Trip Report: Big Island of Hawaii – January 2022

I’ve been going to the Big Island of Hawaii every winter for almost four years now. It’s become one of my favorite winter destinations for photography. Not only is the photography exceptional, but the food, weather, and Hawaiian lifestyle all make it an incredible destination. I mean the Big Island even has five volcanoes, one of which is active right now (Kilauea). The Big Island has it all!

Our Big Island of Hawaii tour can be broken down into two sections, Kona (west side) and Hilo (east side). These two Big Island cities lie at almost the exact same latitude but tell a very different tale from one another. 

The Kona area is one of the most beautiful areas across all of the Hawaiian Islands. It gets very little rain, has gorgeous white and black sand beaches, and is home to many of the resorts on the Big Island. It is also adjacent to the Kohala Coast, which has lush eroded cliffsides and features a major travel corridor for wintering humpback whales.

Hilo is much different. It’s the local side. Hilo has a more ‘Hawaiian’-Esque climate. It’s more tropical, with higher humidity and precipitation. This leads to a drastically different landscape on the east side. It’s lusher, with waterfalls cascading down valleys and jungle-like forests at every turn. Its shoreline isn’t as protected either, so many beaches endure crashing waves and rough water. Hilo is also close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to the most active volcano in the world, Kilauea. 

We begin our trip on the Kona-side of the island, and things start with a “bang” as we head out to sea on a boat charter to seek out whales and other marine wildlife.

As I mentioned, the Kohala Coast is the winter home to many humpback whales. They migrate from Alaska to the shores of Hawaii for winter. The warm waters of Hawaii have a few advantages that allow humpbacks to successfully rear young. 

Our charter this year was one of the best ever. Immediately out of the harbor we saw a couple of humpbacks, one even breached out of nowhere and fairly close to us. It’s rare to see whales outside the harbor and it set the tone for the morning. We proceeded to see a mom and calf, who played next to the boat for a while. We also saw multiple manta rays feeding, a few monk seals, and spinner dolphins. Pulling back into the harbor we saw another boat with eyes over the side, we never had a visual, but our captain thought the boat was following a tiger shark! One of the best days I’ve ever experienced on the water.


 


While on the Kona side, we visited some of the excellent restaurants and nearby beaches. I really enjoy the Kona beaches. You can find everything from rugged, lava rock beaches to pristine sand beaches. We shoot sunset at one of each while near Kona.

The first is a lava rock coastline that gets some really nice crashing waves. There’s a well on the beach that is very similar to Thor’s Well along the Oregon Coast. The well was a little tricky during our visit, high surf and tide made it quite dangerous, but we found some other spots along the shore that had great wave action. 

The second beach is pristine. It’s in a gorgeous bay, with palm trees surrounding it. It has that classic ‘Hawaii’ look. We even saw a monk seal resting on the shore at this one. Although both our sunsets in Kona didn’t yield many clouds, we still found some great shots with the high surf. The waves were great. 

Another big highlight on this trip was on our final morning in Kona. We did a doors-off helicopter tour of the Kohala mountains. Kohala is a volcano on the Big Island that has since caved in on itself and the coastline has eroded. It looks much more like Kauai or Oahu than the rest of the Big Island. The coastline has numerous eroded valleys and cliffs, with waterfalls seemingly everywhere. Our ‘doors-off’ heli trip focused on this area and we got a beautiful day to fly. If you’ve never flown doors off, Hawaii is the place! It is an incredible experience and after the flights, everyone was on an adrenaline high and ready to go back up in the air!

On the Hilo side, we had two big focuses during the week. Volcano and waterfalls.

Hilo is close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to the caldera of Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The volcano is erupting but is in a period of flux. It erupts for 3-4 days, then pauses for 3-4 days, and repeats. We caught it just at the end of its active cycle. We went out one night after dinner and shot some glowing lava under the cover of darkness. It’s amazing how dark the night sky is in Hawaii and we did some wide-angle astrophotography over the volcano, as well as close-up telephoto shots. We were hopeful the volcano would stay active for a few more shoots, but that’s how things go sometimes. 

We also chased a few waterfalls on the Hilo side. We visited Rainbow Falls, Akaka Falls, and Uma’uma Falls. All are nestled in lush valleys that offer a much different perspective than the arid Kona side. We also visited an incredible botanical garden just outside the city. The garden hosts many plants and highlights some iconic Hawaiian species. My favorite is the giant monkey pod in the middle of the garden. 

The Hilo side also has some nice beaches and shorelines. We visited two that stick out in particular. The first is Punalu’u Beach. It’s a black sand beach located on the south shore. It’s a classic spot for green sea turtles. When we got to the beach for sunset, two turtles were making their way back into the ocean. We just missed them. But, a little before sunset, a few turtles ventured out of the ocean and onto the sand to rest. We caught a few of them with the last glow of sunset. 

Speaking of turtles, we did pretty well for honu’s/green sea turtles on this trip. We made some stops around Kona and saw maybe 20+ turtles. Some are resting and some are feeding in the protected waters. Humpbacks and turtles are essential for me, can’t go to the Big Island without seeing both!

Overall, it was a great workshop. We had some great highlights. The whale watching was phenomenal. A doors-off helicopter trip is one of those once-in-a-lifetime activities, and where better to do it than in Hawaii. And along the way, we visited a ton of different beaches. Saw massive cliffs, flat beaches, arid grasslands, two 13,000 ft volcanoes, endemic birds, the list goes on!

We ate well too. I think Big Island and Kauai offer the best food you can find in a Backcountry Journeys workshop. We had lots of poke, acai bowls, great fine dining, and even a loco moco or two along the way. If you don’t know what a loco moco is, you’ll just have to join for 2023 to find out!

Matt Meisenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin.  His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special.  Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.

Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.

As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.

You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com

 

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