Few sights in nature are as awesome as molten lava pouring into the ocean.
This fearsome yet beautiful process slowly builds islands like Hawaii — arguably the tallest mountain on Earth, thanks to the Kilauea volcano — by rapidly cooling the liquefied rock into new land, throwing up billowing clouds of steam in the process.
Every once in awhile, though, an extra-special phenomenon occurs below these piping-hot clouds: A vortex of steam will rise up from the ocean and merge with the larger plume.
Catching one or two vortices form is rare enough, says Bruce Omori, a native-Hawaiian photographer, but in 2009 he caught at least six drop out of a plume — all at once:
“These vortices form and dissipate so quickly, it’s always a challenge to capture images of them,” Omori told Business Insider in an email. Seeing this many at the same time, he says, was a “once in a lifetime experience.”
Omori saw a similarly exceptional batch of steam tornadoes just two weeks before taking this image, which we first saw at the photography community site 500px. But Omori says he was too gobsmacked to do anything at the time.
“I just stood there, watching… and watching… and watching… until I finally realized that I could’ve shot the scene if I had pulled out my gear!” he says. “Wanted to kick myself for not trying.”
He was determined not to miss the next batch of vortices, if he ever saw such a sight again — and luckily, he did during a hike across the lava fields of Waikupanaha. When he spotted the steam vortices, he quickly pulled out his camera, changed a lens, and captured a few images. “Never saw another like this since,” Omori says, calling the scene “incredible”.
Vortices like these form only if lava steam plumes induce “a spin upon columns of rising air from the heated sea,” Omori says. These columns twist upward and become visible by carrying steam at the water’s surface into the plume.
“[T]hey do not create a lot of sound, although a bit of whirring can be heard if close enough,” Omori says.