Talking Story with Kimi Werner

Whether you cast a line from shore or hold your breath and slowly descend into the depths to the reef below with speargun in hand, it’s not easy to catch a fish. Kimi Werner can attest to that. After culinary school and a foray into a career in the arts, professional spearfisher Kimi Werner tapped into lessons she learned from her father in her early youth and returned to the sea, putting her heart and soul into the solitary endeavor of spearfishing. In 2008, she became a national champion.

On land, Kimi is anything but solitary. Through her advocacy supporting local food and healthy reefs and oceans, she inadvertently created a community of sharing that has grown beyond trading fish for avocados. Today, as an OluKai Ambassador, Kimi is spreading her penchant for eating local and fresh foods, protecting the ocean, and sharing its bounty to encourage others to do the same.

How did you get started freediving and spearfishing?
I grew up on Maui. At the age of five I first tagged along with my dad when he would go spearfishing and freediving, just to put food on the table for our family. The minute I got introduced to that underwater world I fell in love with it.

When I was 24 years old, living on O‘ahu—I had graduated college with a culinary arts degree and I had a job in the restaurant industry. The more I questioned what was missing, the more that my mind kept throwing at me memories of diving with my dad and getting food. So I started seeking out anybody who could spearfish. No one took me seriously, so I went out and got a three-prong spear. I went out on my own on the North Shore of O‘ahu.

After trying all day on that reef I was able to spear six different fish and bring them home for dinner. When I cleaned those fish, cooked that dinner and shared it with my roommates, I realized that meal tasted and felt more valuable to me than anything I made in my entire culinary career. I knew I needed to hold on to this with both hands. Soon, I starting showing up to barbeques with my own fish. Then people started inviting me diving and I became obsessed with it.

At what point did you transition from fishing to becoming a competitive spearfisher?
Eventually I fell into the hands of these elite divers, these past national champions who heard about this enthusiastic girl, and they trained me. I dove with them for about three years. I learned so much and am so grateful. They taught me how to take the skills and go into the unknown and do so much more with them. In 2008, I realized I wanted to try my hand at competing to see how I hold up next to the best in the nation, and I wanted to win and then turn around and thank these guys that taught me.

When did you realize that the ocean could provide you with more than just fish?
As far as lifetime opportunities to make a livelihood, I had no clue until I was about 28 years old. In 2008, I won the United States National Spearfishing Championships and started to get public recognition. When I quit competition, I thought I would lose those career opportunities. I realized that I wanted to dive, spearfish, travel, and learn about other cultures, how other places manage their natural resources and practice sustainable hunting. That became my passion. To my surprise, the more I was able to pursue that and share what I was learning, the more that my following grew and more opportunity came my way. It became clear that this is going to be something I can do full time.

What have you learned from your time underwater?
The biggest thing I learned from the ocean is when you feel the need to speed up, slow down. It’s about being comfortable in the water and learning how to relax under pressure. Anytime I felt the need to rush, panic or speed up, that became my indicator to move more slowly and relax. That totally improved my freediving, but personally it has helped me in my life, in society.

What does fishing mean to you now?
Fishing is a way to immerse myself in this environment and truly connect with it, to study, learn, and know the environment. Being a provider happened inadvertently. Sometimes I’ll catch enough fish to share. It took a lot of work, and it’s a life that I took. Out of respect for my catch, I want to share with people that will appreciate it as much as I do, even if it means going to great lengths like driving across the island to get this fish into the hands of somebody I can tell will really appreciate it.

In your eyes, how does the simple act of sharing fish create a community?
What ended up happening without realizing it, I was choosing people like Ed Kenney, like Hiilei Kawelo, like Paula Fuga— people with the same interest of getting to know their own environment and how to use their resources responsibly with love. In the weeks after sharing that fish, I’d wake up and have avocados at my door, or venison from local hunter, or I would have kale or beautiful garden greens, or chicken eggs.

Today, I barely go spearfishing once a week and yet I feed myself about 80 percent of my food from someone that grew, caught, or foraged, because this sharing community has been created in Hawai‘i. We found a way to take care of each other. It’s really harmonious. Sharing is a huge part of sustainability.