Magazine article Sunset

Going Deep

Magazine article Sunset

Going Deep

Article excerpt

Sometimes when she's diving alongside deadly sharks or holding her breath for four minutes underwater off some remote Pacifíc atoll, Kimi Werner thinks back to the day she learned to swim. She was 5 and her father, a spearfisherman who often hunted for family meals, began taking her to the reefs near their home in Haiku, Maui. She was fine in shallow water, but when she could no longer touch the bottom, Werner would start to flail, forcing her dad to paddle the rest of the way to the reef with his daughter on his back.

One day, he swam ahead and watched as she splashed and cried and began to take in water. Eventually, she sank. "As soon as I did, I couldn't hear myself screaming," says Werner. "Instead, I heard my dad's voice: 'You have to relax.' So I did. I remembered how to Swim. And I never struggled again."

From that day on, young Werner followed her father through the reefs. "It was amazing watching him dive down and come back up with my favorite dinner," she says. "It was the most beautiful thing."

When she was in elementary school, though, Werner's family moved to a new home inland, and their meals started coming from the grocery store rather than her father's spear. As an adult, Werner attended culinary school and went on to find work as a cook. It was a good job, but "I knew something was missing," she says.

She found it a few years ago on a beach in Oahu, where she came across a group of men grilling local reef fish. "They were the same fish I grew up watching my dad catch, which you don't see much anymore because we buy imported seafood at the store," she says. "It brought back such happy memories. I had written that life off, and to see that it still existed intrigued me."

Inspired, Werner started hurling herself like a torpedo into the ocean's depths, spear in hand. On the first day, she caught four small fish, which she took home, fried, and ate whole. "That has to be one of the most satisfying moments of my adult life," says Werner, now 37. "It was my first time providing for myself. I thought, I'm never letting this go again."

Three years later, in 2008, Werner became the U.S. National Spearfishing Champion. She was hailed as a hero back home, the local girl who had beat the guys. But competitive fishing, too, felt wrong to Werner. By putting a point value on each catch, the hunt seemed more like a game and less like the gathering of food.

So just as her career was taking off, she quit. "I wanted to do it right," says Werner, who set out to learn how other cultures hunted, prepared, and ate fish in sustainable ways. She leveraged her fame to sell hand-painted clothing, using the profits to pay for trips to some of the world's most pristine waters-places, like the island nation of Palau, that have managed to avoid the devastation of their fishing grounds or have been able to reverse those effects.

Werner took pictures, shared her stories on social media, and developed a following. She began to give lectures about the importance of learning where your food comes from. Last year, the Nat Geo People channel started airing Living Free with Kimi Werner, which follows her around the world as she seeks out people living and thriving in the wild. And she just completed filming The Smog of the Sea, a documentary with musician Jack Johnson and other citizen scientists that examines plastic pollution in our oceans.

"Besides Kimi being an amazing free diver and spearfisher, what stands out the most is her authenticity," says Mark Healey, a famed Hawaiian surfer and fellow spearfisher. …

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