A League of Her Own
Story by Catharine Lo
Photos by Dana Edmunds
At 29, Kimi Werner has mastered what it takes most people a lifetime to learn: how to relax. Each time the champion spearfisher plunges into the ocean, one deep breath becomes her lifeline. Relaxation, she emphasizes, is key.
“I tell myself, ‘Don’t even worry about the fish. We’re just going to cruise. We’re going to take a nap,’” says the soft-eyed blue-water hunter. “Once I start to drop down, my body feels completely supported. It’s just the most peaceful feeling you can imagine.”
Werner’s breath hold can take her to a depth of seventy feet. Passing through different atmospheres—surface level, thirty feet, sixty feet—she transcends the heavy layers of compression, and the oxygen in her lungs floods her system like a drug. When she reaches the bottom, she often remains there for two minutes or longer, absolutely still, waiting for her prey. Cloaked in camouflage-print neoprene, she conforms to the seascape, blending in with the shadowy contours of the coral reef. She becomes, as she puts it, “a creature of the ocean.”
“Underwater, everything’s different and everything’s new. I think only about what I’m doing, what I’m seeing, in that moment. It’s an element where I’m a hundred percent present,” Kimi offers. “Every second I’m on land, I’m thinking about something. My brain is such a noisy place to live. What I love about the ocean is that this doesn’t happen out there. It’s what drew me to diving from the beginning.”
A sweet serenity appears as she imagines descending into the deep blue. “When your body is so used to it,” she says wistfully, “it’s like, ‘Welcome home.’”
Growing up in rural Makawao, Kimi happily embraced her family’s lifestyle, which instilled an appreciation for farm-to-table eating. Today, she laments, people have become severely disconnected from their food. “Our food was everything that was running around the yard. We would play with bunnies and pigs, and then we would eat them,” she recalls. Her deep passion for animals continues; both her cat and her dog are creatures she rescued. “People say, ‘You’re such an animal lover, but you go out and kill animals every day.’ For me there’s no divide.”
After high school, Kimi moved to O‘ahu to attend the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at Kapi‘olani Community College. What seemed like a suitable career path—cooking had long been a favorite pastime—led to her development as an artist, too. At KCC she found herself enrolling in more and more art classes alongside her culinary classes.
In 2004 she discovered—or rediscovered, as it were—the passion that would weave her loose strands of purpose together. On one of the first days of summer, she set out with her “three-prong”—a three-pronged pole spear mechanically launched with a rubber sling—in smooth water off O‘ahu’s North Shore. She returned with three aholehole, two aweoweo and one menpachi—quite a catch even for a seasoned diver.
It wasn’t long before spearfishing became Kimi’s primary interest. She began diving with some paddlers from her outrigger canoe club. One of them was Kalai Fernandez, the brother of Kalei Fernandez, a blue-water expert whose televised dives fueled Kimi’s fascination with the sport.
“You gotta meet my friend. She’s really into it,” Kalai would tell his brother Kalei. “I’ve never heard anyone talk about diving so much.” And whenever their social paths would cross, Kimi would shyly solicit tips and tricks from Kalei. Then one day he called.
“We’re going tako [octopus] diving tomorrow. Wanna come?” The invitation became a turning point in her life.
“I was so excited, so nervous,” Kimi remembers. Until that day the deepest Kimi had gone was twenty-five feet. With Kalei watching over her, she dived to thirty-eight feet and stayed down for a minute. “That day I caught my biggest tako ever. He called me every weekend after that.”
Through Kalei, Kimi met Wayde Hayashi, Gavin Sato and other spear-divers she greatly admired—national competitors whose humility and devotion to the sport and its lifestyle matched her own. Moved by her enthusiasm, they molded her into a major contender. In the process they also became some of her closest friends. “These guys saw my potential and wanted me to be the best diver I could be,” she says appreciatively. “They are awesome, awesome, awesome guys.”
In August 2008 Kimi went on her first dive outside Hawai‘i waters. It was at the US National Spear Fishing Championship in Newport, Rhode Island. There was a moment after the horn blew, Kimi says, that she suddenly recognized that this was the culmination of all her training. An overwhelming sense of joy, pride and gratitude to everyone who had helped her get there planted a grin on her face that lasted the rest of the day. As she paddled her kayak out to her spot two miles offshore—leading the pack with her fellow Hawai‘i divers—she thought, “I could come in dead last, and it wouldn’t take away from this moment.”
Less than an hour into the tournament, she spotted a large tail in the murky water. Instinctively she shot, and the fish tried to take off. The fight began. Kimi tried to secure it by its tail but failed, so she dug her hand straight into its gills and muscled it up to the surface. As she reached for her knife, the fish whipped its head fiercely back and forth and whacked her in the face. “I was so pumped up, even swimming this fish back to my kayak, I was still in a frenzy,” she recalls, re-enacting the struggle as she tells the story.
Every New Year’s, Kimi and her friends each choose one word that will underscore their purpose, an alternative resolution of sorts. In 2008, Kimi’s word was “champion.”
Nowadays, Kimi tries to go for at least one six- to eight-hour dive a week. It’s what keeps her “balanced, sane and fed.” She doesn’t mention that these excursions have also landed her more state records for biggest catch than she can remember—among them, mu, kumu, munu, uhu, yellowspot papio, ‘ahi, alaihimaumau and weke ‘ula.
“The ocean is such an interesting place to spend your day. There’s no talking. There’s no signs saying ‘Go this way’ or ‘Go that way,’” she says, explaining how undersea landmarks like a sand pocket can indicate whether you’re on the right path to finding life. “You rely so much on your instinct.”
Instinct—and a dependable partner. Once they’re in open water, Kimi explains, divers act as a hunting pack. They read each other, they read the ocean, they read the fish and, perhaps most important, they have each other’s back. Her boyfriend used to scold her, Kimi says, because she’d always swim off into her own little world. One day she felt a sharp tug on her float and turned around to see a tiger shark thrashing about, eating her catch. It was then she realized how critical—and comforting—it is to have a partner close by.
It was a full year of diving with a three-prong before Kimi picked up an actual spear gun, a tool that requires a different approach to hunting. Instead of actively looking under ledges, she learned, the trick was to wait for the fish to come to her. It was an exercise in staying calm and assessing the situation before doing anything—a skill she tries to apply to life on land.
“The best strategy for a diver is to pique the fish’s curiosity,” Kimi believes. Fish, she explains, can sense your vibration. Her theory is that once you lie down on the bottom and they lose sight of you, they wonder about you: “Where did that thing go?” And they come looking. But the slightest bit of excitement can blow your cover, she speculates. “If you’re all aggro, the fish can sense that.” And then they stay away.
When Kimi returns to land, the rush of hunting turns into a high. “It’s so rewarding. We pop a few beers, clean fish, prepare fish, eat fish and tease each other. We can spend the next two days talking about it—because until then we didn’t talk about it.” After each dive, Kimi also insists on some form of “follow-through” to honor her catch. “It nourishes me. It nourishes my family,” she explains. “Every time, I say ‘thank you’ to the fish.” She does that through her creative outlets, cooking and painting. Sometimes she commemorates the fish on canvas; she painted a portrait of a seventeen-pound omilu, for example, an unforgettable catch that made a surprise appearance while she was hunting menpachi. Other times her tributes come in the form of a fabulous meal: panko- and Parmesan-encrusted mahi, deep-fried aholehole, steamed uku, fresh sashimi, fish tacos. Even parts that others might throw away—the head and bones, for example—Kimi will fashion into a flavorful broth.
At the dawn of 2010, Kimi tells me her word for the year is “knowledge.” She’s committed to learning whatever is necessary to accomplish whatever sparks her interest. One thing she already knows for certain is that spearfishing is her calling. Even out of the water, whenever she showers off at the beach, the moment she closes her eyes, she says, “All I see is underwater. And I see fish. I see the fish that got away. And when I lie down to sleep, I see the fish I was chasing all day. I don’t expect to see fish, but they’re right there behind my eyelids.”