The video of a man in a kayak plunging headfirst down an enormous waterfall looks like it’s from one of those shows on Spike TV where people have horrible accidents and somehow walk away unscathed.
There’s a difference, though. In this video, the man in the kayak, Pedro Olivia, meant to do it.
“It’s the ultimate experience,” Olivia’s friend, cameraman, translator and partner-in-thrill-seeking, Ben Stookesberry, told TODAY’s Ann Curry Thursday in New York.
New world record
The plunge over the 127-foot-high Belo Salto waterfall in Brazil set a world record in the exotic sport of extreme kayaking. After careful planning that involved picking the exact spot to go over the quarter-mile-wide cataract, Olivia, a native of Brazil, set the record on March 4. It broke the previous record of 108 feet that had been set in November in British Columbia, Canada.
“It’s an amazing way to showcase the natural environment of Brazil — of many places,” Stookesberry said. “These places are some of the last wild places on earth. To be in these places and to get in the river and run some of these waterfalls is absolutely like no other experience on earth.”
The plunge looks beyond dangerous. After paddling off the edge of the falls, Olivia’s kayak rotates forward until it’s upside down for much of the nearly three seconds it took to hit the bottom. Olivia, who joined Stookesberry in the studio, landed on his head at 70 mph.
Olivia speaks little English, and Stookesberry spoke for him, sometimes after Olivia coached him in Spanish.
The trick to surviving a plunge like that is to pick a spot on the waterfall where a large volume of water is going over and landing in a deep pool. The falling water mixes with air to make the water more like cotton than a hard surface.
Just the same, it’s dangerous and not for the faint of heart. Missing the fall-off point could be disastrous.
“The way that he felt was that he had that fear and … he didn’t want to get rid of that fear. He wanted to keep that to keep him on the edge and keep him focused because he had to come off the falls in that exact location,” Stookesberry explained.
Cody Howard, another extreme kayaker, told NBC News that landing upside down is “not necessarily the way you want to land something off that size waterfall, but very impressive and scary and terrifying.”
Stookesberry disagreed. “Falling head down is actually the preferred Plan B to going straight in,” he said. “That’s because landing flat on the bottom of the boat can cause a serious jolt. Falling head down, usually what happens is you’ll just separate from your kayak and come straight out. And with a deep pool, nothing will happen.”
For the record to count, though, the kayaker has to come up in his kayak. If he falls out, it’s not a record. Olivia didn’t fall out.
He said he was underwater only about five seconds, but he surfaced behind the waterfall. For a moment, he didn’t know where he was and thought he might be in extreme kayaking heaven.
His crew couldn’t see through the curtain of water and for four or five minutes didn’t know where he was. Finally, one of the crew figured out what had happened and went to greet Olivia.
Meanwhile, Olivia had realized he was behind the curtain of water and made his way to the rocky shore.
That’s when he saw he had company.
“Snakes,” he said in English. And not just little garter snakes, but 3- and 4-foot-long boa constrictors. “First time I see one. I walk a little bit, see the second one.”
“At that point, all the rocks are wet, these 100-mile-per-hour winds behind the falls — [he] falls down,” Stookesberry said, taking over the narrative. “He came through the falls without even a scratch, [then] falls down and totally scrapes his leg and has his first injury.”
When Olivia walked out from behind the falls, Stookesberry said, “Everybody’s ecstatic. Pedro has this amazing look in his eyes like he’s been to a whole ’nother world.”