Just as when she is anywhere within splashing distance of the ocean, Kimi Werner is at ease on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. The 35-year-old, who made a name for herself in the male-dominated world of spearfishing, is embarking on a weeklong trip with 5 Gyres—a nonprofit aiming to reduce plastic pollution—that will address how to maintain a healthy ocean ecosystem. Moments before throwing off mooring lines, she receives a notice from the San Sebastian Surf Film Festival: They plan to screen a film she submitted, The Story Of An Island, a travel short about how diving connected her with the local culture on Robinson Crusoe Island in Fiji. The only problem is that the film does not exist. The festival, in San Sebastian, Spain, starts in less than two weeks, and all Werner has so far is a trailer. Realistically, she will have just four days to edit and complete it. Without a second’s hesitation, she responds affirmatively. Werner and her partner, Justin Turkowski, will make it happen.
Whirlwind events are not atypical in the life of this former champion spearfisher and Renaissance woman. Zigzagging the globe, Werner travels from one commitment to the next: TV and movie projects, conferences and festivals, dive trips to remote locations like the Tuamotu Archipelago. Werner is known for her dexterity in the ocean, swimming with a great white shark as if it was merely a dolphin, and freediving to notable depths. But it is her conscious work out of the water that has made the most impact. It’s a mentality she developed while growing up in Haiku on Maui. Her parents raised her and her two siblings on tightly limited resources, with daily chores that included placing pots and pans around their one-bedroom shack to catch rainwater, and gathering chicken eggs from under the house. These meager beginnings taught Werner to appreciate what she had, and to waste nothing. “Basically I grew up with nature and family,” she recalls. “It was a life lived outside, and a lot of it was spent in the ocean.”
When Werner was 5 years old, she began accompanying her father on his regular spearfishing dives. She recounts clinging to her father’s back as he climbed down a cliff to his favorite dive site, then floating on a boogie board as he gathered food for the family. “I would always end up off the boogie board, swimming, so he just began leaving it at home,” she says. As the Werner family grew, trips to the store slowly began to replace trips to the ocean. This change did not go unnoticed by Werner. “I missed everything about it,” she recalls. “I would ask my mom why my eggs for breakfast tasted so weird, and she explained they were from the store. So at 7 years old, I just thought store-bought meant manmade, which meant fake.”
Werner found herself missing that connection with her food, as well as the thrill found in attaining it, so after graduating from Maui High School, she moved to O‘ahu in 1998 to study at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific. Mostly, however, she was working as a waitress and spending her free time paddling outrigger canoes. It wasn’t until a crew barbecue one afternoon when some of the guys brought fish they had just speared that a switch flipped for Werner, and the sea drew her back to spending her days diving and fishing.
In 2005, she began training under the tutelage of Kalei Fernandez and Wayde Hayashi, who had both taken notice of her natural skill. Each being renowned divers, with victories in the U.S. National Spearfishing Championships themselves, the pair helped Werner cinch the 2008 national title in a competition of primarily, as she describes, “big burly men.” But after a year and a half of intense competition, Werner began to feel something was wrong. “I realized I was over it,” she says. “I didn’t know who I was without all the titles and winning. It got to a point when I was going out for a dive that I no longer felt happy, and that was the biggest loss. I missed the magic, and I didn’t know if I could get that back.”
Overburdened with self-doubt, Werner walked away from competition, and left for the archipelago of Palau. Upon her return, instead of bringing home a trophy, she came back with a different way of looking at the fish she spent so much time catching. “I [learned about] how the different locals wherever I was traveling eat the fish, and how they manage their natural resources,” Werner says. “What does fish mean to your culture? These things were just more interesting to me.”
Today, Werner continues to be an advocate for responsible food sourcing and the importance of healthy oceans, as highlighted in The Story Of An Island, which debuted at the San Sebastian festival in July 2015. A short film about diving a pristine destination and taking the time to engage with the local culture, it encompasses what Werner is up to these days. “We all have different skillsets,” she says. “It comes down to connecting with a cause, and then figuring out the best way that each of us can help with the abilities we possess.”