Photographer James Balog in front of a "skylight," an opening in a lava tube
"We took a helicopter to the rim and hiked about a mile [1.6 kilometers] into the steaming cauldron of Kilauea's Pu'u 'O'o crater to this skylight. Geologists call the skylight the Cookie Monster because it really looks like the shape of the character on Sesame Street.
"We were very aware that the crust was very thin beneath our feet. This part of the mountain was covered in very fragile, brittle lava. It was literally like walking on half-inch- to three-inch-thick [1.27-centimeter to 7.6-centimeter-thick] eggshells. During the course of normal walking, the rocks would go 'boom' and collapse, dropping you up to 2 feet [0.6 meter]. We always hit terra firma, but I kept thinking, I hope this next collapse isn't connected to the lava tube!
"Because the danger of getting hit by lava was even higher in the crater, a geophysicist I know suggested I wear this Nomex flight suit, which is made for military pilots who run the risk of being in a burning aircraft. The material won't melt or catch fire.
"The Cookie Monster emits a sulfuric gas strong enough to almost knock you out. I wore a gas mask customized for the specific chemical mixtures found in Kilauea."
Photographer James Balog
- Camera: Nikon D100
- Lens: 80-200mm
- Shutter speed: 1/60
- Aperture: f/2.8
- Time of day: late morning
"It's pouring rain. We'd been in a ferocious lightning storm for 45 minutes when we shot that pictureI was soaked to the skin. We used a telephoto lens and a wide-open aperture, which blurs the background so you can't see the actual raindrops."