By David Henderson, co-founder and publisher, BoomerCafé.
If you are ever visiting Hawaii’s Big Island when one of its volcanos is erupting, there’s a chance you may see Mick Kalber in action. Mick – a baby boomer now in his early 60s – moved to Hawaii 30 years ago and reinvented his career from that of TV news photographer to the world’s leading “volcanographer,” a term he coined.
As a volcanographer, he has captured film and video images of volcanic eruptions on Hilo that we have seen on TV news, documentaries and motion pictures. It’s a far cry from his former life.
“I wanted an adventure. I had visited a friend on the big island and fell in love with the place and wanted to find another line of work,” he says.
While Hilo has no TV stations, it has volcanoes – active, incredible, picturesque and dangerous volcanos. Mick bought a video camera and started capturing spectacular images of eruption like no one had ever before seen … up close.
His luck began with the high-fountaining eruption of Kilauea – red-hot molten lava shooting 1,200 feet high. He was there to capture the action, and TV news stations were ready to pay for his video.
“I’d never seen anything remotely like that! The landscape looked like the moon … and here was incandescent liquid rock doing what rock is not supposed to do … jetting into the air nearly as high was any building in the world … the sight boggled the mind!
“That activity lasted less than a day … not long enough for other photographers to get to Hilo. But it occurred every three to four weeks, like clockwork. Thus began the last 30 years of my documenting the world’s most active volcano.
“The massive 2,000 degree eruption gave way to a fissure, the formation of a lava lake, which fed flows to the communities of Kapa`ahu and Kalapana, destroying several dozen houses in late 1986 and entering the ocean for the first time in ten years. I knew then I had a story to tell.”
That historic eruption of Kilauea led to Mick’s first documentary, “VolcanoScapes … Pele’s March to the Pacific.”
Since then, his stock footage has appeared in the Hollywood movie, “Volcano,” TV commercials, and countless programs not only on TV news but The History Channel, Discovery and National Geographic. He found that the volcanos have given him a new and prosperous career. But, there have been dangers, too.
“I’ve had methane (gas formed by organic material that decomposes w/o oxygen) explosions go off under my feet. There are two types … one with a flame and one without. Fortunately the one that went up my pant leg had no flame. Scared the bejesus outta me though.
“I’ve melted countless pairs of shoes, tripod legs, video recorders … and have singed my eyebrows and hair any number of times. Burns on my arms and face have been minor … kind of like a mild sunburn.
“I do not wear protective clothing when shooting the lava flows. The main reason is that if it’s too hot for me to be there, it’s definitely too hot for my gear.
“Stood at the Pu`u `O`o Vent (active bent of the current eruption) and shot straight down into the throat … some 400 feet. I had to be right at the edge with crumbling cinders continually breaking off. To get there, I stepped over cracks a foot or more wide to stand somewhere I know will no longer exist at some point … but hopefully not while I’m standing there.
“Had I not been shooting, I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to do it, but the camera functions kept me distracted from the dangers. And, I got shots of a 60 foot high undulating dome of lava unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. But for the longest time afterward I was thinking, What the hell was I doing up there!”
Mick says his greatest pleasure in documenting Kilauea is not making money from selling stock footage or DVDs but rather witnessing “one of nature’s most amazing spectacles, and to be able to share those sights and sounds with people around the world.”
After a divorce years ago, Mick also found another love in Hawaii – in 2001, he and his old friend Ann Whittemore married. And … as you might imagine, the ceremony was performed near the steaming ocean entry of volcano lava. “A very hot relationship,” he says with a smile. They live in Hilo, about 30 miles from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the Kilauea crater.
A career reinvented … passion and pleasure in his work … and finding the love of his life. Who said baby boomer years are not exciting?!
Special thanks to Ann Kalber for use of her photos.