Lava viewing on Hawaii’s Big Island

Lava viewing boat trips, Big Island, Hawaii

One of the most memorable things from my recent Hawaii trip was this tour. The Big Island, which is known for its chance to see real volcanoes and lava, is where I got to see lava actually flowing into the ocean. This is a somewhat rare opportunity, so I felt extremely grateful to be able to see it. However, the journey had some bumps along the way – I mean, literally.

The excursion that I booked was a sunrise boat ride that would cruise right by the site of the lava. We were told to meet very early in the morning – around 4:00 am. Being on the other side of the island, this meant leaving the hotel around 2:00am. Prior to even embarking on the short road trip to the meeting site, we called to make sure that the lava was, in fact, flowing into the ocean. If you only put down a deposit on your tour (or didn’t pay at all yet) I highly recommend doing this first, because if the lava isn’t even flowing into the ocean, there won’t be much to see at all and it’s not worth it.

Once we arrived, we had to sign a waiver that basically said we might get hurt, and we couldn’t sue them if we did. This was a pretty standard form that I must’ve signed dozens of times before for other tours and excursions, so I didn’t think anything of it. Boy, I wish I knew what I was in store for.

Sitting in the front of the boat was probably my first mistake. But what happened next was something I never would have imagined as being legal.

“Now, you all might want to hold on,” the tour guide said. “It gets a bit rough out here.”

Oh boy, I thought to myself. Love waves! Love boat rides! Here we go!

And then the first wave came at us.

It was enormous. Huge. I’m not even exaggerating. I screamed. I closed my eyes. I held on tightly. It forcefully crashed against our somewhat small boat, and as we soared up through the crest of the wave, I thought for sure we were going to capsize. But we didn’t.

Instead, the wave sent us up high in the air, and then the ocean flattened. In a matter of seconds, this meant the space below us suddenly became just that – empty space. So there’s the boat, high in the air, on top of what used to be a wave, with nowhere to go but smack right back down onto the water.

Despite holding on as tight as I could, I flew out of my seat, and landed on my back in the middle of the boat. Tears in my eyes, I managed to slowly get back up with the help of the tour guides, but I seriously felt as if I had just fractured something. I was in a ton of pain all day, but luckily there was no serious damage.

The rest of the ride was pretty rough, but not nearly as bad as that one crashing wave near the coast. The guide estimated it was about 10 feet high.

Now, I’m not trying to scare anyone, but I just want people to be warned and prepared. I wish I had been. The biggest factor in this, however, was the time of the year we went. It was at the end of November, and the waves are a bit choppy that time of year. I can’t even imagine how badly that might be during the height of the winter.

Lava viewing boat trips, Big Island, Hawaii

Lava viewing boat trips, Big Island, Hawaii
After about 20 minutes of this torture, we finally arrived at the site of the lava, just in time for the sunrise. We stayed there for quite some time – while it was still dark out, during the actual sunrise, and a little bit afterwards. There was a large abundance of lava and they took us very close to it, which was pretty neat. It was memorizing.

Lava viewing boat trips, Big Island, Hawaii
Do I recommend doing this? Yes, yes yes. If you can actually see the lava flowing into the ocean, I promise you it will be one of the most amazing things you will ever see in your lifetime. But please, save yourself the pain and agony and go during the summer, spring, or early in the fall, especially if you’re older or have any serious back issues. At the very least, check the surf report before you go and don’t go out unless it’s calm.

As far as doing a helicopter tour to see the lava, well, I promise you won’t see much. It’s an aerial view and the helicopter stays really far from away it. Nothing beats coming up close to the lava, so if the boat idea worries you, you could always explore the option of hiking to the site. I know if I ever return to the Big Island and the lava is flowing, that’s how I’ll be viewing it.

Essential Travel Information

Flights: Tons of round-trip, direct flights from the United States available via Hawaiian Airlines.

Hotels: At the time, I was collecting and redeeming Hyatt points, so I stayed at all Hyatt properties (except for the Big Island). On the Big Island, I actually found this amazing hotel on Expedia that was pretty cheap (at least compared with other hotels on the island) was actually more like a big apartment. Seriously, it was huge. It had a living room, dining room, and even a full-sized kitchen.

Activities, tours, and everything else: No matter where you’re traveling in Hawaii, you can save a ton of money by purchasing one of these awesome coupon books from, which feature savings on pretty much everything throughout Hawaii.