HILO — The year was 1982. Vangelis’ instrumental, “Chariots of Fire,” topped the Billboard Top 40 charts. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park welcomed less than 2 million visitors.
The following year, Pele unveiled her own chariot of fire and the park saw its visitor numbers spike nearly 13 percent to 2.25 million.
“While we (didn’t 30 years ago and still) don’t ask guests … why they came. I feel confident that (it) was largely because of Puu Oo,” said park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane of the attendance jump.
On Thursday, park officials recognized 30 years since the ongoing eruption at Puu Oo began, sparking a renewed interest in Hawaii Island’s unique volcanic attractions.
While the current lava flows from Puu Oo Crater run southeast to the ocean, they are hard to reach for most tourists. However, they have helped to publicize and popularize Hawaii’s volcanic activity, attracting millions to the volcano’s more accessible Halemaumau Crater.
“We’ve seen a huge increase as a result of the eruption activity,” Ranger Kupono McDaniel said. “‘Where’s the lava?’ is probably the question we get the most, other than ‘Where’s the bathroom?’”
McDaniel said he feels privileged to have worked at the park since 1997, and in that time said he has seen the repeated rise and fall of the vent, as the Hawaiian goddess Pele displays her awesome destructive and, simultaneously, creative power.
“It’s been an exciting time,” he said. “I totally connected to this eruption, emotionally.”
The early days of the eruption, beginning Jan. 3, 1983, were perhaps its most spectacular, with fountains of lava shooting more than 1,000 feet into the air. That activity has largely pervaded the public perception of what goes on at Kilauea year-round, McDaniel said.
“There’s a lot of hype,” he said. “But once they get here, they get to see so many of the other spectacular things the park offers.”
With nary a raindrop in sight, Thursday morning was a perfect opportunity for visitors to take in the park’s many attractions.
Toronto-area residents Bill and Christine Bryant had just arrived at the park with their children, Liam and Ella. It was their first trip to the Big Island, and the park was near the top of their list of things to do. The first thing Liam did was fog up his glasses by standing at the mouth of an open steam vent.
“Wow, it sure is hot!” he exclaimed, as each parent documented the encounter with their own camera.
At the Halemaumau Overlook, David and Lauren Pratte were visiting from the Bay Area.
“I was here a long time ago,” Lauren said, “but he’s never been.”
The couple said a trip to the park was a must for their vacation.
“It’s a pretty amazing sight,” David said.
First-time visitors hailing from outside of Manchester, England, Philip and Barbara Jones said their expectations for the volcano had been more than exceeded.
“This is more spectacular than we imagined,” Philip said. “I’ve seen other volcanoes before, including in Italy, but this …”
“It’s just so vast,” interjected his wife.
“Yes,” Philip agreed, “like much of America. Vast. … I just didn’t expect it to be so spectacular.”