‘Very dangerous:’ Officials unaware Coast Guard let tour boats get closer to lava in Hawaii

HAWAII — Officials on Hawaii’s Big Island said they were not aware and not asked for input when the US Coast Guard granted certain vessels — namely lava tour boats — special permission to get closer to active lava flows in the ocean.

“We would have liked to have known so we could give some input,” said Wil Okabe, managing director of Hawaii County on Wednesday.

“The lava in the ocean is very unpredictable. If that particular tour boat had gone several feet to the right, that explosion would have gone into the hull instead of the roof,” Okabe said. “It’s a very unpredictable situation. It’s very dangerous.”

A flying hunk of lava hit a tour boat and injured 23 people, who were aboard a tour boat named Hot Shot on Monday morning in Kapoho Bay, the Hawaii County Fire Department said.

The so-called lava bomb punctured the roof of the boat, as witnesses said that the people on board were getting pelted and screaming.

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment.

After Monday’s incident, the US Coast Guard extended the required safety zone surrounding active lava flows in Hawaii.

Boats in Hawaii were already required to be at least 300 meters, or nearly 1,000 feet, away from lava flows at all times, the Coast Guard said. But certain research and commercial vessels — including Hot Shot — had special permission to make a closer approach. In the wake of the lava bomb injuries, the Coast Guard said all boats must adhere to the 300-meter rule.

Sara Muir, a Coast Guard spokesperson, said Tuesday that any time a boat gets near an active volcano, you are “accepting a higher level of risk.” Licensed mariners must rely on good judgment, she said.

Officials are interviewing the crew and passengers as part of an investigation into what happened, Muir said.

How it’s affecting tourism

Okabe says the volcano has affected tourism on the Big Island.

The latest numbers from the Hawaii Tourism Authority show increases in the amount of airline tickets purchased for Hawaii, hotel rates and occupancy as well as visitor spending statewide, but the data is only available through May.

Kilauea erupted on May 3, and has since continued to be active.

“Throughout the world, the news spread it was unsafe to come to the island and that’s not true. When people see that devastation, they think it’s the whole island, but it’s not. It’s 2% of the island,” Okabe said.

“The tourism industry here on the Big Island and throughout the state are trying to send the message that Hawaii is a safe place.”

For the past month, Hawaii County officials have been looking for a site to establish safe lava viewing areas on land.

“I’m sure people around the world will want to see this lava flow. It’s unlike anything most have ever seen,” Okabe said.

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim has instructed staff to look for a safe viewing site, he said.

“But the most important thing is safety — to mitigate hazard and risk,” Okabe said.

County officials hope to choose the land-based lava viewing site in the next couple weeks.

“This safe viewing will be a tremendous boon to tourism on the island,” said Okabe. “People want that excitement. It’s an exciting thing to view.”

Such a viewing site would have to be approved for safety measures, which has to be done by the state’s Department of Health and the US Geological Survey, CNN affiliate KHON reported.Establishing a lava viewing area could help businesses in the area that have been hard hit over the last two months.

“Every business, I think in the area from Volcano down to Pahoa area, has lost business from 20% to 80%,” Kim told the station. “And anything can help. Naturally, that is our job, so we’re gonna try to keep looking for things. Hopefully, things will stabilize better.”