The swell of the sea was visible from the height of the forty foot cliff at South Point, Hawai’i. Movement of water not as white caps nor ripples, for the surface was relatively calm. Rather, massive volumes of water rose and fell, a meter in elevation off shore, more than two meters where it met the black walls of an ancient volcanic flow. The percussion of the union could be felt as a low rumble once every ten minutes when the waves built to a crescendo.
In the early morning the swell was too great for me to feel comfortable in cliff jumping. Even snorkeling at the bottom of the rough in-cut, a series of blocks and ledges which allowed fisherman and snorkelers access to the water just 50 meters from the ladders, instilled concern for my ability to get back to safe harbour. While my strength in the water had grown with nearly two years surfing in South Africa, this kind of water, at an immediate depth of nearly ten meters, was too much for me.
By noon the tourists had arrived in large numbers. Many stood at the cliff’s edge, cameras held in shaking hands as they dared to ponder what lay beneath them. The crystalline blue water enabled a view of the massive structures below the surface, black rock now blanketed in various forms of lightly coloured coral.
My confidence that day was not great, despite my having jumped at this location a dozen times across prior visits. I had in 2006, 2012, and the previous weekend jumped from the West facing cliff and also into the collapsed lava tube whose belly provided a typically safe passage beneath the cliff line, a one minute swim back to the open sea and up the same ladders.
The swell made things more critical. Timing the jump and the return to the ladder was critical. No one was jumping into the tube for the swell was amplified in that confined space, a rise and fall of four or more meters, and I later learned, the water cashing against the ceiling of the otherwise ample fifteen meter diameter cave. What’s more, the froth created by the water slamming against the volcanic rock and resulting cavitation filled the blue water with air, turning it to a frothy white. I knew from prior experience that this water offered far less buoyancy. A swimmer would struggle to keep his or her head above, let alone make progress in any direction.
Colleen and I retreated to the rocky ledge roughly one hundred feet south of the cliff and ladders, where we had one week earlier enjoyed an incredible afternoon of snorkeling. There too the swell was, by ocean standards, minimal. Yet, it gave me discomfort. Not for the entry but for the exit. The sharp rock was sure to cut and scrape with even the slightest abrasion.
After some observation and contemplation I dove in sans gear and practiced timing my exit. Twice I was successful, but not without struggle and multiple attempts. On my third entry I wore goggles and snorkel. This time, with Colleen on the second ledge, I was challenged at the exit. Knowing I could simply float for an extended period of time, I should have pushed off shore and waited, returning to the shelf when I could properly time the exit.
But I panicked, and tried three times. I hung by one hand while the water pulled at my body, it’s grasp stronger than my own. I fell back into the water, my snorkel filling, little air in my lungs to expel the water. But my body reacted as it should, waiting until I surfaced, expelling, breathing lightly to test the apparatus, and then recovering.
Colleen shouted, “Wait! Just wait!” I ignored her and tried again. From my point of view, the entire world was rising and falling, sliding side to side. Logic too said wait. My panic said go. I succeeded in the fourth attempt but was nearly pulled back into the froth with another rise and fall. I quickly climbed onto the third shelf where I would just one hour later engage in an entirely different fight for survival.
I was bleeding from both feet and my right hand. Minor scratches and a lesson learned. “Ok. Let’s not snorkel today,” I concluded with a nervous laugh.
We returned to the cliff where the local kids were the first to jump, showing off to the captive audience with back flips and swan dives. A few Swedes and Danes were next, each of whom had jumped and found their way back to one of the two ladders (the climb far more scary than the fall) encouraging another. Overall, a dozen succeeded.
I knew that if I too jumped, my confidence would return and I would feel good about my final day at South Point before Colleen and I returned to the mainland the next day. I removed my hat, shirt, and shoes. I timed the swell at its peak and leaped from the cliff. As with all previous jumps, my eyes closed long before I hit the water. I don’t recall ever taking an intentionally deep breath, but I always had ample air as I returned to the surface. It seems this is a natural reflex, not something for which one must train. But I am not certain.
Once back to the surface, I felt good, even relatively calm. Away from the cliff face, in front of the opening of the massive cave, the rise and fall of the swell was not as noticeable for the reference points were in the relative distance.
I rolled onto my back, arms outstretched and floated for a short while before making my way to the ladder. That is when I noticed it was over a meter above the water’s surface. I would have to wait until the water brought me up to that elevation.
Just as I arrived, so did another jumper. We connected to the bottom rung of the rusty ladder at the same time. Just then the bottom of our liquid world dropped out and we were left hanging by one arm each, only our ankles yet in blue.
The water rushed into the cave. The ladder, composed of three sections, was drawn in as well. We were pulled to a nearly horizontal position by the force of the swell. I looked back over my shoulder and saw the water rising to the ceiling of the cave, some sections slammed with a force ample to knock a swimmer unconscious. I did not let go.
Again vertical but with the full weight of our bodies dangling from the ladder, my companion fell back into the water. Typically, this is not a problem. The water is deep, warm, and invites an incredible swim. But getting to and from the ladder in an active swell is compounded by sharp, rusty edges. Nearly every jumper that day had some scratch for their effort to climb out again.
I too dropped off, feeling the need to make room for my companion to get back on as I could not determine, in that moment, if he was a strong swimmer comfortable with his position, or needing something to hold on. I quickly grabbed a thick loop of rope tied to the bottom rung. It was encrusted with years of barnacles and was rough to the touch, difficult to hold.
Above me, the last jumper-climber was nearly to the top. I was not even suppose to be on the ladder until she was off, but with a growing line of swimmers waiting to climb, I started up. Immediately, two others climbed on below me. If I fell, I might take them with me. But that was a risk everyone was taking, to get out of the turbulent water.
At the top of the ladder, I was relieved and my confidence for that day rekindled. Colleen greeted me, noted the small cut on my stomach, and offered to show the video recording once we moved away from the cliff edge.
We watched a few more locals jump, and a few tourists too. Then a woman named Jen walked to the edge, and as with the others before her, leaped into the deep blue. She was a heavy woman, fifty years of age if I overheard later conversation correctly. Colleen and I looked down from where I had jumped and saw her looking back up, to her friend, smiling, adjusting her swimsuit before she swimming to the metal ladder.
We talked, watched another jump, and then noticed that all the tourists had moved from the top of the two ladders south to the cliff edge which overlooked the rough set of blocks and ledges where I had snorkeled an hour earlier.
I realised Jen was not coming up the ladder but attempting to swim around. I ran past the growing crowd, left around the end of the cliff to the top of the series of steep, stone blocks where one can get down to the water in a few bounds.
Jen was just off-shore, maybe twenty feet. To her front was a young man, a strong swimmer with tanned skin and dark, curly hair. In the water he had guided her from the ladder to the ledge where she might exit. Exhausted, she swam very slowly. She was on her stomach. I arrived as she lifted her head just once, then put her head into the water again. She just lay there, arms out-stretched.
I called to her, initially believing she was resting, “Lady! Hey lady! You are almost there! Keep going!” But I soon realised she was done. She was drowning. The swimmer had arrived to the rocky ledge just before her, turned and swam back out. I looked above me to the top of the cliff and yelled, “Get a rope! Get a rope!” No one responded, not a single voice called back. I yelled again, “She is downing. We need help down here!” Two boys bounded down the series of steps. I turned back to the water. A local fisherman in a wet suit handed me his sun glasses and then dove in. The young man who had guided her remained in the water. One of them, I don’t recall now, rolled her onto her back, looped his arm under her chin and brought her to shore.
The water rose and fell four to six feet with the swell, threatening to toss her onto sharp rocks. I jumped down to the lowest shelf, knowing that if the swell returned in that moment, I would likely be dragged into the sea. I stepped back up one level and called out, “I am not strong enough to help you bring her in! I’ll help pull her out!” The three men in the water nodded and kept swimming. The water rose, her body came within my grasp but I could not hold on. I nearly lost my footing and let go. Again, the water rose and I was able to grab her right arm at the pit. I then saw that her upper arm was cut deep, across more than half the diameter and nearly to the bone. I later learned it was the ladder, when she had tried to climb out but fell. The blood loss must have been tremendous, combined with the swim likely inducing shock.
The two in the water made it to the shelf and did their best to lift her up. I pulled from my position, trying to keep her from being cut. Another person arrived, to my left, and contributed. Our success in getting her onto the first shelf was thwarted shortly thereafter when a swell lifted her up and took her out to sea again. Two others again swimming by her side, my single hold on the rocky ledge kept me from being dragged out with them.
When the water receded I leaped to the next shelf up and noticed one of the young men, a tourist, who was at my side. He was leaning against the base of the cliff, sobbing, nearly sick as well. I asked him if he was OK, if he had been hurt. He shook his head, the tears mixed with salt water and ocean spray. I advised him to climb out, so as not to be injured. I then called up for more help, to the twenty or thirty who watched from above.
I later learned Jen’s friend was one who saw this ordeal unfolding, the two of them on vacation. Jen has lost her mother not long before, had no children nor immediate family. Jen was on the phone to a friend or her mother, I don’t know.
The water brought Jen back in again, and I jumped back down to again grab her arm. I noticed two more boys in the water, all trying to get her out of the ocean. Another rescuer was to my left, the boys and man in the water, lifting as best they could.
We succeeded in lifting her out and onto the first shelf. Some one had thrown down a boogie boar and we set it on the next shelf up. On a poorly coordinated countdown, we lifted Jen to the next ledge. It was very difficult, the rock threatening both her limp body and our own. We set her down, half on, half off the foam board, adjusting her position as best we could in the cramped location.
I am trained in Wilderness First Response, with two recertifications. I have used my training twice before, when a man was hit by a bus in Tanzania, and in Palestine when a fellow hiker was unable to continue due to heat stroke. In those situations, I knew what to do, to stabilize and then evacuate the person in critical condition. But nothing fully prepared me for this.
We began chest compressions, the placement of my hands on her bare chest, the rhythm of that movement came naturally. I switched off with a young, energized Chinese girl who was pumping too fast, too shallow, but I did not correct her for I was struggling with my role in this. While trained and comfortable in taking charge of the situation, I hesitated. I stalled. I had never seen, never touched nor held a person who had died within reach of my hands.
The facts were strong in my mind: likely heavy loss of blood, no oxygen for 6-8 minutes, overweight and exhausted. The chance of CPR working was already less than 5% across the board, in any situation. I am ashamed to admit the reality of my thinking, but I did not see the point in continuing.
No one who was taking turns had provided breaths. It is not technically necessary with good chest compressions, and the condition of a drowning victim makes this … difficult.
The bat and the reel
Then behind me I heard yelling. At first, I thought someone had fallen in, another person struggling. Then I heard the male voice call out, “Get the bat! Get the bat!” It was a fisherman I had not seen before. He either moved past all of us on the narrow ledge or climbed down, which would have proved difficult.
A giant marlin, the fish with the massive dorsal sail and long, sharp mouth was less than a foot to my right, partially suspended on a heavy line. Its mouth was just inches from one of the rescuers, close enough to cause harm. Then I heard the sound of someone clubbing the fish. I quickly looked over my head between compressions and realised the fisherman was killing the massive fish with the short bat.
“We got ’em! Keep the line tight! We got ’em!”
I was immediately enraged and yelled back, “What the fuck are you doing! We are trying to save this woman’s life and you are killing a fish!?” The moment those words came from my mouth an image of him beating me instead warned me of pushing any further.
He responded, “Dude! I ain’t going to fuck’n let it go! This is the best of the day! And it’s dangerous man, fucking dangerous! We have to get it out!”
I saw both points. The marlin was a good five feet long. It likely offered 50 or more pounds of meat and could injure one of us if it started thrashing. But the juxtaposition of the two stories so closely intertwined was so difficult for me to process in that moment. Two lives taken by the sea. But for very different reasons. Both violent in their own way.
The best we could
After a few minutes the water rose again. It splashed onto our feet and Jen’s legs. I motivated the crew to move her again to a higher ledge. I called for men with shoes. Those on the cliff hesitated until one of the tourists called to his friends, berating them and at the same time motivating them to come down, “Get down here! NOW!” Two did. On a proper count we lifted and moved her, legs, arms, head, and boogie board too.
The Chinese girl yelled that we should continue CPR. I knew this was the correct thing to do but I hesitated and she jumped in. I immediately felt confusion over the battle in my brain. I was suppose to be the one motivating, driving this operation until the medics arrived. I looked to the cliff opposite me, across to the other side of the chasm in which we operated and asked if anyone had called 911. I was suppose to have commanded that ten minutes earlier. Of course, more than one person had.
It was the Chinese girl who motivated us to continue CPR and we did. I was moved by her energy and switched off every 40 or 60 compressions. People on the cliff attempted to contribute by yelling instructions, how to do CPR. I did my best to ignore them, knowing we were doing it properly. I corrected placement of hands when someone took over but was too high or too low. One women did not interweave her fingers properly, and after a few failed attempts I asked her to let someone else in who had training.
When someone asked why we were not adding breaths, I said we needed a plastic bag with a hole or piece of cloth. Someone jumped down the half dozen ledges from the top and offered the top of a 1 gallon water jug, expertly cut just moments earlier. We inserted it into her mouth and took turns blowing, but we could not get it to seal. Jen’s chest did not rise and fall.
Someone suggested we cut an opening in her throat. Another called out that was the wrong procedure. I ignored them both. They had watched too many dramatic movies. A bandanna arrived shortly thereafter and with that as a subtle barrier we were able to provide air, her chest filling and releasing again.
Jen’s color returned with each round of chest compressions, but faded almost immediately when we stopped to move her. The sound of her forced exhalation confirmed that her lungs were free of fluid enough to allow air to enter, if only it had not been too late.
The paramedics arrived some 40 minutes after she had first put her head down. We had applied CPR for close to 30 minutes, to the best of our ability. She was moved once more to a higher ledge where the paramedics provided a backboard. A few of us helped strap her on while one of the paramedics continued compressions until she was lifted, passed hand to hand up the steep, narrow incline. I followed the eight men who carried her, watching as the wheeled legs folded and she slid into the back of the ambulance.
Some of those who assisted were with YWAM, a Christian volunteer organisation. As the ambulance drove away, they huddled in a prayer circle, heads bowed. I could hear one crying. The rest once gathered at the top of cliff dispersed, slowly returning to their cars. The police recorded the events of the afternoon through interviews.
One of the YWAM volunteers who was at my side down below, I believe, hurried to where I was standing and the police officer taking my story. He exclaimed, “Hey! That guy just threatened me with his knife!” pointing over his shoulder to a group of local fisherman, one of which had stood behind me with the club and the fish.
The officer followed his outstretched arm with his gaze but quickly returned to the boy. He said simply, “Let it go. Just let it go. Walk away.” The boy looked at me, confused and angry. The day weighed heavy on him. I said, “This is not our island. Nothing you can do.” The boy lowered his head and walked away from us, and from the sea.
The officer is a Hawaiian native. I stated, naively, “It is not easy to be in another place, another culture, when things like this happen.” The moment he responded I realised my mistake, “It’s not our culture. It’s just him. But there are some like him.” I apologised and nodded.
I had not seen Colleen for nearly an hour. I found her close to our rental car, waiting. She opened her arms as I drew close and held me. I didn’t cry then, not until later as we drove. I whispered, “I forgot so much of what we are trained to do. I didn’t even want to try. I’ve just never, … I don’t know what happened. It was, … ” Colleen answered, “You did the best you could. There was nothing more you could do.”
Before we left I found Jen’s friend standing where the ambulance had been before it departed. I don’t know why she did not ride along. Maybe I have watched too many movies too, maybe they don’t really allow friends or family to climb in back. Maybe she didn’t want to.
I introduce myself as the first one to arrive. She just stared at me, nodding. She welcomed a brief hug and I said softly, “We did the best we could. We all did. We tried.” She responded simply, “Thank you.”
I walked with Colleen back to the edge of the cliff, overlooking the open sea. I sat down, legs dangling. I noticed that my fear of falling was totally gone, that sensation in the stomach that induces the motivation to take a step back again free. We sat there for a few minutes before we drove away. I said goodbye to South Point, to Jen, and to the sea.
The deep blue
Processing something like this gives me incredible appreciation for those whose lives are daily intertwined with death. To do this for a living is simply astounding. But I also know that paramedics, nurses and doctors are not unaffected. As with any level of intensity sustained, it takes its toll on the mind and body.
I look back to the moment Jen jumped and the memory of her looking up from the ocean below, smiling, waving. She did something exhilarating. She pushed her boundaries. She took a risk to do something outside her norm. While those final moments must have been terribly scary for her, for I had experienced panic in that same spot just a half hour earlier, the total act was something beautiful.
All of life on this planet, save the fungi, bacteria, and waterbears is incredibly fragile. We humans can run, jump, climb, swim, and fly (with some assistance), but a single gulp of water in the wrong chamber, a brief inhale of the acidic air produced by the volcano down the shore and we are imperiled.
This line of thinking leads to so many parallel threads, about the value we place on life in our conversation, in the news, in the movies, to what it means for that life to end, for a line of stories to so abruptly terminate, without proper salutation.
It happens every day, thousands of times each hour. And so few exit this place and time doing something they enjoy, as Jen did, with a leap into the deep blue sea.