Werner is now a chef, public speaker, artist, and world champion free diver, all because of the dives she witnessed with her father so many years ago. You may have seen her in ads for brands like BMW, REI, or her TV show “Living Free With Kimi Werner”. When she’s diving, Werner appears like an ethereal being, seemingly more graceful under the water than above it. Werner dives into the depths of caves that might make the normal mainland mind claustrophobic, but plunges below like there is something tethered, pulling her down, down, down. In the kitchen, Werner proves her grace extends to dry land.
Werner’s knife slices swiftly through the fish, caught by surfer and fisherman, Matt Meola, as if it was merely butter. We’re gathered at the home of Nancy Meola, mother to both Matt and Lily Meola, and longtime friend of the Nelsons. Werner is preparing a meal with the help of Matt to serve Lukas Nelson, Nikki Lane, and other family friends while everyone is in town for the holidays. The fluorescent kitchen light glistens off the blade and illuminates our half damp half dusty feet below - the aloha spirit alive and well. That’s something that permeates the air on the island; there is no hierarchy here. No matter how many awards or trophies, grammys or gold records, everyone’s shoes come off at the door.
Werner: “I am a free-diving spear fisherwoman. Basically that just means that I hold my breath, I don’t use scuba tanks, and I dive down to the bottom of the ocean and spear fish to bring home for dinner. I was born and raised here; Maui is what really gave me my roots and taught me everything. When I was 5 years old was when my dad started letting me tag along with him when he went spear fishing. My parents worked hard but didn’t have a lot and so it was nature that really filled in the gaps for us. We were able to forage for our food. My dad always teases me that the only reason why he took me spearfishing at such a young age is because he couldn’t afford to hire a babysitter while my mom was working for tips as a waitress. But regardless, that was my favorite way to spend time with my dad. I got introduced to a world that I just absolutely fell in love with. I love the depths and the colors and the sea life. I didn’t spear fish at that age but I got to tag along with my dad and basically put in my orders for dinner. I was his cheerleader on the surface and he’d go down, disappear into the depths and come back with my favorite dinners of lobster and fish and whatever it was.
For me personally, that period of my life was only a very short period. So by the time I was going on 7, both of my parents’ careers took off. My mom went to college when she was 41 for the first time when she could finally afford a community college. She got her degree and was a nurse here at the emergency room in Maui.”
From the front of the house Matt Meola yells for Kimi, “Should I just stack the filets on here?” She gently guides him to a serving platter and offers to scale the fish while he cuts. I follow her out the front door where our dinner sits waiting on the table.
Werner: “No, so once my parents started making more money, we moved away from Haiku to a subdivision. We no longer depend on nature for our food; we got it from stores and restaurants and whatnot.So I grew up with a civilized life, but I always looked back to those days and missed them so much.”
Werner: “It wasn’t until I was 24 years old. I graduated from high school, moved to Oahu to live in the city, got my culinary arts degree, and then when I was right there with this job. I was working in a restaurant and realized that I felt quite miserable. The more I thought about it the more I got these flashbacks of being five years old and diving with my dad on Maui. I didn’t really know what to do with those memories but finally one day I was like, “You know what, I feel like I’m suffering from this chronic case of nostalgia; longing for something that doesn’t exist anymore and I have to see what that’s about.” So I got a spear, the kind my dad used to have, and just went into the ocean having no idea what I was doing. I was filled with anxiety more than anything. I remember just walking across the beach with my spear that I bought and feeling like such a fraud and just being so embarrassed, hoping that no one saw me, then getting into the ocean and not knowing where to go and what to do. But I just kept kept swimming and I came across this reef. I saw these little fish and I remembered them as the ones my dad would catch. I remembered what I would watch him do when he would dive down and I just gave it a try. By the end of the day I had like six fish that I caught myself. The woman that came out of the water that day was completely different than the one that went in. I basically came out feeling like a lioness with my catch. I went home and cleaned them and cooked them and realized that [that meal] felt better than any meal I’d ever made in my culinary career. After that I was obsessed. So at that age I just pursued it because I wanted to. I wanted that feeling. I wanted to provide for myself. I wanted to do it in a sustainable way. I wanted to have a connection to my food that brought me back to my roots and Maui. I ended up getting pretty good at it and eventually these national champions who were the best in the nation at spearfishing took me under their wing. They trained me and three years later, it was my first time ever diving outside of Hawaii and that was at the National Championships in Rhode Island and I ended up winning it. That is what threw me into the public eye but soon after that I realized it wasn’t competing that I wanted to do it was about the heart and the food and everything that brought me to it to begin with. So I’ve been doing that ever since. It has surprisingly become my livelihood just because I ended up connecting with a lot of companies who care about this mission of selective, responsible harvest.”
Werner: “Yes! He’s my biggest fan.”
Werner: “I did. It was so funny because I got back into it, I trained with those national champions, I thought I was pretty cool. I came back to Maui and wanted to show my dad how great I was and I had these big long freediving fins. I had a wet suit and a weight belt - things he never had. He went diving in shorts and a t-shirt and little fins and no weight belt. I just wanted to show him just how far it’s come. He took me out to this spot and there were waves coming in and crashing on the rocks. We went for octopus and he found them, I didn’t. When we got back out he just got out of the rocks so gracefully and I tripped over my long, carbon-fiber fins and fell right into a sea urchin and poked myself. He just laughed. But he’s really proud.”
Werner: “My favorite fish in Hawaii would be a fish called Mu. It’s just a really elusive, hard to get fish with sweet meat. It’s really delicious but they have teeth, like human teeth or molars. But all the fish we’re making tonight are very close behind that for me.
Tonight we’re eating Uku which is a grey snapper also known as a job fish. We’re also eating Weke Ula. It’s a really prized goat fish. We’re gonna have it sashimi. And we’re also having Mahi Mahi.”
Werner: “Basically I don’t have much of a steady routine. I travel a lot. I have a lot of really great sponsors and we share the same values so a lot of the time I end up doing trips whether they’re for spearfishing or learning about natural resources and how to manage them, everything with an environmental focus. So that keeps me busy but also I get a lot of gigs being filmed underwater. And then I do speaking mainly on the topic on sustainability. So a lot of travel, but whenever I’m home I just want to swim out, get dinner, and cook in my backyard.”
We’ve now made it back inside the house and Kimi is adding the final touches to her sashimi, an overflowing bowl of ceviche, and making sure all of the accoutrements for our fish tacos are placed on the table. She never stopped moving the whole time we spoke, but never seemed stressed or scattered. Just like a hunter searching for her prey, each movement is calm and calculated; her career truly a mirror of her life.
Werner: “What it really comes down to is examining your choices in whatever way you can. So trying to understand the source of things, even if you’re not able to go out and hunt or forage or dive to the bottom of the ocean and just still examining where your food comes from. Whether that’s getting to know your farmers at farmers markets, getting to know your fish mongers, or just getting to know the companies that are out there trying to do it right. I also think that the more time you can spend in nature, [the more] you’re going to find your own way to bring it back and connect. I really believe that. My parents were into sustainability before anyone even knew what that was, and that was out of necessity. I think that when things are out of necessity that’s sometimes when you learn the core values of them and when you learn that you have to take care of what takes care of you. Sustainability now is like a big buzzword and I think that’s a great thing. But I do want people to dig a little deeper and realize that it’s not just us and the ecosystem or us trying to save the ecosystem, it’s us being a part of this ecosystem. We are a part of the animal kingdom, we’re all animals, and any animal that’s ever born into this animal kingdom learns right off the bat where their food comes from. It’s so silly to me that we’ve changed that and made things about convenience and mass consumerism. We’re so far removed, it’s almost like the term ‘civilized’ means ‘as far away as you can get from the source”’ I think it’s a big trick so you become dependent on a flawed system. There’s one thing that all humans crave and that’s a sense of belonging. Being that we’re all part of nature, I think we can all find [belonging] there. Adn the more we find it, the more we learn how to be a balanced part of it.”
*Cover Photo of Kimi Werner courtesy of Chase Pellerin for Gear Patrol Magazine