Brazilian kayaking champion Pedro Oliva has made a career out of surviving 100-foot waterfall descents, but never had he paddled in boiling waves. Last April, Oliva navigated six-foot swells off the southeastern tip of Hawaii's Big Island as Kilauea volcano spewed molten lava into the sea. "At one point, the wind shifted and we were completely engulfed in steam," says Benjamin Stookesbury, another kayaker on the trip. "It definitely felt like a place we shouldn't be."
Oliva, Stookesbury, and Chris Korbulic were in Hawaii filming an episode for the Brazilian adventure series Kaiak, but a season of scarce rainfall had dried up many of the islands' rivers. When the team discovered that Kilauea was erupting, they booked a charter boat to the action, although no one dared to go as close as Oliva did – at one point, he climbed between volcanic rocks, dipped his paddle into flowing lava, and then held it up. "It looked like he was holding the Olympic torch," says photographer Alexandre Socci. Oliva, 32, wore only protective sunglasses and a thin rain jacket as he maneuvered his eight-foot, seven-inch kayak between explosive globules of magma adrift in the 156-degree sea. "He was bursting the lava bubbles with his paddle," Stookesbury says. "I've seen Pedro walk away from so many drops, but I'm not used to him pushing everyone's comfort level like that. He has a sixth sense about kayaking."