

Lava Ocean Adventures ran two boats the morning of my tour with what looked like 80 or 90 people in total. That certainly didn’t feel like the makings of a great view, but let me tell you, the captain did a fantastic job of moving the boat around in constant loops so that every part of the boat had a chance at each view. Each row holds 6 people, 3 per side with a simple aisle in the middle so no one is that far from the action though side of the boat = best.

Of course, none of us knew that so I expected a bit of a rush for the front. However, with the rough ride (see below), it turned out that most everyone joining me in the front was there because it was the last option, not the first! I enjoyed the “full experience” and probably had a few more views of the lava from it but at the expense of all the elements. When I I go again, I’ll likely head back a couple rows for the overhead cover!

Lava Ocean Tours' Boat

As you’d expect, the boat is sizable, sturdy and ready for the ride. You won’t find a snack bar on board but there is a marine head bathroom if you must go at least. Seats were perfectly comfortable with storage underneath, a sturdy bar to hold onto for the ride and that’s about it. Oh, the crew. Can’t forget them — there was a team of 3 on our boat, local, fun, and informative though you’ll hear them far better if you’re not in the front.

Lava boat at the lava

Their approach was simple but well rehearsed, the result of many tours clearly with plenty of attention to all the details and to giving a great experience. Like I said, I’d go again tomorrow.

What if there’s no lava entry?

It should go without saying but the volcano does not cater to tour schedules. In the couple of days between when I first heard about the ocean flows to when I was looking at them myself, the flows changed from intense to nothing to several entries the morning I headed out and in June, an entirely new entry point opened up even more flows. But even if there had been no lava entering the water that day, to see the eruption glow, the enormous clouds, the newly created land, and the range of the impacted area, I’d say it’s totally worth it too.

Steaming rocks from the lava

This tour is not for the faint of heart (or a lot of others):

As a very important point that the Captain did not hold back on explaining the moment we arrived, this ride is no joke. I think it’s something like 30 or 40 miles to the ocean entry point from Hilo moving at fast speed over open ocean which means a lot of bumps, dips, rises and turns. If that doesn’t get to you, the boat comes nearly to a stop at the lava viewing which in the choppy sea means rolling back and forth, up and down. Expect a wet and windy day!

Clouds and rainbows

Several people got sick on my ride and it was a rather calm day out there. To help, take Dramamine in advance of the ride, come well hydrated and sip water if you can. Also, follow the warnings on the operator sites – much as you may want to go, this a remote adventure and no place to be pushing your luck with a bad back or whatever.

The bottom line: What are you waiting for?

 I’m not one to spend money on tours usually. I prefer to hike it / climb it / do it myself but well, you can’t do that here and even when you could, the boat was still worth it. So if you’re booked on a trip to Hawaii and still debating the boat at this point, stop reading, start clicking and get a spot before they sell out already. If you’re not set on a Hawaii trip, well get on it.

Hawaii lava flows enter the ocean, May 2018

Trip details & current lava boat tours:

  • Adventure: Hawaii Lava Boat Tour
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 – This is an absolute must do!
  • Who this is for: Travelers who want a great view and don’t mind a rough sea ride
  • Who this is not for: Anyone with back issues, who is pregnant or gets sea sick easily
  • Cost: $180 – $250 / person based on the tour
  • Crowds: Busy! Book as soon as you know your travel dates
  • Starting Point: The Hilo Bay
  • Trip length: 3-4 hours with ~30 minutes at the lava site and a 75 minute ride each way
  • Equipment required: Clothing for a windy / wet day, a waterbottle and your camera
  • Boat Tour Operators 

My take on visiting Hawaii and the lava with the eruption

If you’re not aware, after several years of steady but [mostly] tame lava flows, Kilauea erupted into residential areas. In just a few weeks, this had led to the loss of dozens and dozens of structures and forced thousands to suddenly evacuate their homes in an event that’s truly beyond words. My family has had a home on the Island much of my life so I’ve been lucky to make many visits to the over the last decades, see the volcano up close, and have some incredible stays & experiences there. Even from afar, seeing the impact simply sucks.

Lava eruptions around Leilani Estates from the air

That said, for us visitors, the eruption changes just a tiny slice of the rather big island. Now is a great time to visit Hawaii and by doing so, supporting the local community which is heavily dependent on tourism – it’s safe, it’s fun, it’s a great place to vacation.

The lava boat tours mentioned in this post are owned and operated by locals, many of whom have been directly impacted by the eruption. Clearly, I think we would all trade the views to take back the devastation but since that’s not possible, go visit Hawaii, see this incredible experience (from a boat that is) and bring business to the local community. That’s my take.