At five years old, Kimi Werner stood at the precipice of a Hawaiian sea cliff with her father, timing her leap with the rush of the waves so that she would not be crushed against the rocks below. Her father told her to relax — the worst was already over.
“He would make a big theatrical thing of saying, ‘Guess what we just did? We made it through the most dangerous part of the whole day: the car ride,'” Werner said. After the two leapt in, little Kimi would float on a boogie board, embraced by the tides. Her father, a spearfisherman by necessity, would take her order for dinner, disappear below the surface with nothing but a spear and some flippers, and return with fresh fish.
When she returned to freedive spearfishing twenty years later, Werner reminded herself that she had once believed her dad’s promise of safety among the waves. “My secret became that I would imagine my dad right next to me,” she said. “I could instantly go back into that five-year-old mindset and body, and if I would imagine him next to me I would feel safe. I would start to focus less on my fear and more on what I was trying to accomplish.”
It worked. In 2008, Werner won the women’s class of the U.S. National Spearfishing Championship in Newport, Rhode Island, by spearing a 33-pound striped bass. In the following years, she became the top-ranked spearfisher in the world, scoring high enough on the competition circuit to qualify for the men’s international team. In 2013, she was voted into Hawaii’s Freediving Hall of Fame, a place held in high regard among a nation of watermen and women.
Then, in her prime, she abandoned all forms of spearfishing competition, suddenly and for good.
When I visited Oahu, it seemed like everyone I met knew about Werner and her talent for hunting the sea. She was still spearfishing with gusto; many people I met had eaten fish she’d killed. She was, just like the sea, omnipresent and spoken of with awe.
This was a little intimidating. So was her house, which I found crammed at the back of an alley-filled neighborhood on the North Shore of Oahu, bordered by a tall fence with a rusting Beware of Dog sign. As I approached through a heavy downpour that felt straight out of The Tempest, I couldn’t help but feel a twitch of fear at the thought that I was heading into the lair of some powerful sea witch. Those are pearls that were his eyes . . .
And then there was Kimi Werner, slouched comfortably and dry on her covered front porch, smiling broadly, holding a long speargun in one hand and with the other scratching the ears of the guard dog, a teeny mutt named Boy — the neighbor’s. Turns out her house was not hiding at the rear of some dangerous warren: its wide yard looked downhill toward the sea, the whole property green and open and reaching toward the waves. Werner was not a hermit; rather than retreating into herself after she left professional spearfishing (for reasons she would come to explain), she went out into the world to pursue her passion from a new angle.
“I realized I wanted to understand how other people eat fish in their culture, how people manage their ecosystems and their natural resources,” she said. “I started traveling and catching a few fish and eating them with the locals. Talking to people, asking questions. And I was learning what I wanted to learn.” Alongside her natural ability, this intense and wide-ranging study has made Werner more than just a talented spearfisher. It’s made her a student of the sea, an apex predator and a warrior hell-bent on saving the oceans.
Q: What was the first lesson you learned while spearfishing with your dad?
Kimi Werner (KW): When I was three or four, my dad would take me to this beach where there was a little reef that he’d swim out to. I’d always try to follow him. But whenever I would get in deep water, I would just yell for help and start to drown. And he’d always come get me, put me on his back and swim me to the reef. Every single time. He’d always tell me, You can swim. If you can swim in shallow water, you can swim in deep water. The swimming doesn’t change. Anytime you feel fear, and you feel panic, don’t panic. Just relax. And remember that you can swim.
I had a very hard time applying it. So one day, he just left me. He went to the reef without me. I started panicking. I totally forgot how to swim. And every single time I bobbed my head up above the water I’d just see my dad, sitting on the reef, looking at me, throwing his hands up in the air . . . but not coming to get me.
It got to the point that I was screaming so loud that this lady on the beach ran out to rescue me. She had a baby in her arms. It was so dramatic. And she starts coming out to me, but she can’t because the water’s too deep and she’s holding this baby. I went underwater, for what I thought was the last time. It was finally quiet. And I literally did hear my dad’s voice, saying: You always get scared. Just relax. And remember, you know how to swim.
And when I was sinking to the bottom, I did: I remembered how to swim. And then I swam all the way to the reef.
I was so mad at my dad. That lady was mad at both of us. But I never forgot from that day on that when you let fear become the driving force of your decisions, it usually doesn’t go well.
Q: When did you know spearfishing was what you wanted to pursue as an adult?
KW: When I was five, my parents saved enough money to move away from our little shack on the coast and into a subdivision. My parents worked all the time. My dad and I stopped spearfishing together. And as much as I knew it was a success story — we no longer had to shop at the Salvation Army for clothes; no longer had to catch our own food — I felt so much loss. I missed the old days.
I grew up. I got my degree in culinary arts. I started cooking at these restaurants. When I was around twenty-four years old, I realized that I still had these inner conflicts. There was this feeling of not being fulfilled and not being content. I felt like I finally came to either the end of the road or the beginning of the rest of my life. And all these thoughts inside me were about diving. So I bought a spear and decided to go into the water and see what I could do on my own.
Q: What was it like getting back in the water?
KW: I was scared. It was weird returning to the underwater world. Suddenly I’m twenty-four years old, and I’m afraid and spooked by everything.
When you’re underwater, you feel so innately small. Your vulnerability becomes a lot more apparent. You’re now in this field of energy that is so much bigger than you, that has so much more power than you. Any form of panic — take in the wrong breath and you’re swallowing water. Having to hold your breath, and having fear sneak up in you: there goes your breathhold. Those thoughts, just the vibration of those thoughts alone, took away your oxygen.
But the main sense of fear comes from the fact that you can’t ever watch your own back underwater. I think it’s the same as on land, but we don’t feel the need for it in our dry daily routine. But when you’re underwater, you realize how everything’s moving, nothing’s ever still. And it’s the same with the animals. You could see a shark right here, in front of you, and look back and a second later it’s gone. You don’t know where it is. And no matter how much you turn, you can’t ever see 360 degrees around you.
Q: Has that fear gone away, or changed, over time?
KW: I remember the first time a tiger shark came and stole my fish from me. I don’t know if I cried, but I sure wanted to. I had a float, and the shark grabbed it and took the fish off. And I abandoned my whole float — keep it, take it, I’m gonna swim backwards all the way in. I didn’t care about my equipment, I just wanted to be out of the water.
That’s usually how I reacted — get away from me, take whatever you want, please don’t hurt me. And then it happened again, and again, and I started to get more comfortable with the fact that this is part of being in the ocean. And then one day this hunter’s instinct took over. I had just shot a fish, and I was pulling my fish up, and I see this shark coming up, getting ready to commit and bite my fish. And for whatever reason, this time, rather than dropping the fish and swimming away, I was like, No! I worked my butt off for that fish! I charged the shark. I had no weapon in my hand. My spear was in the fish. And I just charged the shark but with that exact thought in my mind: That’s my dinner. I got it. Go get your own dinner. As soon as I did that the shark backed off. I grabbed the fish and looked at the shark, and it swam away. And I was like, what just happened? But I was so happy because I had my fish, and in that moment, that really did feel like the most important thing.
After that, that instinct became stronger. Any time I was bringing in fish, I noticed that it was my body language and my thoughts that determined whether I even got bothered by sharks. It usually didn’t even get to that point anymore, because of the way I would move and act around them to begin with, before they came in and did anything.
It got to the point where I was intrigued by it. If there were a lot of sharks in the water, I would experiment with my body language. I would turn away from them and act scared, and I’d notice how much they got interested in me. And then I’d act like a predator, and they’d all back off. And it really became apparent that that’s what I had been learning the whole time. If I don’t want to be their prey, then I shouldn’t act like it. It’s like a cat. When they watch something run away, they want to attack. If I want to be on the same level as the sharks and rub elbows with them, then I need to show that I’m the predator that I am.
Q: We’ve spent too long talking about this without hearing exactly how you hunt. Once you’re in the water, how do you start?
KW: It all depends what you’re hunting for. I’ll swim on the surface and start by studying everything. I’ll look at what the bottom of the ocean looks like: the texture of the reef, what kind of seaweed is growing there, sand channels and pockets. I’m always glancing around the surface to see if there are baitfish around, and what they’re doing. All of these things, they’re like street signs and directions that tell me where to go and where to turn depending on what I’m hunting for. I’ll just keep swimming and following those signs that will take me to certain fish.
Seeing the fish underwater is hard, but it’s something my eye is trained to do. I can see a silhouette of something far in the distance; I can see the way something moves. And then I know exactly what that species is. After all the time I’ve spent underwater, I’m able to recognize the slightest shape or shadow — the tip of a tail — and I know immediately that that is my prey.
So once I see the fish that I want, or understand that I’m in an environment where this fish could live in, I’ll take some time on the surface, breathing. This is the important part.
Q: What’s your technique?
KW: I really start to relax. I totally surrender my whole body weight to the ocean and know that it’s supporting me completely. I start to go through every part of my body, seeing if it’s relaxed, starting with my toes, through my ankles, through my legs. Everything, even the grip I have on my gun. How relaxed and loose can I make them? Before I know it, I feel like a part of the ocean.
The whole time that I’m doing this with my body, I’m taking these long, deep inhales from my diaphragm. On the exhales, I’m really slowing them down. If you think about when you let air out of a balloon, how you can let it seep out so slowly; I really try and take these deep, strong breaths in, and then I let my exhale be . . . ssssssssssssssssssss . . . as exaggerated and slow as I possibly can. Basically, when you inhale, your heart rate goes up, and when you exhale, your heart rate goes down. If you make your exhales even just twice as long as your inhales, you’re drastically dropping your heart rate.
By the time I’m all checked in and I’ve done that breathing exercise, sometimes I’ll start to yawn. I feel almost sleepy, zenned out. I take one last inhale, starting at the very bottom of my diaphragm, all the way up into my lungs, even into my throat. I take all the air that I possibly can in one gulp.
Q: How long can you hold your breath?
KW: About four minutes and forty-five seconds. But when I’m hunting, I really try and be conservative. So no matter how good I feel, once I pass the two-minute mark, I try and make myself wrap it up and go get air. While you’re hunting, anything can happen. If you shoot a fish and it pulls you, or tangles around a rock, your energy can be gone like that. So it’s good to play it conservatively and always have your reserve.
Q: What do you do next?
KW: When I’m ready to dive, I do a strong kick downward at the surface, with some nice strong kicks to follow. Then, as I start to descend, my kicks get more narrow, with less effort. Once I’ve descended a bit, I get to the point of negative buoyancy, where I start to sink. I stop kicking completely. That is my favorite part. It’s the ocean pulling me home, gravity bringing me down. I don’t have to do anything except relax into it.
I’ll dive to over a hundred feet hunting, but I feel very comfortable in the seventy- to eighty-foot range. That’s an area I like to hunt in a lot because I have enough time down there to hunt, and there’s something about the pressure and the squeeze that I feel on my body that I like. Sometimes, the deeper I go, the bigger the the breath feels in my body. It starts to feel like I’m breathing underwater.
At this point, I’m not even thinking about the fish, because of everything I just went through. It’s such an inner space that I’m in, and that’s perfect. Because if you’re too focused on the fish you want to hunt, even your heart rate will change. And if there’s one place for that sort of energy to be read, it’s in the ocean. Even my very thoughts are something that I have to subdue. So sometimes, I’ll tell myself, I’m not even going down there for that fish. I’m just going down there to take a nap. I’ll even say that in my head, because I know that that puts everything in the right frequency.
Q: What happens once you reach the seafloor?
KW: I’ll find a place to land — behind a rock, or under a ledge, or right in a sand pocket, depending on what I’m hunting for. But wherever it is, as soon as I hit the bottom, I really settle in. I make my body a part of the ocean floor. I’ll put my head down and stir up the sand with my hand to mimic a stingray feeding. Because when stingrays feed they’re flapping their wings, making all these clouds of sand, and a lot of times fish will come in knowing that they’re uncovering food that they can get a free meal off of.
But for the most part, I just try and become a part of the ocean landscape. And it’s not that the fish can’t see me. I know they can see that I’m something different — that’s what piques their curiosity. If they’re not getting these threatening, aggressive frequencies, they become very curious. That’s what brings the fish to me. And once they’re close enough, I very slowly get into position, and very slowly point my gun at them. And if that pushes them back then I’ll relax into it some more, and so they swim right in front of me. I know I have a good shot. That’s when I pull the trigger.
Q: You’ve said that one of your main responsibilities now is representing the values of sustainable, ethical seafood. How is that reflected in the way that you kill?
KW: As soon as I get the fish in my hand, I use my knife and stick the blade into its brain. It ends all suffering as soon as possible. Braining the fish is when I thank the fish. It’s a beautiful creature, you’re looking it right in the eye, and it’s hard to not have a real sense of accountability knowing that you’re the one that took its life. That’s a real moment of owning my actions. Understanding why I hunt, why I’m doing this, and giving gratitude for that.
Q: Tell me about your weapon, the speargun. It’s taller than you are.
KW: This is made in California by Riffe. It’s custom-made for me; they mostly do wooden guns.
I haven’t always used this. I started out with a three-prong, which is just a pole spear with three prongs on it and a simple rubber band that you pull back and hold. Then I fell into the hands of these national champion divers who were the most elite athletes I’d ever seen underwater. They started training me. They’d always try to get me to use a speargun. And I’d tell them, I’m not ready. I’m so into this little three-prong. I’m still in my learning process, I haven’t mastered it yet. And I don’t want to move on to this next stage because I’m having too much fun.
With the three-prong, you don’t have any barbs. It’s just three kinda rusty spikes. You’re going after smaller fish. Usually they’re in a cave or in a hole. So you’re spearing them and pinning them to the cave [wall], getting your arm around them, and swimming back up. I loved it, because you have to get so much closer. It heightens my primal instinct because the reaction is so much more necessary. Once you shoot it, you have to then pounce like a cat and pin it.
Basically, with a speargun, it’s a whole different way of hunting. It’s not as aggressive. You stalk.
Q: How long did it take you to become accurate with the speargun? I can see there’s no sight on it.
KW: My first time with it, I missed like five times in a row. And then somebody said, Are you even looking down it? And I realized I wasn’t; I was just looking at the fish and pulling the trigger.
In a way it’s almost helpful to not have a sight. The more that you make yourself dependent on your intellect and things like that, the better. There’s a lot that can be lost when you’re underwater. You just have to feel things. You really become one with the ocean. You learn to ride the currents. You learn to watch which way the seaweed is flowing and how to time your vision with that.
I think if you’re too caught up in trying to read what a machine is telling you, you’re going to lose a lot more, hunting-wise, underwater. It’s not like you’re on land. You’re not even in your own element.
You’re in a place where you can’t even breathe! You don’t even have that going for you. You have to give up so much of your mind in order to tune into something deeper, and that’s the only way you’re going to make it successful.
Q: Several years after you took up spearfishing again, you won the Women’s National Championships in 2008 and became the top-ranked woman in the world for freedive spearfishing. But then you left competition and haven’t returned. Why?
KW: The two years before I left, competition had been my main focus, and I was doing really well. I was placing first in a lot of the coed dive tournaments locally, and also placing first internationally. But my main goal was to become the world champ. And in order to do that, you have to do well for two years in national competitions and then get invited. I was the top-ranked woman going into the world championships in 2010, in Croatia. I actually had high enough scores to make the men’s team. But when the world championships came around, the Croatian federation decided that they weren’t going to have women competing in their world championships. It was crushing. I had spent so much time with a tunnel vision of focus and had done everything I could possibly do, just to have it all cut short, very suddenly. Just like that, that goal was no longer possible for me.
But at the same time, I also realized that I wasn’t feeling so happy anymore. When my only goal was taken away, I saw that competition itself was changing the way I looked at diving. I didn’t like going to places and spending all of my time scouting, competing and then leaving with a trophy or not, and letting that determine how I felt about myself. I realized it wasn’t good for me. That very first nationals, it was wonderful. It meant everything to me, and it was so pure — a dream come true. But every time I won something after that, it didn’t quite feel the same. I kept chasing something, and every title I won felt like one more title I had to defend. And every time I didn’t win, the way I would beat myself up and judge myself — it wasn’t healthy.
But more than anything, what really started to get to me was that, when I would go diving on my own in Hawaii to go get food — which was the best feeling in the world to me before — it didn’t feel the same. Even when I was out hunting for dinner, I couldn’t help but be thinking of fish as points. Constantly calculating — how much would that be worth in a contest? It took the pureness out of it. And the whole reason I had come back to diving, and learned how to dive, was because of these magical memories I had of the beauty that I felt when I was connecting to the natural environment, and knowing where my food came from, and feeling the satisfaction of getting it myself. The way that my mind had shifted, where now I was thinking of fish as points: it was sucking the soul out of what I loved.
When that became apparent to me, I realized it wasn’t worth it. Even if I was at the peak of my career, I realized I couldn’t keep doing it. It was taking the one thing that truly brought me happiness and satisfaction, and tainting it.
Q: When you gave up on competition, did that happiness related to spearfishing for food immediately return? Or was it a process to find it again?
KW: It was a process. A really tough process. I questioned myself all the time. I felt like a big loser. I had let a lot of people down. And all of these thoughts were definitely encroaching on my time underwater. Every time I was underwater I was asking myself who I am, what I’m doing. I was hearing the judgments of people and the things that they said in my mind. At the same time, my personal life wasn’t doing very good. The relationship I was in was failing. And all of these things were tormenting me. It was actually quite torturous to go underwater to that place that used to be sacred and be tormented by all these inner voices, beating myself up.
I had a couple friends who were really there for me and were always trying to get me back in the water. So one time, they convinced me to go diving again. Sure enough, I couldn’t catch a fish to save my life. And I wasn’t having any fun. So I got back on my kayak and told them, Sorry, I’m done. You guys keep diving. I’m gonna stay on my kayak, because I’m over this.
But for some reason, right when they were packing up their kayaks, I said, You know, I’m just going to take one more drop. And I put my gun on the kayak; I didn’t even want to take it down with me.
I took this drop down to the bottom of the ocean. It was probably, I don’t know, seventy feet. I lay on the sand, on my belly, and floated my hands in front of me and put my face down in the sand. And I just lay there. And once again, all of those judgments, all of those voices, everything that was tearing me up — it all came, one at a time. And I lay there and I let them all come. And I said, I’m gonna wait this out. And I waited and I waited and I waited. Until finally the last little criticism came, and went. I let them all go.
It was finally quiet again. I could hear the sounds of the ocean. The sand moving, whales singing. I took a peek up and I could see the silhouettes of my friends glimmering in the sun and watching over me. And I felt everything. The pressure of the ocean squeezing me. It felt like a big hug. Everything that I had once loved about diving was still indeed there, waiting for me. That was the most comforting thing.
Q: A big part of your message is teaching accountability in relation to the seafood we eat. What’s your advice for people who worry about sustainability?
KW: Get to know your local fisherman and your local fishmonger. Ask them questions. Ask where the fish was caught. Ask how it was caught. Try and do a little research on it. And even though I know those questions don’t always get people answers that say, Yes, this is sustainable or No, this isn’t — it can be tricky with seafood — I still think that by at least asking, you are starting a conversation. You are telling that fishmonger, that restaurant, that their customers care about this. The more that we aren’t afraid to ask, the more that we’re putting an emphasis on the importance of where our food comes from and whether it’s sustainable.
Also, I’d encourage people to go out and buy a whole fish. I serve fish whole. It has its tail, it has its eyeballs, it has everything. And there are so many people I know who can’t do it. They can’t eat it when it’s looking back at them. And that’s how our grocery stores are designed. We go in and we want to see the filet of the fish. A rectangle. Nameless, faceless food that we don’t have to feel accountable for, that saves us from knowing that we are all killers. Any time that you do that, you might not be killing it yourself, but you’re just paying somebody else to do the dirty work for you. Which is fine, if you can live with that, and if you’re accountable to that. I don’t think everyone has to kill everything they eat with their own two hands. But I think the way society has us trained is to not have to be accountable or to think about it, and to keep consuming.
Q: Is your father still alive? Do you still spearfish together?
KW: He’s still around, though he doesn’t really spearfish anymore. Every once in a while I’ll be able to get him back in the ocean, and we’ll go look for octopus together. But most of the time we spend fishing with hand lines in his little Boston Whaler, a little beat-up boat that we take out whenever I come back to Maui. He’s at an age where it’s a little too taxing on his body to go through diving all the way to the bottom. For us now, it’s just about fishing together. The one thing that fishing from a boat allows that diving doesn’t is conversation. That’s how we like to spend our time together these days.