I think that everyone with a bit of knowledge about volcanoes and volcanism will agree with me that volcanoes are inherently dangerous and can be detrimental to human health in a myriad of ways. At the same time they are a fascinating expression of nature’s raw power and can be incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring to watch.
This has led to the development of volcano tourism where tour guide companies arranges trips for people interested to watch volcanoes first-hand. This can be a good thing if it helps to raise awareness and knowledge about volcanoes in the general population, I will return below to the good effects.
The problem is that this is rarely the case, instead an increasing number of people are taking ever more increasing risks on volcanoes, fuelled by incompetent tour guides and all the videos on the internet showing people taking huge risks around volcanoes.
There is a lot of stunning, scary and sometimes downright stupid volcano movies out there on the internet. I divide all volcano videos into two categories. One is the documentary movies made in what I call the “Ray Mears” style.
These movies are informative, explaining and educating. They are almost always filmed by professionals with great knowledge about volcanoes using tons of safety equipment. And the photographers shooting these movies are professionals that sometimes takes limited risks so that we can watch awesome details at volcanoes without risking our lives.
Here at Volcanocafé we are blessed with having two such movie-makers commenting, Michael Ross and Michael Dalton-Smith. I will leave it to them to explain further the steps and processes they go through in making their stunning award-making documentary movies.
The second category is done in what I have dubbed the “Bear Grylls” style. Here you will find no skills to teach, no real knowledge, instead there is just gung-ho idiocy and people running around taking useless risks to produce a pointless “wow” effect.
In this category we find people touching running lava, surfing down lava on surfboards, or even trying to run on lava in tennis-shoes.
The problem with these movies are that you get jackass-intellectuals sitting at home dreaming up ever more stupid stunts, and that in turn lead to the general population losing respect for how dangerous volcanoes can be.
Volcanoes and volcanologists
(Click on the link above to watch)
In a way, the problem started with pictures and movies-clips of volcanologists poking around in volcanoes and taking quite a lot of risks. If you take these images out of context it may seem appropriate to stick things into volcanoes, or going very close to advancing lava flow fronts.
But what people miss is that these are highly trained professionals that have a job to do. Nobody knows the dangers better than they do.
But, even with the knowledge and skill they possess, quite a few field volcanologists die as they study the volcanoes that they love. It is though good to remember that these volcanologists have a good reason for the risks that they have to take and that is to save lives amongst those who reside on our near volcanoes.
A few days ago our dear friend Boris Behncke ventured up Etna to do his job ensuring the safety of the Sicilian population. We all know that he is one of the best field-volcanologist on the planet and that he is a world leading authority on lava/snow interaction.
Boris is a very careful man and he does not take any unnecessary risks. But, even with all his knowledge and care it still almost ended badly as his volcano did the unexpected. We are of course eternally grateful that our friend came out of it with only a minor cut on his head.
In the end Boris and other volcanologists have to take measured risks to be able to study volcanoes and further science to save lives. Think of them as firefighters and whatever you do, do not think about them as happy-go-lucky adventurer’s. They do an important job, nothing more, nothing less.
First of all, going up alone on a volcano is never a good idea. I do not in any way recommend people to go up on a volcano without a guide. But, remember that there are tour guides and there are tour guides.
It is important to acknowledge that volcanoes are dangerous, and even the best tour guides in the world can’t guarantee your safety 100 percent. But a good tour guide will minimize the danger and maximize your experience of the volcano.
A real tour guide will be licensed, have knowledge about the volcano and be able to inform about it, and also have skills to save your butt if something goes wrong. Such a tour guide will tell you what the limits are while visiting the volcano, explain the dangers and follow the rules and regulations around the volcano.
Above is a good example of a great tour guide, the legend of Acatenango Victor Sis. Quite likely the best volcano tour guide on the planet.
The problem is just that the volcano tour business is filled with daredevils with a Bear Grylls complex and lack in knowledge. Or people who doesn’t give jack about their customers safety and only care about maximizing their profit.
These scoundrels operate outside of the law and repeatedly break the rules and regulations around volcanoes. These guides can’t teach you anything, will risk your life, and are quite frankly not skilled enough to give you that maximized experience that you deserve for your hard-earned cash.
I think their problem is mainly that they misunderstand their customers completely. In their testosterone fuelled gryllsianism they think that the customers want danger, but most volcano tourists want to experience the volcano in a safe, picturesque and informative way.
Or, perhaps the problem is that it is quite easy to dunk tourists in lava and quite hard to give an impromptu correct mini-lecture on top of a volcano that is scientifically correct.
The authorities in many places do their best to curb the activity of these illegal gryllsians. Keeping with the Hawaiian theme of this article I will use Adventure et Volcans as a warning example. It is a French volcano tour company that operates outside the law.
In the dead of night this so-called volcano tour guide company tried to sneak down into the caldera of Kilauea to look down into the lava lake from the rim. The 13 tourists that the company brought in where fined 100$ each, the illegal tour guide company are facing trial and may be sentenced to 6 months in prison and heavy fines for, and this is not a short list of criminal conduct: “Reckless endangering in the 2nd degree; conducting illegal commercial activities within a forest reserve; entering a closed area within a natural area reserve; conducting illegal commercial activities within a natural area reserve, trespassing in the 2nd degree; and entering a closed area in a forest reserve”.
A word to the wise here, your insurance will not be valid under these circumstances and any injury will not be covered by your insurance company.
If we now look at the dangers that the French gryllsians put the tourists in, we first of all find the obvious part that traipsing about in the dark on a mountain is pretty dangerous. But, the caldera has its own particular dangers in the form of fissures, fumaroles that can cook you and hair-thin threads of lava that will destroy your lungs. There is also the risk that the lava lake rim will crumble when you stand on it, or that the caldera wall break into a rock-slide into the lava lake that causes lava waves to cover you from tip to toe. There is also the risk that gas explosions in the lava lake will hurl lava on you and lastly the not so insignificant risk of you suffocating on various deadly gasses that the volcano produces.
The ban on entering the caldera is there for very good reasons to say the least. Breaking authority bans are just stupid, they are there for very good reasons.
First of all, I must admit that I myself might be a part of the problem. After all I traipse about on erupting volcanoes. I do though have reasons for my volcano galumphing, the first is to study them and take samples, and the second reason is to be able to better inform our readers about them.
I also possess knowledge about volcanoes and how to read the relevant equipment so that I can make my own judgement calls on how to maximize my own safety. And lastly, for the more dangerous volcanoes on the planet I employ local guides, like the famed Sis-brothers in Guatemala, that has the necessary experience and knowledge to save my ass when things go pear-shaped (as it often does).
I also bring all the relevant safety equipment for the volcano in question.
I also hope that people will recommend good tour companies and post warnings about bad ones so that we can give good advice to our readers in the future on where to find them.
In the end the solution would be to set a standard for how it should be done. And in a way, I have the irking feeling that if you see a problem and solution you should do the job yourself.
Now to the surprising part, I do recommend everyone to at least once in life climb a volcano. It is a life altering experience. Just do it safely will you?