As far as job descriptions go, Hawaii’s Kimi Werner has one that pretty much anyone on the planet would envy. She travels the world exploring the deep ocean using no more than her fins and a speargun as tools. When she gets back home, she trades the speargun for a paintbrush, creating dazzling paintings inspired by her aquatic environments. Along the way she has picked up the title of national spearfishing champion, with some premier sponsors along the way to help her live the dream.
Her attitude toward the sea is one of interconnected respect, and the feeling is mutual by the inhabitants of the sea. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this beautiful video where she peacefully swims along with a great white shark:
I had a chance to sit down with this inspiring young woman, and hear some stories of her lifetime in the water, starting at a very young age with her father.
THE CLYMB: Thanks for taking the time with us today Kimi. You lead a very interesting life travelling the world as a spear fisher. How did you get started in this unique vocation?
KIMI WERNER: When I was about 4–5 years old, I started tagging along with my dad who would go spearfishing just to put food on the table. He started towing me along on a boogie board. Within a few days he realized that I could swim and I didn’t really need the boogie board, so he got rid of it, and I’d just follow him around. It was a challenge enough just to keep up with him, and as I got older, we were actually able to dive together as I was able to hold my breath and relax.
I never really spear fished, I just left that up to him, but I would put in my order for what I wanted for dinner… I just enjoyed being in that underwater world.
And when I was in my 20s living on Oahu after graduating from college, I felt that I was pretty set on my career path, but at the same time I thought there was something missing in my life. The more that I thought about it, it was just that connection to nature, that connection to getting your own food, and I thought back to those days of my dad. I just wondered if that would be possible to bring that back, to reincorporate diving into my life. And so I just went and got a spear, and sat out, and started to learn how to spearfish, and then I actually fell into the hands of these national champions (Wade Hyashi and Kalehi Fernandez), who saw potential in me and took me under their wing, and absolutely trained me. I was very lucky with that.
THE CLYMB: And how would you train for that?
KIMI: Basically they would just take me out and go to depths that I didn’t think were possible taught me a whole different style of diving. They were so smooth underwater, they had so much finesse. They were national champions, and so their sport was something where they really nitpicked and improved until their style was as efficient as could be. Learning from them showed me how to dive with a lot more finesse. As far as training goes, I would try to stay in shape, I’m not someone who goes to the gym or does some crazy type of cross training, but I’ll go play in the ocean, swim, go for a run, go for a surf, stuff like that. It’s more just about being in the ocean and having fun for me.
THE CLYMB: How are you able to hold your breath for so long to dive to the depths that you do?
KIMI: That’s something that I learned at an early age, and I have to give my dad credit for that. For me that training is all about mastering the art of relaxation—if you want to hold your breath, the last thing you want to do is panic. Because when you feel that need for air, when it creeps into your mind and your body tells you that you need air, it’s a common reaction for your body to start panicking, and that’s going to get you into trouble fast. My dad said “if you just relax, you can hold your breath for so much longer than you think.” I also learned the physiology of it, and basically you can lower your heart rate. Before I dive I take about five minutes just making my exhales twice as long as my inhales, and kinda going over every single part of my body from my toes to the top of my head, making sure every single part of it is relaxed. Even the grip on my gun has to be loose. Then you really take yourself into this meditative state of zen, which is kinda funny, because everyone thinks spearfishing is some sort of aggressive thing to do. But really the more relaxed you can be, the more efficient you can be at it.
The best tip I can give for diving or holding your breath in general, is that anytime you feel the need to speed up, that’s a true indicator that you should slow down.
THE CLYMB: Is there anything you would say to people who want to follow in your footsteps toward a less conventional career path?
KIMI: I would say that the one thing that diving has taught me in life is to just trust your gut. Trust your instinct and intuition, you know? Because if I had only paid attention to the path of society, I would have never guessed that I would be making a living off of spearfishing, traveling the world, and doing art. In fact, everything about ‘society’ told me, “absolutely not”. Like, don’t be an artist, you’ll never make it, that’s not a real job…
If you feel a pull toward something, you owe it to yourself to at least go investigate it. And if you are going to try, you might as well try hard, you know? So through trying diving, and trying it with all my heart, I think that’s how I got good at it. My first time ever diving outside of Hawaii was in Rhode Island at the national championships of spearfishing, and I ended up winning it. And then that’s what got me recognition. But then again, that’s when the whole ‘society’ thing took over and I got onto the path of chasing trophies and doing what I thought was making other people happy, and that alone started to make me unhappy.
And I realized that this wasn’t why I got into it. I got into it because I wanted to put food on the table. I got into it because it made my heart happy, so I walked away from that. Just like how I walked away from my nine-to-five to pursue what I do now. And when I walked away from competition, I really thought I was going to lose everything. I thought people were gonna lose interest in me, lose interest in my art. I thought I was going to lose all my sponsorships. But instead I just did what felt right. I went back to hunting for food. I didn’t just travel for contests, I traveled for the true desire of wanting to explore. I feel that since then I’ve gotten way more support from the public. And not only that but I got way better sponsors.
More responsible companies like Patagonia and my spear sponsors Riffe. And I’ve gone from sponsors like energy drinks to coconut water. And it’s amazing because the things that I was so afraid of losing all got replaced by things that are so much more me. And so I just feel that even when it feels like a risk to follow your intuition or follow your heart, it’s the right thing to do. You should do it. I think that if you do it with all your heart that it will pay off.