How Cliff Diving Works

By: Heather Kolich  | 
Cliff divers diving in Mazatlan, Mexico
Cliff divers diving in Mazatlan, Mexico Danny Lehman / Getty Images

Cliff diving is probably the least complicated extreme sport.

There's no equipment to buy, no special clothing to wear and no provider services to hire. It's just your body, sailing through the air from dizzying heights and plunging into a body of water below.


Think of jumping off an eight-story building. That height — 85 feet (26 meters) — is the distance competitors dove from for the 2009 Cliff Diving World Championship.

Competition cliff diving is an outgrowth of Olympic high diving. But the daredevil act dates back to 1770 when King Kahekili, the last king of Maui, leapt from Kaunolu, a 63-foot (19-meter) cliff and entered the water below without causing a splash. For his regular feats of flying from the cliffs, the king earned the nickname "birdman." Later, he made his warriors jump from cliffs to prove their courage and loyalty.

At the end of the 1950s, Timex spokesman John Cameron Swazye used the extreme sport to "torture test" a watch. Television commercials showed an Acapulco cliff diver leaping from 87 feet (26.5 meters) and crashing fist-first into the surf with a Timex watch in his hand [source: Timex].

After the television show "Wide World of Sports" featured the International Cliff Diving Championship competition in Acapulco, Mexico, in its March 9, 1968 broadcast, cliff diving surged in popularity [source: ABC Sports]. Then, in 1996, the World High Diving Federation arose to organize competitions, work with Olympic committees and spread information about the sport.

Today, avid cliff divers travel the world seeking the next great thrill and the ultimate leap. The beautiful locations that host popular cliffs and international competitions range from the frigid natural pools of Switzerland to the balmy waters of Jamaica. But exotic locations are just one factor that makes cliff diving exciting — freefalling through the air at dangerous speeds is a big part of the rush.


Physics of Cliff Diving

When you jump from a cliff, you go into free fall and gravity is the only force acting on your body. You encounter no resistance from friction with the ground as you would when running or skiing, and you suffer negligible air resistance. But gravity is a powerful force. As you fall, it pulls you toward the earth, or in the case of cliff diving, toward the water, at a speed of 32 feet per second per second (9.8 meters per second per second). Because time is a factor in this formula, the longer you fall through space, the faster you go. Free fall acceleration dictates that every second of your descent has an increased velocity over the second before it.

Higher cliffs don't accelerate your fall — acceleration is constant during free fall. The pull of gravity decreases infinitesimally at higher elevations, but it pulls you with an equal force from the first second of your jump until you decelerate when you hit the water.


What the height from which you jump affects is the speed with which you hit the water. If you jump from 10 feet (3 meters), you'll be traveling at 17 miles per hour (27 kilometers per hour) when you reach the water. If you increase your height to 50 feet (15 meters), you'll increase the speed of impact to 38 mph (61 kph). That's just the vertical velocity of your fall through space, the speed you gain from gravity acting alone — if you add some horizontal velocity, your impact speed increases. John G. Cramer, a physics professor at the University of Washington, explains that from the same height, "[A] diver who gets a running start and develops a significant forward velocity will hit the water with more net speed than a diver who dives straight down without a push off."

Then, when you hit the water, your velocity drops almost instantaneously. In about a second, you go from your maximum speed to zero [source: Castro].


Famous Cliff Diving Locations

Thanks to King Kahekili and his cliff-leaping warriors, many consider Hawaii the birthplace of cliff diving. In fact, for more than 40 years, the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa has staged a nightly ceremonial re-enactment of Kahakili's spiritual leap. A loincloth-clad "warrior" carries a lei and torch to the crest of Pu'u Keka'a, a mountain Hawaiians believed dead souls leaped from to enter the spirit world. After offering the gifts to the sky in each direction, the warrior leaps from the cliff. But Pu'u Keka'a isn't the only place to leap — numerous other cliffs on the Big Island draw intrepid cliff divers who want to try it themselves.

In 1934, a 13-year-old boy, Enrique Apac Rios, leapt from La Quebrada in Acapulco, Mexico. From that jump grew an enduring tourist draw: La Quebrada cliff divers. Around sunset, this well-experienced team of professional divers starts showing off for visitors who flock to the cliffs to see the divers perform. As the sun slides away, La Quebrada Cliff Divers look down onto breaking surf from heights of up to 147 feet (45 meters) [source: Vacations Made Easy]. Timing the waves and focusing on the pinpoint of safety between the cliff and rocks, they hurl themselves from the cliff, tumbling and spiraling into the churning ocean below.


Dubrovnik, Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea has twice hosted events in the World Series Cliff Diving Competition — first in 2000 and again in 2009. Competitors faced their most arduous challenge here in 2009 when they had to complete eight consecutive dives from 85 feet (26 meters) [source: Welcome to Croatia].

Jamaica's long beaches, stunning sunsets and relaxed attitude create a vacation utopia, but the West End Cliffs in Negril is a hotspot for thrill seekers. The 40- to 70-foot (12-21 meter) limestone cliffs are popular with locals and tourists, who leap into calm, clear waters of coves and natural pools [source: Extreme Angles Publishing, Fearless Planet]. Hotels and restaurants provide platforms at differing heights — the highest platform at Rick's Cafe is 35 feet (11 meters) — for cliff-diving patrons.

Avegno, Switzerland is home to the World High Diving Federation, and the Cliffs of Brontallo host the WHDF Cliff Diving World Tour each July. Although spectators only have access to limited space, those who secure a spot are extremely close to the cliff-dodging acrobatics of the daring divers.


Cliff-diving Safety

Mazatlan, Mexico cliff diver gives a performance.
Mazatlan, Mexico cliff diver gives a performance. JVT / Getty Images

Cliff diving from any height can be unsafe — it's one of the most dangerous extreme sports. In fact, official tourism sites of popular cliff diving destinations don't promote the activity.

Cliff diving puts tremendous stresses on your body. If you jump from 20 feet (6 meters) above the water, you'll hit the water at 25 mph (40 kph) — the impact is strong enough to compress your spine, break bones or give you a concussion [source: Glen Canyon Natural History Association]. But that's only if you enter feet-first in a straight, vertical line — a horizontal, or "pancake," landing is like hitting concrete. Halving the height of the jump to 10 feet (3 meters) reduces your speed of impact to 17 mph (27 kph), and even cars sustain damage when hit at that speed.


Because of the high potential for injury, the World High Diving Federation recommends that no one dive from 20 meters (65.5 feet) or higher unless there are professional rescue scuba divers stationed in the water [source: World High Diving Federation]. Bruises, dislocated joints, broken bones, compressed spine, injured discs, and paralysis are among the injuries that cliff divers experience. Death is also a possibility.

Competitive cliff divers free fall from heights of 59 to 85 feet (18 to 26 meters), but professional show divers in Acapulco, the La Quebrada Cliff Divers, sometimes jump from 148 feet (45 meters) above the water [sources: World High Dive Federation, Red Bull Media Service, Vacations Made Easy]. These show divers survive to dive another day because of their years of training, familiarity with the area and their ability to adjust their dives according to fluctuating wave and water conditions. But even they occasionally sustain injuries.

The WHDF considers water depths of 43 to 49 feet (13 to 15 meters) adequate for dives from 65 feet (20 meters) or less, but water clarity is also a critical factor for cliff-diving safety. Hitting the water badly from a height can cause injury, but hitting something in the water — a rock, a branch, the bottom, even a fish — or the water body's floor can be fatal. Choppy waters and high waves often obscure the surface of the water and interfere with the precision of entry, but world champion cliff diver Orlando Duque says that waves break the surface of the water and soften the impact. Entering the water on the peak of a wave shortens the dive, and you must complete any acrobatics early in the dive so you can get your body into the proper position for water entry.


Cliff-diving Tips

If you're overcome with the desire to experience the thrill of cliff diving, follow these tips to improve your chances of swimming out unharmed:

  • Start low and slow. Before you head to the cliffs, practice the pencil dive from high-dive platforms at a swimming pool. In a pencil dive, you strive to make your body as slim and straight as a pencil. Jump feet first with your arms held tightly to your sides and your feet pressed together and pointed downward. This minimizes the surface area that strikes the water, reducing the force of impact.
  • Use the buddy system. Don't dive alone.
  • Explore the water. Before diving, swim around your landing area to check the depth of the water and search for any obstacles.
  • Plan your exit. Before you plunge into the water, plan where you'll get out and how you'll get back.
  • Dress for success. A wetsuit adds a layer of cushioning between you and the water. Skip the water shoes, though, to reduce the surface area of the first body part that makes impact with the water.
  • Keep it simple. You need to enter the water in a straight, vertical line. Any deviation from this toes-first, narrow-entry position risks injury and assures increased pain. Midair flips and twists can send you askew, so leave those to professionals.


Lots More Information

Related Links

  • ABC Sports. "Wide World of Sports Highlights -- 1960s." (Accessed 12/30/2009)
  • Castro, Marysol. "Cliff Diving Daredevils Take on the Sport of Hawaiian Kings and Warriors." November 8, 2009. (Accessed 04/05/2023)
  • Cramer, John G. Professor of Physics, University of Washington. Email interview, 12/30/2009.
  • Crowell, Benjamin. Newtonian Physics. Light and Matter open source physics textbooks. (Accessed 12/29/2009)
  • Extreme Angles Publishing. "Cliff Diving in Jamaica." (Accessed 12/31/2009)
  • Fearless Planet. "Introduction to Cliff Diving." Discovery Channel. (Accessed 12/29/2009)
  • Glen Canyon Natural History Association. "Lake Powell Safety Bulletin -- Cliff Diving." Glen Canyon Natural History Association website. (Accessed 12/30/2009)
  • The Physics Classroom. "Introduction to Free Fall and the Acceleration of Gravity." (Accessed 12/29/2009)
  • The Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009 Media Service. "Cliff Diving Heroes in Portrait -- Orlando Duque." Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009. May 26, 2009. (Accessed 12/29/2009)
  • The Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009 Media Service. "The Central Element." Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009. September 11, 2009. (Accessed 12/29/2009)
  • The Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009 Media Service. "The Heroes." Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009. April 6, 2009. (Accessed 12/29/2009)
  • The Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009 Media Service. "The Hunt is Over as the Duke Sneaks Home." Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009. September 20, 2009. (Accessed 12/29/2009)
  • The Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009 Media Service. "Water World." Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009. Video. September 4, 2009. (Accessed 12/31/2009)
  • Timex. "Timex Takes the Plunge." Timex Business to Business. (Accessed 05/05/2023)
  • Vacations Made Easy. "The La Quebrada Cliff Divers of Acapulco, Mexico." Destinations. (Accessed 12/29/2009)
  • Welcome to Croatia. "Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2009 Dubrovnik." Welcome to Croatia Travel Guide. (Accessed 12/31/2009)
  • World High Diving Federation. "WHDF European Cliff Diving Championship, Gola del Lupo, Bignasco/Cavergno Maggia Valley, Ticino, Switzerland, 26-26 July, 2008." July 2008. (Accessed 12/29/2009)