By Chantae Reden | Published on April 12, 2022
I gazed down at my feet which were planted firmly on the edge of a cliff on Ka Lae, the southernmost point of Hawaii. My eyes drifted ahead to the dark teal waters of the Pacific Ocean where a dark shape of schooling fish morphed into a sphere in the distance. A line of bathing-suit-clad thrill-seekers eager to go cliff jumping snaked behind me, waiting to hurl themselves off the safety of terra firma and into the depths below.
"On the count of three, just send it." My friend commanded.
"One … "
"Two … "
I closed my eyes and leaped. For a moment, I was free-falling between land and sea, in a place where worries couldn't reach me. The cool sensation on my skin as I hit the water gave me energy. Hair tangled, swimsuit askew, and skin covered in goosebumps, I clamored up the cliff to join the queue and jump again.
If your sense of wonder has been stirred by the idea of jumping off a cliff, come along as I dive into the history of the sport, the best places in the world to try it on an adventure vacation, and some tips for jumping safely.
It's unclear exactly when or where the sport of cliff jumping began. Humans, with their penchant for adventure, have been seeking the thrill of free-falling over open water for millennia.
The sport was first documented in Hawaii during the late 1700s. King Kahekili II, who reigned over Maui, would test his warriors' bravery by challenging them to leap off the cliffs of Lanai's south shore. When King Kahekili II jumped, the most loyal of his men would follow. The sport evolved into competitive cliff diving, called "lele kawa" in Hawaiian, with each competitor judged for their prowess and lack of splash.
Like any adventure vacation activity, cliff jumping is inherently risky, and injury is possible even when you take precautions. However, there are many ways to lower your risk so long as you keep a sharp sense of your surroundings and only jump at spots suitable for your skill level.
It's safest to go with a guide or local who knows the cliff jump area well. If you don't have a guide, it's best to jump where there's already an active scene rather than finding a launch point to yourself. Local cliff jumpers will tell you where to jump from, if you need to be aware of any tree branches or rocky points to clear, and how to get out of the water. Jumping with a friend means you'll have someone to help you should anything happen.
Some spots require cliff jumpers to rock climb, use a rope ladder, or swim a long distance to get to dry land, which could take more strength than expected.
Weather and ocean conditions are also factors when it comes to safe jumping. Most ocean cliff jump spots are only safe to explore during calm days when there are little-to-no ocean swells, currents, wind, tides and rain to contend with. Only jump over deep, clear, calm water, and check for debris or submerged rocks below before you commit. Wear lightweight clothes, ideally swimwear, that won't weigh you down once you get wet. Reef booties are a good idea at jump spots with sharp rocks and ledges.
Once you take the leap, stay as upright as possible and keep your legs closed. The smaller the surface area you have to hit the water, the more comfortable the jump will be. Rotate too far forward or backward and you'll be heading home with pink skin courtesy of a painful flop.
I've spent years trying to tame my fear of falling. I've bungee-jumped from a bridge over the Zambezi River, skydived over the wild coastline of San Diego in California, and jumped from tens of cliffs around the world. I hope to never conquer the fear completely, as it's an essential ingredient in the excitement of it all.
The lingering fear I do have of heights is why I always jump on the count of two, not three. Fear loves to fester and the longer you wait to jump, the more afraid you'll become.