The Cultural Significance to Cliff Jumping in Hawaii

The Islands continue to lure thrill-seekers looking to leap off picturesque—and dangerous—cliffs and rocks.
Jumping off the giant rock in Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore—commonly called Jump Rock—has become almost a rite of passage for visitors to the island. It's also very dangerous. Photo: Marvin Rodriguez

As a traveler, there are some things I’ll never do.

I won’t eat whale or turtle meat, I won’t surf alone at an unfamiliar break and I won’t jump off a cliff into a body of water.

I tried to do that last one, standing at the edge of Ka Lae, or South Point, on Hawaii Island about 20 years ago. Salty sea breezes whipped around my face as I stood on a rickety platform at the southernmost point of the island, the cliffs lined with poles of ulua (giant trevally) fishermen. I remember gazing out at the expanse of ocean and thinking the next landmass out there is Antarctica. It was frightening.

My friends had all jumped off the edge, plunging 40 feet into the cold Pacific Ocean. They urged me to do it, dispensing clichéd advice: “Oh, it’s really not that bad,” and “If I can do it, you can do it.” But I stood there frozen, my knees shivering, my shoulders tensing. I never liked the feeling of falling—roller coasters are not my thing—so this didn’t seem fun at all.

I wouldn’t do it. I stepped away from the platform, happy about my decision. I’ve never regretted it since.

Jumping off a rocky ledge on Oahu’s West Side.
Photo: Marvin Rodriguez

Cliff diving isn’t for everyone. But a growing number of thrill-seekers, lured mostly by videos on social media, are seeking out the Islands’ cliffs, bridges and rocks to jump from. They dismiss the dangers—just in April a 40-year-old man from Santa Monica, California, died after jumping off a point at Shipwreck Beach on Kauai—and ignore the posted warning signs. The thrill—and Instagram post—outweigh the threats.

But you can’t argue the appeal. Videos of people leaping off waterfalls or rugged cliffs into the ocean are mesmerizing. Just pull up clips from the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, which held its final 2010 event in Hilo on Hawaii Island, with divers plunging 85 feet from the top of Kawainui Falls. These athletes, all highly skilled and trained, perform intricate combinations of flips and twists before hitting the water feet first at nearly 60 miles an hour.

Cliff diving isn’t new. In fact, its history dates back more than two centuries to Hawaii. The sport of lele kawa (leaping feet-first from a cliff into water, with splashing) was popularized by King Kahekili of Maui. The chief would also challenge his warriors to leap feet-first off Puu Kekaa, commonly known as Black Rock, in Kaanapali. It wasn’t the height of the dive—30 feet—that was daunting; Puu Kekaa is a leina-a-ke-akua, or portal to another realm, making this spot particularly eerie and very sacred. This is where the spirits of those who have died jump into the afterworld. For the living, jumping from this spot was a display of loyalty and courage.

Since 1963, a diver still makes the plunge every night here, as part of a cultural ceremony put on by the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, which sits on 23 oceanfront acres that include Puu Kekaa. The diver begins the ceremony by blowing a conch shell to the four directions of the earth. Then he sprints barefoot up the jagged volcanic rock, lights the torches that trace the westernmost point on Maui, and dives headfirst (not feet-first, as tradition) into the ocean. Witnessing the ceremony is both beautiful and unnerving, particularly if you have travel rules like mine.

Many people—residents included—don’t know the cultural significance of cliff diving or its place in Hawaii history. But for whatever reason—social media, word-of-mouth, a strong desire to YOLO on vacation—Hawaii has become a destination for diving. Like the scene in the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where a heartbroken Peter Bretter leaps off Laie Point on Oahu to prove he isn’t a coward, the experience can be both exhilarating and very dangerous. (A 38-year-old Honolulu man died here in April 2015.)

There are signs on the beach, and even on the rock, warning of the danger of jumping here.
Photo: Marvin Rodriguez

Jumping off the giant rock in Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore—commonly called Jump Rock—has become almost a rite of passage for visitors to the island, landing on bucket lists and travel itineraries. There are no special rules or regulations prohibiting people from making the 30-foot leap from this rock, but city officials, including lifeguards, don’t recommend it. The city has published videos on YouTube, posted warning signs at the beach and on the rock, and provided information for hotels and on websites cautioning people against doing it. “The major issue at Jump Rock is injuries sustained by individuals jumping or diving and either hitting the rock itself or hitting the shallow bottom,” says Jim Howe, director of the city’s Honolulu Emergency Services Department, which oversees Honolulu lifeguards. “This has resulted in numerous trauma and cervical spinal injuries.”

Still, they haven’t stopped people from taking the leap.

Two years ago, Julie Cao, who had been living on Oahu for three years, decided to finally face her fear and dive off the rock in Waimea Bay. “I had seen so many of my friends do it and they said it was fun,” says Cao, who writes a travel blog called Always on the Way. “I am afraid of heights and that is what had prevented me from jumping. But I thought to myself I should push my limits and give it a try.”

Cao climbed the rock and made her way toward the edge, knowing she had to jump off. Climbing back down wasn’t an option.

She stood on the top of the rock for half an hour, watching other people, some first-timers, leap off the edge. She couldn’t do it.

Standing behind her was a girl who Cao had seen jump off the rock a few times earlier. “Do you want to jump together?” she asked the girl, hoping a partner would ease her fear. “Sure,” she agreed, grabbing Cao’s hand. They walked to the edge, counted down from three and jumped.

“I cannot believe the girl said yes,” Cao says. “I barely knew her and she inspired me.”

That jump helped Cao overcome her fear of heights and opened her up to other thrilling experiences such as parasailing and skydiving.

“I would definitely do it again when I’m back in Hawaii,” she says.

As I watch a young diver run down the beach fronting the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, then dash across black lava rock, torch in hand, up Puu Kekaa, I don’t feel any pangs of envy. I respect his choice to honor his heritage by voluntarily hurling himself 30 feet, headfirst, into the ocean. It’s sunset, and I sit back at the aptly named Cliff Dive Grill and enjoy my Black Rock mai tai. There’s no need to experience whatever exhilaration people get diving from a rock—bridge, cliff, whatever—into the ocean. This is exhilarating enough for me.

Categories: Adventure, Arts + Culture, Culture, From Our Magazine