Kimi Werner On Wielding Spears
Published on 08/02/2012
By Mallory Ayres
Photo: Jeff Johnson
If you have been to Maui, Hawaii there is no doubt that you’ve escaped to that lush paradise in your mind months and years after you’ve left. You’ve probably even toyed with the idea of living there permanently. We had a chance to talk with Kimi Werner, a true Maui native, Patagonia ambassador and professional spear fisherman and she gave us a little insight into what island life is really like. Picture days filled with sun, blue ocean and a blood pumping sport that makes most people more than a little intimidated. As active junkies we’ve all felt the power of pure adrenaline, but she has felt the rush of diving 90 feet underwater, wielding a steal spear and competing with sea lions to hunt down a 125lb tuna for dinner. As a hunter, Werner lives that ancient pull we all have at some point in our lives to ditch the desk and paperwork and return to living off the land. She also embodies the authentic flavor of her island, and during her stories about her homeland, you can almost feel the sand between your toes.
Q: Can you tell me what life was like growing up in Maui?
A: Growing up in Maui is something I will always feel grateful for. My childhood there was magical. I was raised out in the country, in the boonies of Haiku. My parents raised my brother, sister and I in a little two-bedroom shack that was practically falling apart. My favorite chores were picking the ripe strawberries in the morning, gathering chicken eggs from under the house and placing the cooking pots all over the house at night to catch the drips of our leaky tin roof. This might not sound magical to a lot of people but to us, it was heaven. It was simple life filled with joy. We had dogs and cats that I would practically go out and collect as strays and bring home as pets and a few farm animals that I always got too attached to before having to eat them for dinner. There were acres of land all around us to explore and a little stream that flowed behind the house that we would play in daily. I loved where I lived. I never felt alone. Nature was my constant companion and I cherished every second I got to spend with her.
Q: What inspired you to start freedive spearfishing?
A: My dad was always fishing and diving and from the moment he let me tag along, I was hooked. I was about four years old when I first started diving with him. He would tow me on a bodyboard as he would freedive the North Shore in search of fish, octopus and lobster to bring home for dinner. He soon realized that I didn't need a bodyboard and I was forced to swim along. I remember the goal was to always try and keep up with the bubbles made by his fins. I couldn't swim as fast as he could but as long as I could see the bubbles I knew he was right up ahead. It forced me to become a better swimmer. Whenever he'd take a drop, I could catch my breath and watch him dive. I loved watching my dad dive. It seemed as if he could hold his breath forever. I'd practice holding my breath on the surface while he was down at the bottom and I'd always become thrilled and excited when I'd see him returning with one of my favorite fish on his spear. We became partners. I dove with my dad for years, never spearing fish myself, but just enjoying the ride as a tag along. I think he also enjoyed the company and loved the way I'd clap for him and get so happy over his catches. Everyday was an adventure.
It wasn't until I was all grown up and done with college and living on the island of Oahu that I realized that my life no longer felt complete without diving. I no longer lived near my dad and couldn't depend on him to take me out and catch me fish. I felt bummed to think that I had spent all those years in the ocean and never truly learned how to spear fish on my own. So at the age of 24, I decided to try. I asked so many people to take me diving and no one really seemed to take me seriously. I finally just started going on my own and to my surprise, I was able to catch some fish. I guess that even though I was always a tag along, all those years of being in the ocean and watching my dad paid off. Soon I caught the attention of fellow divers and had partners to go with. I learned something new from everyone and the whole process was just so exciting to me. Within a year of diving, I fell into the hands of some of Hawaii's best spearfishers: Kalehi Fernandez, Wayde Hayashi and Gavin Sato. They had heard about my enthusiasm and invited me to join them on a dive. These guys became my mentors. They saw potential in me and decided to train me. I had never before seen anyone dive like them. They were fluid, graceful and calm in every movement. They hit depths that seemed impossible to me and were so selective in what they shot. When I watched them dive, I realized that I had found my life's passion.
Q: Can you describe what happens on the average freedive?
A: On an average freedive, I swim on the surface scouting for reef structure and fish. When I see fish or signs of fish I look for a good place to lay down. I really like sandpockets or ledges. I then start breathing up and go through a calming routine that I do before every dive. I take one really deep breath and do a strong kick at the surface and begin to drop. My kicks get more narrow as I fall into the deep and once I reach the point of being negatively buoyant, I stop kicking completely and just let gravity pull me down. This is my favorite part of the drop; it feels so peaceful to me. I arrive at the ocean floor and lay in the spot I had chosen. I try to lay flat and keep my face and fins down, while taking little sneaky peeks to see if the fish are coming in. Once my prey is in range I slowly extend my gun or three prong and let my spear fly. I then usually have to pounce really quickly, secure the fighting fish in my arms and put a knife in it's brain to put it out of it's misery and stop it from making vibrations that will bring in sharks. Then I ascend back to the surface with my catch and breathe and recover.
Photo: John Johnson
Q: What has been your most exciting freedive spearfishing accomplishment?
A: I would have to say shooting my yellowfin tuna in Mexico. I flew up with my buddy Mark Healey and met up with about ten other team Riffe divers from around the world. We dove everyday for a week in search of tuna and everyone was coming up empty handed. The fish were there but they were deep. They weren't interested in feeding and no one could get close enough to them. I hadn't even seen one. It was so frustrating. On the very last day of the trip I was doing a drift and crumbled some chum and let it go. I watched it slowly sink down into the darkness until I could barely see it anymore. I took a deep breath and started to descend. I leveled off at about 65 feet and looked around. I could not believe my eyes! There was an ahi!!!! It was huge and all lit up and eating every piece of my chum. The way it moved was crazy! It was darting back and forth attacking the bait in quick powerful flashes. It was amazing. I swung my gun at it, shot and completely missed! Ha! I finally got my opportunity and I blew it! As I returned to the surface though, I couldn't stop smiling. I had seen my unicorn at last. It did exist down there and it was mind blowing to see it in action. I was so pumped and just felt so lucky to see that fish. I took another breath and did another drop. This time I went deeper. I stopped my descent at 90 feet and as soon as I did and I saw a school of ahi coming my way! It was a dream! I learned from my mistake during my last drop so this time I moved much more slowly and calmly. I lined my gun up in the direction that the fish were heading and waited for them to pass by. I saw one that was considerably closer than the others and I let it approach then took my shot. It was a great shot and I headed to the surface where the fight was on. There were sea lions now darting in and trying to take bites of my fish as I fought it up on the surface. As soon as I pulled my fish 50 feet up, I grabbed my back up gun and took another drop and shot it again. The fight was done and I had a beautiful ahi. It weighed in at 125 lbs and provided us with enough meat for the whole team as well as our boat captains and all of the locals and their families who had been helping us. It was a glorious moment that I will never forget.
Photo: John Johnson
Q: What the deepest dive you’ve ever taken? How long can you hold your breath?
A: The deepest dive I've ever taken is 159 feet and the longest I've held my breath is 4min and 45 seconds. But that was just to see how deep and how long. When I hunt, I usually stay shallower than 100 feet and try not to hold my breath over two minutes. It's dangerous to push your limits and it's not necessary to land fish.
Q: What’s the best thing about cooking and eating the fish you catch?
A:Cooking and eating your catch is the absolute best part of diving. It's the whole purpose of it. It ties the whole experience together. I love food. I went to college for cooking and have a degree in Culinary Arts. I really can't think of anything more satisfying then catching or harvesting your own ingredients. It doesn't get any fresher than that and it's just such a great feeling to know where your food came from and to know the story behind it. It makes me appreciate every bite so much more. It's no longer just a rectangular fillet of fish. It's a beautiful animal that you appreciate for nourishing you and it's important to me to do it justice. [I love] to cook it the best way I know how to, to serve it to people I love and to make sure that nothing is wasted. It's just a fun way to live.
Q: What kind of spear do you use?
A: I use a Riffe blue water express when I go for pelagic fish. My Riffe Euro 115 when I'm reef diving and a Riffe pole spear when I want to go three pronging. Some of these guns can get pretty big and intimidating and I think that's why I still love using a three prong. It's such a simple, primitive way to hunt and it brings me such satisfaction to know that I can feed myself with it.
Q: You’re a Patagonia Ambassador. What has been the most exciting thing about being a part of that?
A: I would have to say that the most exciting part of being a Patagonia Ambassador is that it makes me part of something bigger. Something that I believe in. I love Patagonia. I love what they stand for. I think they are a great company with thoughtful ethics and great morals. I appreciate their dedication to the environment and how they're different from most big companies out there. It's refreshing to me that they don't try to chase whatever cool and trendy image is hitting the markets these days. They're true to themselves. They know that they make great products and do great things and support great people, and that's enough for them. Being a part of Patagonia inspires me to stay true to myself. It reminds me that I can be successful without having to conform and try to be like everyone else. It also always reminds me to be responsible and take care of the land and ocean as it takes care of us. Patagonia has heart. That is what I love most about representing this company.
Q: You test, refine and validate Patagonia products. What is your favorite piece of Patagonia gear from the 2012 line?
A: It's hard for me to just choose one but I practically live in the Summertime dress so I guess I'd have to go with that piece. I love being a girl but I never seem to put a lot energy into getting ready or making myself look nice. The Summertime dress is awesome because I can throw it on right after I get out of the ocean and go to wherever I need to be, feeling good about myself. I love the thickness and durability of the cotton. I'm sort of rough on my gear and I love that I don't have to be gentle with this dress. I can smash it into backpacks or dive bags and go to be really active in it but when I wear it, it hugs my figure in just the right ways to make me feel feminine and stylish and pretty. I think that's important too.