Kimi Werner: Champion Spearfisher, Artist, Traveler

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.