Interview With Kimi Werner: Champion Spearfisher, Artist, Traveller

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.