Each night, The Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali shares a treasured piece of Hawaiian history with the island—a traditional cliff dive or lele kawa. I visited The Sheraton Maui to find meaning in the elusive ritual.
“The Hawaiians were the first people to do cliff diving,” the Sheraton’s cultural advisor, Jack Stone, explained. Chief Kahekili, a monumental king of Maui and Oahu during the 1700s, popularized lele kawa and gained respect from his warriors by being one of the first to jump off the lava flow just outside of the resort’s 23-acre property of present-day.
Legend said he dove heights of 200 to 300 feet, but his dive at Puu Kekaa, commonly called Black Rock, was significant because others were afraid to jump at this eerie location. “Black Rock is one of three leina, or portals to the ancestral realm, on the island. When people pass away, they jump into the afterworld here,” Jack told me.
Jack’s expertise on Hawaiian history is credited both to his background in cultural anthropology and his upbringing on Molokai. “I was one of the few who loved storytelling. Throughout the years, the kupuna (elders) would share these stories with me. I was the chosen one I guess.”
Sheraton diver Kealiiokainalu, or Kainalu for short, recounts his personal connection to cliff diving. A Kipahulu native, he grew up without electricity, without cartoons and without video games. Instead, he connected with his cousins and uncles through cliff jumping. It was both a rite of passage and a way to honor generations of brave ancestors who had jumped the same spot before. “We jump to be connected to the past,” Kainalu said, his dark, piercing eyes full of respect.
During the 18th century, only royalty could step onto the pristine area of beach adjacent to Puu Kekaa. Today the significance of the 16-foot dive from here is obscured by the throngs of visitors who frequent the area to indulge in some of the best snorkeling the island has to offer. However, Kainalu and two other divers strive to keep the history alive each night by recreating Chief Kahekili’s famous actions.
“I feel honored every time I come and do a dive because I’m perpetuating that history we’ve had for hundreds of years,” Kainalu said. He tries to channel an ancestral energy when he performs the ceremony, he added. He insists it’s more than live theater.
Twice a week, Kainalu begins the ceremony by blowing the conch shell to the four directions of the earth. Then he imagines himself making the offering to the gods as he sprints barefoot up the jagged, volcanic rock, lights the torches that trace the westernmost point of lava flow on Maui, and ultimately dives headfirst into the abyss.