One day in August 2016, Erik Storm headed to the closest volcano for work.
Storm is the owner and lead guide of Kīlauea EcoGuides, a Hawaiian tour operation that has "Volcano" in its P.O. Box address. He normally treks out to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on the "Big Island" three or more times each week to lead tours. On that day in August, he was leading a group of San Francisco tourists, his camera equipment in tow.
During the hike, Storm set down his GoPro HERO4 Black action camera in a crevice that formed when lava seeped over the landscape in 2012. He also has a Nikon camera and accompanies professional photographers on tours of the volcano, so he's familiar with filming in extreme conditions. He had placed the camera in this kind of position—wedged between rocks and aimed at the flow—hundreds of times before. But this time, the molten rock was flowing faster than usual.
Storm was so engrossed in telling a story about the Polynesian fire goddess Pele that he forgot about the expensive camera. Then he saw a flame emerging from the crack in the Earth. His GoPro was toast.
"We never intentionally would put anything in the path of the lava," Storm says. "That was a $400 mistake."
Singe and Rescue
The 2016 video resurfaced this month after an Israeli photographer accidentally melted the camera on his drone while flying over the lava flows in Hawai'i. That camera is still functional, though partially melted. That story caused many people to discover Storm's incident for the first time.
Storm's GoPro met a fiery demise but the guide was able to hack the camera out of the crevice with his rock hammer and retrieve the footage while the rock cooled. After about 20 minutes, he says the camera body was cool enough to handle with leather gloves, so he swaddled it in a towel and brought it back home with him.
He still keeps the camera's housing—which is, ironically, waterproof—in his office, though he's disposed of the battery properly and took the remaining carnage to a technology recycling center.
Now, Storm has three GoPro cameras, which he uses for volcano tours and surfing. National Geographic contacted GoPro, Inc. for comment but the company did not return any requests by the time this article went to press.
Shouting in Church
Storm says that to locals, the volcano is "like church." According to Hawiian mythology, the island's peaks are sacred and godly. It's considered disrespectful to poke the lava, cook with it, or tamper with it in any way, he adds.
"I respect the place where I work to the fullest and work hard to make sure people understand that this is a very sacred place that commands respect," Storm says. "We want the whole world to know how sacred and special this place is."
Although slow-moving, lava can reach more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and it can burn through pretty much anything. For the safety of their guests, Kīlauea EcoGuides routinely supply their clients with leather gloves, volcanic gas respirators, and lights, since they often finish their hikes after the sun has gone down. Storm says they sometimes carry 40 to 50 pounds of equipment in their backpacks, including water and first aid supplies.
"If you're going to come to the active volcano, we just ask people to respect the place and not touch the lava," Storm says. He says the burned GoPro was an "honest accident on my part."