The History of Cliff Diving

Orlando Duque
Find out more about the origins of the world's oldest extreme sport

Since 2009 the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series has provided a platform for aesthetic action and dives of incredible complexity. But the sport itself originated hundreds of years ago in Hawaii. Watch the clip above and read on below to find out more about the history of the world's oldest extreme sport.

The trophy that every cliff diver wants to win, but only the best of the best are awarded, is the King Kahekili Trophy for the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series overall title in honour of the great Hawaiian chief who first leaped from the holy cliffs of Kaunolu, the birthplace of the majestic sport of cliff diving. The old Hawaiian principles of 'mana' and 'pono', power and balance, were crucial when lele kawa, which loosely translates as 'leaping feet-first from a high cliff into the water without making a splash', was born on the islands in the midst of the Pacific in the 18th century. They are principles that have been upheld and are today prerequisites for the sport of cliff diving. It was from a rock made of lava that the last independent ruler of Maui, King Kahekili, dove in the late 1700s.

Kaunolu on the south coast of the island of Lanai, contains the largest surviving ruins of a prehistoric Hawaiian village and is the place where it all began. The diving site has always been regarded as holy and up until today the chief's name is inextricably linked with the earliest beginnings of humankind's oldest extreme sport. In the Hawaiian culture, spiritual and physical art are connected; they are interwoven. "In order to be physically sound and solid, the spiritual part had to be 'pono', in balance, as well. So, upon that, the spirit would travel out onto these rocks. And if they had lived a good moral life, when the spirit leaped, their ancestors would come to greet them and bring them to the ancestral world," Hawaiian historian Luana Kawaa explains, "and so for Kahekili to come to his diving point and be able to walk out into an area that was 'kapu' or forbidden to mankind and for no harm to come to him as he jumped off these cliffs. What happened was that his warriors saw this; they realised the amount of spiritual power that Kahekili had to possess in order to do that. That made him godly. And the chiefs were really thought to be the gods here."

Legend says that Kahekili used cliff diving as an initiation rite for his warriors. He required them to follow his example by jumping off cliffs in an effort to prove their loyalty. Historians see a competitive idea behind these leaps: "We don't know if he actually required his warriors to do it, but he challenged them. And in our culture, when you think about that, requiring somebody to do something is one thing, but when you challenge them to do it that is when you get the real participation."

Real participation is demanded by the athletes of the World Series to be awarded the King Kahekili Trophy, created by the Hawaiian artist Kuaho Zane. The overall form references the shape and stance of ki'i or wooden images, traditionally carved as three-dimensional representations of gods and protective ancestors called aumakua. The trophy with its asymmetric, cliff like top is completely printed on the right side – similar to the tattoo completely covering the right side of Kahekili's body. The base is made of Koa wood and symbolizes the feet of both the ki'i and the diver who must hit the water feet first.

The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series takes up the challenge to establish which single athlete has enough 'mana' and 'pono' to perform the best 'lele kawa' and take the 2018 overall victory.

Read and watch more Red Bull Cliff Diving here