Get to Know Volcano Tour Guide Erik Storm

When Erik Storm graduated from the University of Hawaii, he was looking for an opportunity to use his double degree in botany and Hawaiian culture — and decided that becoming a professional volcano tour guide was a perfect fit. For the past six years, he’s conducted private explorations of Kilauea volcano (on the Big Island of Hawaii) that are both exciting and educational. Part of his connection to Kilauea comes from living in Volcano Village, a community that cares about the preservation of Kilauea and its unique native ecosystems. The volcano is literally in his backyard, a living laboratory and playground — and his passion for his work earned him the 2014 Ecotour Guide of the Year award from the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, which considers factors such as accurate cultural interpretations and conservation-based practices.
How did you make the transition to becoming a tour guide?

I had actually considered becoming a teacher after graduation, but found opportunity with the now-closed company Volcano Discovery Hawaii. Working with this unique group of scientists and naturalists showed me that sharing Kilauea in-depth with visitors filled that desire to teach in a unique way. If you asked me 15 years ago when I moved to Hawaii if I would be interested in being a tour guide, I would most likely have said no — but the path of life brought me to a position that I’m now very passionate about.

What does a typical day look like for you?

As owner of Kilauea Ecoguides, I do everything from payroll to taking out the recycling! A typical day requires me to wear many different hats, (but) I just love to get out into the field and away from the laptop when I can. With Hawaii Volcanoes National Park being one of the top destinations in the entire state, the booking process always keeps us on our toes. I could not do it without the assistance of my wife, Malia, who is our office manager. I suppose there is no such thing as a typical day when you work on the world’s most active volcano — you have to be ready for just about anything here on Kilauea.

What’s the current eruption situation?

The current eruption activity on Kilaueas East Rift Zone is both exciting and tragic. We have not seen lava flowing so close to populated areas since the 1990s, so for my colleagues and myself this is the first time in our careers that we get to witness such a spectacle. We are monitoring the situation daily … (but) the main focus is respect for the communities and residents impacted by the current eruption. I feel like taking visitors to go see someone’s house being burned down by lava is very disrespectful, so we do not conduct tours anywhere near where the lava is flowing at this time. The last time we were able to safely and legally access the flows was back in September 2013 in the isolated area of Kalapana, and at some point the flows will likely return to this area at which point we can again offer our lava hike option. There are some companies taking advantage of the flows impacting populated communities — they are doing so illegally — (but) there is so much to do and see near the summit of Kilauea that we focus on that area.

What is the best part of your job?

I would have to say meeting different people from around the globe. We get everyone from PhD scientists to families with young children and everyone in between. All of our guests have different reasons to come to the Big Island of Hawaii, but the common thread is to experience Kilauea up close and personal. We have been fortunate to have so many interesting guests, and most of them have been absolutely crucial to the growth of our business. Many go home to share their experience with family and friends, and some even come back two or three times for a tour because Kilauea is always changing. I suppose being able to access flowing lava up close and personal would come in a close second — a truly unique opportunity that I feel blessed and honoured to have.

What is the most bizarre experience you’ve had on a guided tour?

I had a woman travel all the way from Berlin, by herself, just so she could sit as close to the flowing lava as possible and listen to it. When we are able to get within a hand’s reach of the lava, nine out of 10 guests cannot take their eyes off of it, as it can be rather mesmerizing. Many leave with literally hundreds of photos of the lava — but not this guest from Berlin. She sat with her eyes closed for nearly two hours only to listen to the sounds the lava makes. This particular guest did not travel to any other parts of Hawaii — she flew into the Hilo Airport, hiked to the lava and flew home. I do not think many can say they would travel halfway around the world just to listen to flowing lava. Truly unique.

What do you differently from the big bus tour groups?

Just about everything you can imagine! We consider our operation on the other end of the spectrum from these types of tours, and one of our goals is to avoid huge crowds while exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. One strong contrast is that our guides stay with our guests for the entire tour, as opposed to telling people to walk around and come back in X amount of minutes. We also focus on in-depth education on the science and culture of Kilauea, whereas many of the big bus and van tours take you to the most popular spots only to take photos. We also prefer to book guests who want to get off the beaten path and explore areas of geological and historical significance that few get to see while visiting Kilauea. Our goal is to have our guests leave with a deepened understanding of what is really happening here on this volcano, and not just photos and cheap souvenirs.

In your opinion, what are the benefits of hiring a guide?

For tours of Kilauea specifically, hands down the top benefit is safety. With the unpredictable nature of this volcano it can be very dangerous to explore on your own, and over the past few decades some bad situations (have arisen) when people try to see isolated areas on their own. Many get lost for days, injured badly or worse. On top of the safety factor, having a professional guide — and when I say professional I mean someone that has been exploring Kilauea for many years — will help to answer specific questions that visitors may have. Our professional guides also know the best hidden locations on the volcano due to years of experience and how to avoid the big crowds in certain areas during specific times of the day.

What is something about Kilauea that only an experienced guide would know?

I would have to say true respect for the cultural aspects of Kilauea. With this volcano being so scientifically significant, many come here just to learn about the unique geology and biology of the area, but there is so much more. I have had guests with very strong scientific backgrounds book tours with no interest in the cultural aspects of the volcano, and at some point on the tour that changes in most cases. The Hawaiian culture is just as — if not more — important than the scientific aspects of Kilauea. Scientists have only been documenting various aspects for a little over 100 years, and Hawaiian people have been celebrating and documenting the uniqueness of Kilauea far before that — the primary example (being) Pelehonuamea, the goddess of Kilauea. The story of this volcano is just not complete without learning to understand and respect Pele and the history she has here.

Do you have any tips for people looking to hire a guide?

Shop around and do your research. The types of tours we offer are not for everyone. We tend to be very active, with lots of hiking involved, and some visitors to Hawaii come here to relax. If you are not sure what to look for, try to find a company or guide with several years of actual experience on the volcano, not just a geology degree. Scientists are a dime a dozen here on Kilauea, but someone who actually lives on the volcano and participates in the surrounding communities can really make a difference in someone’s experience here. There are over 300 tour companies on this island alone to choose from, so take some time to research the options and choose wisely.

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