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Thursday, 01 March 2018

Flying with the Doors Off: Capturing the Beauty of Kauai

Written by Jim Chamberlain
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The emerald green jungle sailed past at 150 miles per hour with nothing between me and the cliff walls but air. My helicopter tour of the island of Kauai was going to be an adrenaline charged adventure to capture the beauty of this most inaccessible pearl of the Hawaiian Islands.


I got the best spot on the Hughes 500, a 5 seat helicopter, in the right rear seat. This chopper was going to fly with no doors on the bird. The only thing between you and a thousand foot drop onto the jungle below was a 4 point harness. I hoped to get great photographs without the Aluminum and Plexiglas door between my camera lens and the beauty of the Garden Isle.

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Kauai is the farthest west of the six main Hawaiian Islands. Over 90% of the island is inaccessible by road. It has been the site of many movies from the classic “South Pacific” to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” to “Jurassic Park”, Indiana Jones’ “Raiders”, “King Kong”, and “Pirates of the Caribbean on Stranger Tides”.

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It hosts one of the wettest places on Earth and the annual rainfall creates a host of waterfalls that appear and disappear as the water flows over the steep emerald ridges and deep forested ravines. The Napali Coast is so rugged that most of it can only be reached from the water.

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I was going to try and bring back pictures of all of that in my 1 hour tour with Jack Harter Helicopters out of the Lihue Heliport. I admit that as we took off I was apprehensive. The wind was in my face and some butterflies were in my stomach. It was strange having nothing between me and the ground that was slowly getting farther away. As we picked up speed I relaxed and took in the views as we started our counter clockwise circle of the island.

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We soared over the Nawiliwili Harbor and the Menhune Fish Pond. This pond was alleged to have been built by the leprechauns of Hawaii, The Menehune. We flew over the Hulela River where Indiana Jones fled the native blowguns in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. We quickly came upon another movie locale in the famous Manawaiopuna Falls from Jurassic Park. A series of waterfalls called Kaukiuki Falls cascaded down the hills nearby. The pilot narrated our tour and his calm and clear voice thru the headset made the flight informative as well as enjoyable.

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We could see the southern coast near Poipu as we glided over a ridge of low mountains past the tunnel of trees into the mouth of the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon.


We flew into the ten mile long canyon with the tops of the mountains 1,500 feet above us and the canyon floor two thousand feet below. We got so close to some canyon walls I felt I could reach out and touch them. The red, brown, and green colors of this natural wonder create a feeling of awe.

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As we left the canyon we emerged onto the Northwestern coast to see the highlight of the tour, The Napali Coast.


The Napali Coast is a sacred place defined by extraordinary natural beauty along its 17 mile length. The Helicopter sailed past razor-sharp ridges that tower above the Pacific Ocean, revealing beautiful beaches, unusual formations, and sea caves. The rugged terrain appears much as it did centuries ago when Hawaiian settlements flourished in these deep, narrow valleys. Many of the sharp ridges reminded me of the fictitious Skull Island of “King Kong” fame. I had taken a boat tour along this coast before. However to truly see its dramatic beauty you have to view it from the air. Our pilot hovered and turned the aircraft frequently so all the passengers could take in the blue waters against the jagged mountains.

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Mt. Makena, the famous Bali Hai peak of the musical “South Pacific” appeared at the northern end of the coast and led us to the beautiful reefs, beaches, and bays of the popular tourist areas of Hanalei and Princeville. We flew past Hanalei Bay and up into deep emerald green canyons as we approached the center of the island and the wettest place on earth (or second wettest depending on the source).

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Mt. Wai’ale’ale is located in the center of Kauai. It rises 5,148 feet (1,569 m), making it the second highest peak on the island. The clouds hung to the peaks and the light dimmed giving an ominous feel to the green crater as light rain touched your cheeks. You really feel how inaccessible this part of the island is. In the back of your mind you hope your helicopter, which is now being buffeted by the winds reflecting off the canyon walls, stays in the air. You would not want to be stranded in this deep jungle. Then you see a beautiful triple waterfall and you feel the trip was worth it.


A few short minutes and we pop out of the dark canyons to see the sunlit east coast come into view. We circle the double waterfall at Wailua Falls and land shortly back at Lihue. The hour literally flew past. I only hoped my 500 images would yield the dramatic photographs that would do justice to this amazing place.

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Here are some tips I learned that may help you have a great experience. The flight can be cool so you want to dress accordingly. A light jacket and long pants will keep from shivering. If you’re prone to motion sickness take the appropriate medication.


A good high resolution camera (Nikon 810) with a wide angle zoom (16-35 mm) was my preferred choice. You want to shoot your images at a high shutter speed to offset the motion of the helicopter. You cannot use a tripod or monopod. You will be hand holding your shots. Also no lens hoods or long telephotos as anything that you stick outside the body of the helicopter can be blown off and into the rear rotor. A very bad thing!


Late morning or mid-afternoon flights give you the best chance of good light for photography. This is contrary to most rules on when to take great pictures but you want the sunlight to penetrate the deep canyons as well as bring out the deep blue of the Pacific and that happens when the sun is higher in the sky. I travelled in summer when the rains are less so you will see less small waterfalls but have a better chance of good weather. Kauai is called the Garden Isle for a reason. It gets a lot of rain and cloudy conditions in the mountains are normal.


Finally, don’t get so busy trying to photograph the sites that you don’t take regular pauses to soak in the amazing beauty and unique landscapes that you will see. Absorb it with a deep breath of the clean ocean air and it will be imprinted in your memory for a lifetime. It may be the most fun you've have had with clothes on.


©Jim Chamberlain

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Writer's Biography:

Jim Chamberlain is a 64 year old, award winning photographer and travel writer from Lacey, Washington. He has been an amateur photographer most of his life since he first borrowed his father's 35 mm camera at age 15. He still has that camera. Jim decided to pursue a second career as a professional photographer upon his retirement from law enforcement in 2011. He specializes in travel, landscapes and nature photography with a love of black and white images. Jim loves to travel with his wife, and his camera accompanies them on their adventures around the world and in their home state of Washington.

Jim has been a member and past president of The Artists' Gallery in Olympia, Washington and has been selling his photography as fine art for over 5 years in Washington and Arizona. His website contains over 500 images at


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Last modified on Thursday, 01 March 2018