by Julie Jones
Pele’s Dolphins: When lava flow reaches speeds in excess of 28 kilometers per hour within a channel that has developed standing waves, oblong clumps of lava may be seen to leap out of the channel like dolphins at play. The conditions present for this phenomenon to occur indicate radical subsurface shifting of tectonic plates in the volcanic region on the order of three meters per day which allow massive new globules of magma to jet upwards into an existing volcanic edifice. Pele’s dolphins are the first observable evidence of this underlying though undetectable activity.
Source: F. Ka`uhane and D. Sepúlveda. “Detecting Magma Sources from Observable Phenomena: New Insights from Kilauea.” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, vol. 365, no. 2, pp. 126-137 (2021).
United States Geological Survey Form 1021B
Personnel Management Report
Subject: Danissa Sepúlveda
Submitted by: Agna Grímsdóttir
Date: July 20, 2018
It is with deep regret that I am compelled to submit this report to the official file of Dr. Danissa Sepúlveda. I had recruited her only six months previous from the Chilean Ministry of Geology and Minerals on the belief that her experience with the Andean Volcanic Belt might spark fresh insights here. Her field notes related to the incidents in question are attached as Appendix A to this report, and her video logs have been archived on the H:/ drive. However, if any failure is found with the handling of this affair, responsibility should be laid on me.
The subject of this report relates to Sepúlveda’s monitoring of the eruption of Kilauea Volcano (VNUM #332010) in the Lower East Rift Zone (LERZ) during May and June of 2018, and specifically the lava flow originating from Fissure 8 (19°27’34.2”N 154°54’37.6”W), which had become the primary eruptive fissure out of 23 new fissures. I assigned multiple teams to measure fountain height, growth of spatter cone, volume of lava venting, incidents of Pele’s hair and tears, chemical composition of lava, formation of lava channel, lava temperature and flow speed within the channel, rate of channel levee growth, incidents of levee spillover, island acreage consumed, buildings destroyed, roads enveloped, lakes evaporated, new coastal landmass created, direction and distribution of laze, seismic activity, Halema`uma`u crater ash plumage composition and drift, and subsidence of the Halema`uma`u crater.
This being Sepúlveda’s first active eruption in Hawai`i, she was surprised by our use of the terms “Pele’s hair” and “Pele’s tears” for the tephra phenomena that blows downwind from lava fountains. She found the terminology unscientific, preferring instead “volcanic glass globs” and “volcanic glass strands.” It became a heated debate during our May 9 office meeting. A few preferred her terminology, but most argued that Pele’s hair and Pele’s tears were easier to say, shorter to type, poetic, and most importantly, commonly used within the United States. Sepúlveda contended that the United States had not yet colonized the entire planet and terms should be “neutered for global scientific application.”
To ease the tension, I offered a third option that was both poetic and non-U.S.-centric, the Icelandic terms nornahár and nornatár, “hair of a norn” and “tears of a norn,” norns being something like European Fates, though the phrases are commonly mistranslated as witch’s hair and tears. But Sepúlveda said all these terms were unscientific and asked in frustration, “Why not call them Lucifer’s locks and Beelzebub’s spitballs?”
Based on the laughter her question provoked, these terms were now in the running, but before I could respond, Ka`uhane jumped in to say that Pele was not the devil and to please not transcribe Christian mythology upon native Hawaiian beliefs just because they had blazing underworlds in common. Sepúlveda asked if he actually believed “that burradas.” Ka`uhane answered that the myths are sacred regardless of what he believes, to which Sepúlveda responded that she was an ex-Catholic atheist who’d had enough of fables for her lifetime. In an attempt to get us back on track, I stressed that what was important was that we work together as a team, that we communicate well with each other. What terms we used were beside the point so long as we didn’t fail in our mission. Everyone seemed to agree upon this, though I did not call for a terminology vote. We had more pressing matters to discuss and had wasted too much time already. Certainly I noticed that Sepúlveda and Ka`uhane were at odds with each other, but sometimes friction fuels competition, and this can lead to discovery.
Despite this early stumble, I admired Sepúlveda’s professional ethic and intelligence. She worked round the clock trying to predict flow direction and channel spillovers, monitoring the camera equipment she’d installed along the upper Fissure 8 channel to measure channel flow rates. We were all working in uncharted territory. Ka`uhane, usually the first into the office each morning, discovered her most mornings already at her desk, hunched over her laptop. He once told me that he found her with palms pressed to temples, shaking her head, saying “How are we supposed to make sense of the system with these pinpricks of data points? We could have all the facts in the world and still not understand anything.” Ka`uhane said that he sometimes found it helpful to stop focusing on the data and imagine what larger story it might be trying to tell him, but she allegedly snapped back that stories were for children.
For much of May, Sepúlveda continued to speak of volcanic glass globs and strands while the rest of us spoke of Pele’s tears and hair. It felt as if she were mocking Pele and our competence, but abruptly, after two weeks, she began to use our words. Ka`uhane shared with me his relief that she’d adopting our lexicon. I asked her what had changed. She said that a few nights before, she’d been gathering data on the rough, clinkery `a`ā as it flowed downstream through the channel when the lava “hypnotized” her. Blue flames danced over the surface as black scabs crusted then crumpled under neon orange flow. “Crust and bleed,” she said. “Crust and bleed.” The sulfuric smoke charred her nostrils and scorched her eyes, and all the while small quakes rumbled beneath her feet. She spent the entire night entranced, weeping, watching, and when the sun rose, she said, “Pele was in my soul.”
Volcanologists veer to the poetic, but given her sleepless night, I cautioned her with our office slogan: “A tired volcanologist is a dead volcanologist.”
I overheard her apologizing to Ka`uhane in the hallway before our next staff meeting, saying she’d not been sleeping well and would try his story method. And she did. She asked Ka`uhane when he arrived each day, how Pele was feeling that morning, or, when he left each evening, how much deeper would Pele subside into her crater-bed that night. Ka`uhane confided to me soon after that he almost wished he had never encouraged her.
In early June, Ka`uhane mentioned to me that she’d recently asked him about Pele’s tears, but not the sort of questions he’d expected. She’d paced around his office saying: “But have you ever wondered why does Pele weep? Have you asked Her why She weeps?” Ka`uhane told me that he couldn’t tell if she was serious, but he didn’t like how she spoke of Pele as if she were a native Hawaiian. He invited her to share any relevant data with him, summarized his most recent chemical analyses for her, and suggested she not speak of Pele in nonscientific terms.
I want my staff to feel included and respected, but I thought Sepúlveda’s question was not entirely unscientific. We knew that the lava was rising from deep magma stores, from the belly of the Earth so to speak, yet still failed to understand the volcanic structure and how it fed LERZ. Furthermore, Pele on this island is nearly a synonym for the volcano. Every news reporter invokes Pele. Every tourist buys a Pele keychain. I do not share this information to excuse Sepúlveda’s behavior, but to provide context. Should Sepúlveda be admonished for using language we’d earlier encouraged her to use, that everyone on the island uses?
At the same time, some team members had begun referencing Lucifer’s locks and Beelzebub’s spitballs, to which Sepúlveda now took more offense than Ka`uhane. We often become punchy with fatigue during extended eruptions. Bad jokes are common, but I assume good intent and counseled Ka`uhane to do the same when he criticized Sepúlveda’s defense of Pele. I told him that in Iceland, visitors are always asking about our elves, wanting to believe in them and assuming we natives believe in them as well. Their questions are both sweet and tiresome, but good for the economy either way. I wished my two sons were as interested in elves and norns as they were with their video games and cell phones.
Ka`uhane said his culture wasn’t hers, Pele was no elf, and I wasn’t an Inuit native but a descendant of Viking invaders who’d colonized the island. I will admit that I got a little defensive at that and apologized later for my tone, but in the moment I informed him that the Inuit lived on Greenland, not Iceland, and requested he not belittle my elves. He said he was sorry that my culture was being corrupted with capitalism, but that comparing an indigenous goddess to European witches wasn’t fair. I suggested that he consider Pele his culture’s scientific ambassador, be grateful he had an ally in Sepúlveda, and get back to work.
During this time, Fissure 8 was discharging at its highest rates. Data collection and communicating with the authorities to monitor resident safety always takes priority over any internal squabbles and we were all tense. Lava was venting at an explosive rate of 115 cubic meters per second and fountain height was peaking at 95 meters. Near Fissure 8, standing waves had developed on the floor of the channel, a rare phenomenon akin to the washboard ripples that form on dirt or snow-packed roads, though these were larger and more widely spaced. Sepúlveda monitored the waves and her video equipment day and night.
On Monday morning, June 18, Ka`uhane came to me to file a formal complaint. He consented to my recording his statement, which I’ve edited here for brevity though the full version is attached as Appendix B. He stated:
Sepúlveda parked in my driveway last night around 22:00. Tracy was up late packing to go away to this special Hawaiian culture summer camp I signed her up for, so she saw the whole thing and was very upset. Sepúlveda started lurching around her truck, slapping her hand down on the hood every time she made a circuit, and yelling up where Tracy and I were standing in the front doorway: “But why is She pulling out Her hair? Slap! Why?! I’ll tell you why. Slap! Because She’s in pain. Slap! But what is hurting her? Slap!”
I told her to calm down and think about this logically, she was only speaking of volcanic glass globs and strands that got carried by the wind to tangle in tree branches and cellphone towers, nothing more, but she called me a hypocrite for abandoning Pele. I tried to bring her back to reality by asking what had happened to her atheism, but she asked me why I cared about her talking about Pele if I didn’t truly believe in Her. I told her it was my culture and none of her business. I asked her what information the data provided, but that made her really angry, saying the data told her everything and nothing at all.
I liked Sepúlveda when she’d first arrived here. I invited her to my grandmother’s lū`au. She even seemed to enjoy the poi. But I cannot deal with this going-native routine. My kid is so freaked she refused to go to camp this morning. She’s worried it’ll make her “crazy like that lady.” It took me months to convince Tracy to go to culture camp and now she’s begging me to let her go to surf camp with all her friends. This needs to end.
I took Ka`uhane’s complaint seriously and confronted Sepúlveda that day. She did not dispute what Ka`uhane said, but said that she was just stressed out. She apologized for offending Ka`uhane and his daughter, stating that was not her intent. She said she would pay him back the cost of the camp if he wanted. I told her that her apologies were appreciated, but apologies didn’t matter if she refused to change her behavior.
Should I have seen the signs? In retrospect, the answer is obvious. Yes, Sepúlveda was behaving oddly, perhaps that is too mild a term, but also Sepúlveda continued to do her job and I needed her on staff. I needed her expertise. Without her we would have lost valuable data of an historic eruptive event. In retrospect, perhaps I believed Sepúlveda on the brink of a scientific breakthrough. Obsession is the precursor of all progress, and she was obsessed. Maybe I hoped that she was unconsciously working out some theory for which she had no language as yet.
Two days later, it all came to a head. As previously mentioned, Sepúlveda had been recording the channels near Fissure 8 immediately below the cascades where the standing waves had established and the rough `a`ā that glowed neon orange even under the noontime sun gushed over these mounds in an admittedly gorgeous display of volcanics. Around 17:15 on Wednesday, June 20, she charged into the office yelling, “I’ve seen them! I’ve seen them!”
I had no idea what she was talking about. Fissure 8 fountain height, on average, had been slowly declining from its peak of 95 meters ten days previous, to 65 meters, but that morning the fountain had unexpectedly surged back to around 80 meters, substantially and suddenly increasing the volume of lava entering the channel, which would have animated the dynamics of the rapids in that section. I’ll admit, days like that are why I love my job, but Sepúlveda was quite brjálaður. Bonkers, I think, is the best translation. Her eyes were bloodshot. She smelled singed. Her hair was stiff and grey with ash. I asked her what data could she share, had she uploaded her numbers, but she just kept repeating, “They’re so beautiful. It’s so sad.” Then she left my office and headed down the hall.
She seemed a bit clinkery, but I also know that for those of us for whom English is a second language, we tend to speak not so well when excited. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed her words a poor translation of her thoughts. Plus, I had my hands full trying to decide whether I should recommend further evacuations.
Ka`uhane reported his interactions that afternoon with Sepúlveda in an email to HR, written in response to their subsequent internal investigation. The full email is attached as Appendix C. In relevant part, it stated:
It was about 17:30 when Sepúlveda barged my office with her laptop. She slammed it on my desk and played the official USGS video from that morning, repeating the segment from 0:08 – 0:13 three times, pointing to a spot where the channel riles up and over the standing waves. She kept asking, “Do you see them? Do you see Pele’s Nai`a?”
I didn’t know what she was talking about and felt angry that she continued to insist on speaking about Pele with me, but I was also curious what she was trying to communicate. Nai`a is Hawaiian for the type of dolphins that swim around the islands and do those spinning leaps through the air. Tourists love them. But I didn’t know of any “Pele’s Nai`a” in terms of volcanology.
In the video, I could see the channel was moving so fast that when it rode over the standing waves, oblong blurts of orange lava launched up and out of the flow, spun through the air, and splashed back into the channel. It was fun to watch, like the dolphins, but at first glance, scientifically unremarkable, only a product of velocity and channel topography.
While she was absorbed in rewatching the video, I searched our internal files, the USGS glossary, and Freundt’s From Magma to Tephra, but found no reference to her term or the phenomenon. Meanwhile, Sepúlveda had started rocking forward and back, moaning, saying, “Nāmaka kills them. Her babies. Pele’s own sister kills Her babies. That’s why She weeps.”
First Pele. Now Nāmaka, our ocean goddess. Her twisting of our myths for her own purposes was too much. Yes, she seemed disturbed, but why did she have to be disturbed with my myths? Didn’t the Catholic church give her enough material to work with? I’m sorry to say this but it’s just so typical that some mainlander would swoop in and knowing nothing of our culture invent some new story to explain something they don’t understand. She’ll probably get a published paper out of it.
I was about to tell her to leave but then the earth rumbled, the quake itself not unusual except that it felt like a 4.2 rather than the typical 3.1 that we usually get throughout the day before another subsidence event at Halema`uma`u crater, and Sepúlveda abruptly stopped her rocking, looked up, blinked twice, shut her laptop, and left my office without another word. I remember thinking that her eyes were weirdly smoldering but discounted the thought as the product of an over-active imagination due to the heat and strain we’d all been working under for so many weeks. After she left, I called Grímsdóttir and left a voicemail informing her of what had just happened, that it was possible Sepúlveda was not well.
After I heard Ka`uhane’s voice mail, I emailed, texted, and called Sepúlveda using all known work and personal email addresses and phone numbers. Receiving no response for thirty minutes, I called the police. All available units searched along both sides of the channel, though this was near impossible where the channel levee flattened and the lava flow dispersed in its two-mile-wide fan before entering the ocean. They did not find Sepúlveda or her truck. Apparently, she had turned off her phone, making impossible GPS tracking and cell phone pinging. By this time, the sun was low on the horizon and visibility dimming but for the reflected orange incandescence of the lava channel upon the underbellies of ash plumes and clouds which gave light to the search.
The police put out an APB for her truck, soon located in the parking lot of Best Island Boat Rental. Manny Māhoe, owner and manager, confirmed that he rented a deep-sea fishing boat to Sepúlveda around 18:45. She had not yet returned. The Coast Guard immediately dispatched a chopper to search near the most active ocean entries where the laze billowed up like cumulus. They barely reached Sepúlveda in time, discovering her unconscious in the bottom of the boat just before it sank. She suffered burns and contusions from flying debris as well as lung damage from hydrochloric acid inhalation. The fiberglass hull had melted through in two spots in the prow, water was leaking in, volcanic matter was strewn through the boat and melting through the deck, and a collection pail in the stern was partially filled with water and molten lava. We can be grateful that she at least had had the presence of mind to wear standard protective clothing, otherwise she would surely be dead.
Two days ago, I visited Sepúlveda at Hilo Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Unit where she had been transferred after her physical health stabilized. I asked her what it was she thought she had been doing that night. Her voice was rough, as if `a`ā churned in her lungs, though her face was slow and smooth as pahoehoe. She said: “I was saving Her children, scooping up Pele’s Nai`a before Nāmaka could kill them. I was going to catch and release them back to Fissure 8.”
I explained to her that it was molten lava she was dealing with, not dolphins, that we were scientists, not myth-makers. But she said there was no difference except in the amount of data feeding the story. “Facts failed me,” she said. “Pele showed me.”
Fissure 8 continues to erupt though her tide is waning. Ka`uhane is making headway with his analysis. Sepúlveda remains on long term disability leave until her doctors reassess her fitness to return to duty. I retain small hope for a breakthrough that will vindicate this episode, but we must commit ourselves to failure if we are ever to make any progress.
Julie Jones holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, and the Cincinnati Review: miCRo. You can find her at juliemjones.com.