wanderlust oahu: a moment with freedive spear fisherwoman kimi werner
posted: March 1, 2014
From winning the U.S. National Spearfishing Championships in her rookie year to hitching a ride on the back of a great white shark, freediving spear fisherwoman Kimi Werner leads a sustainable life less ordinary
Kimi, with dinner
How It All Began
When Kimi Werner was a little girl growing up on Maui, she ordered her dinners straight from the ocean floor.
“My parents didn’t have a lot of money in my early childhood so we basically lived in this little shack. They had a few farm animals and we’d live off the land and my dad would go diving all the time just to support us and to put food on the table,” she remembers. “From an early age, I think I was about five, I’d watch him dive and tell him what I wanted to eat for dinner—whether it was lobster or fish—and he’d go down and get our dinner and I’d clap for him.”
Kimi, right, with her father and sister. She’s wearing socks because her fins were too big
A self-proclaimed “little tag-along,” Kimi would struggle to keep up with her father when he fished. “As long as I could still see his bubbles I’d be like, okay, don’t freak out.” She wouldn’t ever fish herself, but she’d sit on the surface, practicing holding her breath the whole time he was down hunting.
The years passed, Kimi grew up and moved to Oahu, where she earned a degree in the culinary arts. Cooking was a passion, but something was missing for her. “We’d get fish in Styrofoam with Saran Wrap over it, and I had no idea where in the world it came from or how old it was, anything like that. That’s when I realized that I was missing the connection to the ocean and to my food source.”
Kimi went on a mission to learn to dive, showing up at barbecues and approaching anyone who brought fish, imploring them to teach her their skills. “I was so enthusiastic I didn’t even realize they weren’t taking me seriously,” she remembers with a laugh.
“Finally I went out and got a very simple spear gun with a sling on it, the same kind my dad used to have, and I just started going on my own. To my surprise I was able to get fish, even though I’d never done it before.”
Keeping her cool, she quickly realized, was crucial in spear fishing, and her father’s advice to “practice relaxation” became instrumental in her success beneath the surface. She also realized she’d learned more from him than she might have guessed. “I knew all my fish identification. I knew which ones I wanted to eat and where they lived and how they acted and what he’d do to bring them in.”
One fish became two, became bigger fish, became a more difficult fish to catch, and soon Kimi was getting enough to feed herself each night.
Give a woman a fish and she eats for a day, teach a woman to fish…
“It was the most satisfying feeling,” she says. “The minute I started being able to do that I really didn’t care about anything else. All those normal things you stress out about like your career and this and that… I had just found such a quality of life that I was just happy. Being able to feed myself felt so good. It started to get a little better when I was able to feed my roommates and feed those I care about.”
She went back to the beach barbecues to share her own fish, and this time the spear fishermen paid attention to the girl in her mid-twenties when she spoke—and they invited her to dive with them.
The Big Time
“Before I started diving with these guys I was probably doing about 25 feet. Then the first day that they trained me we went octopus diving. They said, ‘Okay, there’s one down there, it’s going to be deeper than you’ve gone.’ I think it was 30 feet. Every time I dove with another person I learned sooooo much. They trained me and taught me to dive at a level I didn’t know existed.”
To this day her deepest dive is 159 feet. “It’s amazing what your body can do when you just let yourself access that ability. You don’t really know what that is until you see someone else do it a lot of times.”
In 2008 she competed at the U.S. National Spearfishing Championships in Rhode Island, and despite that she was diving in dark, cold water for the first time, Kimi won every single category she entered, from Rookie of the Year to Biggest Fish.
“I’m so used to swimming around in blue water and just looking down and making my strategies. In this case I couldn’t see the bottom and had to do blind drops not having any idea where the bottom was, where the fish were…. But it taught me so much more. It taught me to listen. For the first time in my life I learned to hear fish swim,” she says.
Her wins earned her sponsors, and her art—at the time a side project—began to sell, but Kimi quickly realized that competition wasn’t why she dove. She yearned for a pure experience, pulled back from competing, and dove deeper into Oahu’s locavore food scene and into her art.
It All Comes Together
“Before I knew it, like-minded people were taking care of each other. My friends all have vegetable gardens and they drop stuff by. The people in my neighbourhood, when their fruit trees are going off they’ll drop stuff by. It’s just great because that’s how nature works. When a mango tree or avocado tree—my favourites—is ripe, it’s too much for the people who live there to eat. It’s impossible. So they share it with me. And I give them what they can’t get, which is fish. Same thing with taro and poi and eggs and venison—we have deer on the outer islands so a lot of my friends will bring me venison. Even if I can’t go diving my friends will bring me fish.”
Yes, she still goes to Foodland “for things like rice, pasta, cheese and olive oil that I haven’t quite figured out,” but Kimi figures that 75 per cent of her food is grown or caught by someone she knows.
“When I serve a meal it’s: this is the mahi caught by Garrett, and the lemons are from Mark, and the kale is grown by my sister, and by the time you’re done explaining there’s just so much gratitude being felt at that table for the love that went into every single ingredient we’re about to eat. Without truly having that appreciation it’s easy to take that for granted.”
Kimi with a sampling of Oahu’s bounty
“I use two different ones. One is a spear gun, a wooden thing with a metal shaft, a string that connects the shaft to the gun, a trigger mechanism and these two bands. When you pull the trigger the shaft is pulled by these two bands, and you hit the fish then bring it back in. Another one is much more simple, a pole with three prongs on it and a sling, a rubber band at the end. You cock it, and when you let it go it’ll fly. I learned on a three-prong. Then for larger game you need to actually use a gun to land the fish.
My largest fish was 125 pounds. With a really big fish like that, instead of having that same spear connect to your gun you have it detach from your gun completely and it connects to a line, which connects to a float. So that way you can breathe up, get air and then you can fight your fish up. Even then they’re so big that you usually clip it off at about 50 feet and then you dive down again and kill it.”
Kimi takes a break from fishing to swim with a friend
“As soon as I started diving. I started painting the underwater world. But these days—maybe because I’m taking a deeper look at the true connection I feel with the ocean or with nature—I’m really taking a closer look at subjects. So instead of painting a fish in its natural environment or a whole fish, I’ve been really zooming in and doing these abstract paintings purely based on the print of that fish skin or the pattern of that shell of the design of that taro leaf. I think it’s mind blowing how nature’s designs are just so perfect as-is.”