CJ Kale a photographer from Hawaii is believed to be the first ever person to film molten lava entering the ocean and meeting with the breaking waves. CJ risks life and limb swimming in the scalding water while avoiding the lava explosions just a few feet from where he is photographing. Is it worth it? When you see his photos you might be persuaded to think so.
Drift talks to CJ about his amazing photography, what his wife thinks about his obsession and the time he fell into a 20-ft lava tube and shattered his ankle! This guy has balls…
How did this all come about and how did you end up risking life and limb to photograph lava surf?
Five years before I successfully was able to hop in the water and photograph lava surf I had been hiking out to shoot the the lava meeting the sea. I noticed on this occasion that the lava was on a beach right next to breaking waves. So I decided to go body surfing next to the flow just to see how close I could get. While body surfing I saw the shot that I wanted lava right down the barrel of a wave. I had never seen a shot like this and wanted to make it a reality. So I ordered a SPL surf housing and began adding wave photography to my portfolio.
Unfortunately by the time my housing arrived the beach that I had been swimming on dropped into the sea as part of a massive bench collapse. So I continued photographing the volcano and waves each on their own. A few years later I met Nick Selway my photographic partner and we started our own photography gallery in Kona.
Five years later, almost to the day from when I had first swam with the lava, the conditions arrived again for us to enter the water. We came out to shoot the lava from in the surf everyday for the next week but we were only able to enter the sea on three of those days. The conditions need to be just right – too much lava and you can’t get close enough, too little and it doesn’t look impressive enough in the photo, and some days there were so many floating hot lava rocks in the water that you couldn’t enter at all.
Do you travel far to get your images or are these you local eruptions?
These are local on my island but we lived a three hour drive and five mile hike away at the time.
Do you study volcanology, seismology, oceanography or all of the above?
I study all of these not to the extent of a scientist but I need to have a understanding of my environment to be able to do this safely.
Do you have any special equipment to allow you to get close?
Surf baggies, body boarding fins and a SPL water housing to protect my camera.
What damage have you done to yourself?
While in the water we received cuts and burns from the lava bombs and all the volcanic glass in the water. While hiking out I have fallen into a Lava tube that collapsed under me and shattered my ankle. Luckily no lava in that one.
What does your wife think to all of this?
When my wife met me I was climbing to the top of a 100 foot water fall and jumping off. She knew I was a bit out there from the first time she met me and has been supportive of my career.
Lava flow is considered difficult to stop, one assumes the ocean is more than a match?
The lava seems to battle it out at the sea sometimes advancing and others receding.
Do you every worry that your fascination might lead to your undoing?
I like to say some artists are so passionate about their art that they are willing to die for it. Others stand at the viewing areas coming up with stories about how hardcore they are. I couldn’t care less either way, I just want to be creating unique images that I like and if it is my undoing someday at least I enjoyed my life and have left my mark on the world.
What do you do to unwind?
To unwind I love to shoot sunsets and turtles or just chill in the water diving or shooting waves.
Where are you off to next to shoot?
I will be in Cali in May then shooting the Canadian Rockies this summer, can’t wait to Heli hike in the mountains and see what views I can find exploring some glaciers before they are all gone.
And plans for 2015 and beyond?
We have a new collectors book coming out in a few months to be sold out of our galleries and are planning on opening another gallery soon.
Want a slice of the lava pie? Check out CJ’s website here www.lavalightgalleries.com
Here is a video of the man himself in action. No he isn’t wearing a pink wetsuit, that is the near boiling water keeping him toastie!