To get to the sharks at the Maui Ocean Center you must walk through a set of jaws that serve as a doorway, then wind down a low-lit gullet of a corridor, past a floor-to-ceiling lava lamp of jellyfish. At the end of the passage, casting a cool blue gloom, is a 750,000-gallon tank filled with hundreds of large, toothy fish—sleek reef sharks, alien hammerheads, purposeful tigers, burly ahi and trevallies, silvery milkfish—and broad-tailed stingrays sweeping around all of them like kites.
Among the crowds, there was pointing and shrieking and exclamations of wonder, toddlers clutching plush sea turtle dolls, teenagers trying and failing to look bored, and an overexcited guide barking into a microphone about how someone he knew “had all his fingers ripped off” by a giant trevally. As he delivered this cautionary tale, an elegant, muscular pair of legs appeared in the tank window behind his head.
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And Kimi Werner dropped into the water.
She wore a black bathing suit, a black mask, a weight belt, and freediving fins, and she looked like a Bond girl, albeit one who would do her own stunts, and 007’s as well. Werner, 37, is a spearfishing champion who holds world records. She regularly dives below 150 feet on a single breath—which she can hold for almost five minutes—while hunting mammoth wahoos, snappers the size of Smart cars, and other ocean denizens known for their ability to fight.
Werner has freedived under Arctic ice and stalked dogtooth tuna off Zanzibar and sailed across the Drake Passage in a small boat. She has spearfished in all five of the planet’s oceans and off each of its seven continents. The job description she has written for herself is enviable. “Free-diving Underwater Huntress,” her Instagram bio reads. “Lover of nature and food and our connection to both. Exploring this world and within as authentically as I can.” Yet to call her a professional adventurer or ocean athlete would be too limiting. She is also an acclaimed artist, a trained chef, an inspirational speaker, and an environmental activist sponsored by Patagonia, Yeti, Maui Jim, and a host of other companies. Werner has starred in Discovery Channel’s Pacific Warriors, about extreme fishing, and Living Free with Kimi Werner on National Geographic, in which she samples off-the-grid lifestyles. Recently, she was featured in surfer and filmmaker Keith Malloy’s new movie, Fishpeople.
Werner is highly successful, though her résumé breaks every rule. She has never, will never, do time in an office. On the few occasions she’s had steady employment, she felt bored and trapped and she quit in short order, without a safety net. Often, she’s turned down lucrative opportunities because they didn’t feel right. “I’ve never had a five-year plan,” she says. “Or even a one-year plan.”
While the crowd looked on, Werner dove to the tank floor and lay down on the sand, her long ponytail rippling in the current. She appeared as relaxed as someone lounging on a beach chair, even as a hammerhead orbited, inches from her face. This was a publicity appearance: Werner was here to support the center’s conservation efforts, and if the point was to grab peoples’ attention, it was working. “Is this a mermaid?” asked a boy in a bucket hat. “Say hi to Kimi!” a chirpy girl in an aquarium uniform instructed. “This is a very difficult physical feat, everybody!” shouted the guide. “She’s holding her breath the entire time she’s down there! This is something you have to train yourself for!”
I had come here to meet Werner, and to see her in her element, because I admire the way she navigates water with a level of assurance that most people never attain on land. Like Werner, I prefer liquids to solids, and as a longtime competitive swimmer I’ve spent countless hours submerged. Aquatic savants are always compelling to me—the more obsessive the better. To be at home underwater is to be an oddity in a world where a tiny fraction of the population can swim 500 yards; aquatic professionals are an even smaller subset. Yet the ability to spend our days in an environment of our own choosing—in Werner’s case, salt water—is the perfect mix of sanity and luxury, and obviously something we should try more often. From childhood onward, there is no shortage of rules, both self- and culturally imposed, about what we’re “supposed” to be doing. And they usually boil down to this: what everyone else is doing.
It’s easy to find yourself living someone else’s life; I knew this firsthand. I have sat in many meetings with men in suits and pretended to care about spreadsheets. I have listened to business jargon—talk of monetizing, optimizing, incentivizing—until I thought I might projectile-vomit. Even before I could fully articulate it I sought a different type of power, one that had more to do with freedom. My dream was to live in a town where I could swim in the ocean every day and write books with my cats draped across my desk in a room where I could open the windows and work in natural light and never have to wear closed-toe shoes again.
It sounds simple, but it took me 30 years to get there. Society is seductive; it’s good at telling us what we can’t do, can’t have, can’t be. Werner intrigued me because, quite clearly, she wasn’t listening. She was thriving on her own terms, doing what she loved. She was paid well for living well, rewarded for not selling herself out. To my mind, this was success. And this made her an inspiration for anyone yearning to slip society’s leash and light out for adventure. In other words, all of us.
“She’s one of those people who’ve just got it, you know?” says Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. “She’s the most legit person I’ve met,” says waterman Mark Healey, Werner’s dive partner. “I have never seen the light in her grow dim,” says legendary talent manager Shep Gordon, a close friend. Everything I’d heard about Werner led me to believe that she had cracked a major code: how to have a fulfilling, exciting, self-determined life, at large in nature, unmarred by bullshit or compromise.
Somehow, brilliantly, she had managed to stay wild.
About an hour later, Werner came out of the tank and I met her on the back deck of the aquarium, where she was rinsing off under a hose. “That totally gave me my fix,” she said, smiling. She is a strong woman of medium height, with wide-set brown eyes, high cheekbones, and dark hair that falls to the middle of her back. Her shoulders have been sculpted by decades of water time.
A group of aquarium brass were gathered around her, looking starstruck. One man lurched forward with a plastic fish and asked Werner to autograph it for his daughter.
“What’d you think of the tiger shark?” another guy asked.
Werner grinned. “So cute.”
“Where was your last adventure?” someone else wanted to know.
“Panama. You’d hit the cold thermocline and there were just yellowfin tuna everywhere. It was incredible.”
Another diver stepped up and handed Werner a baggie of shark teeth, sifted from the tank’s sandy bottom. Sharks are cartilaginous fish—they have no bones—which means their teeth get dislodged often. Handily, they have several rows of spares, arrayed one behind the other. Sharks have a bad reputation, largely undeserved, and I knew that Werner had an unusually close relationship with them. In her line of work, marauding sharks are as common as morning traffic on a commute. “Matching their behavior is the best thing to do,” she says. “If they come in and they’re super mellow, then I can be mellow, but if they’re coming in hot and sporadic, then I need to hold my ground and set the energy.” The most important thing is not to behave like prey. “At first when sharks approached me I would cower, and I’d get kind of bullied. But then one time, I was working so hard to get this fish, and as I was pulling it in I saw this shark coming up to eat it, and I was just like, ‘No! Not today, buddy. You go get your own dinner. This one’s mine.’ As soon as I did that, the shark just took off. It taught me a lot.”
This is a hell of a way to get groceries, but Werner doesn’t see it like that. For her, the real risk is in becoming a “zombie who doesn’t ever think about where their food comes from,” helpless in the absence of a Safeway. “Our world is so based on efficiency and convenience,” she says. “I think something in your life is really missing if you decide to just shut off your brain and consume.” About 80 percent of everything Werner eats, or cooks for others, comes from hunting, growing, foraging, or trading.
“I hate it when they say ‘man and the ecosystem,’ ” Werner says. “Because we’re part of the ecosystem.” And, she adds, “we’re not necessarily at the top of the food chain.” At no time was this more apparent than on October 1, 2012, when Werner met a creature that does occupy that spot.
The scene was dreamlike; it looked like CGI footage Disney might have whipped up for some twisted Little Mermaid sequel. On screen, Werner was gliding along with a 17-foot great white shark, her left hand latched on to its dorsal fin. Like millions who have watched video of the encounter, I found it surreal: Who rides a great white shark?
Talking about the experience now, Werner stresses that there was nothing planned or stunt-like about the meeting. She had been invited on a cage-diving trip to Mexico’s Guadalupe Island—a rocky outpost 150 miles offshore from Baja, known for its resident great whites—when a friend suggested a freedive one afternoon. I have been to Guadalupe and seen what lives in those waters, and I would note that at no point did it occur to me that it would be good fun to swim around outside the cage. Werner did want to do that, however, and the captain had given his permission. The day had been sharkless, and the cage divers had quit, tired of staring into the empty blue. But when Werner jumped in and cleared her mask, she saw immediately that she was not alone.
“This big shark was three feet away and coming right at me,” she recalls. “And in that moment I was like, ‘OK, that’s my hand. I gotta play it.’ Werner swam toward the shark, which turned away, moving with a languid rhythm. Watching the shark’s body language, Werner could tell that it was just curious, and not in hunting mode. The two circled each other: “It turned into this beautiful dance we were doing.” At one point, the shark swam directly below Werner, who had dived 30 feet down, to the point of negative buoyancy. “I realized I had two choices. I’m either going to land on this shark, or I can do a flip kick and go back up to the surface.” She chose the first option. Make it smooth! she told herself, reaching out for the shark’s immense back. “I touched her, let her know I was there. I felt this massive, massive animal, and yet her energy was so calm. She really slowed down, and we just went with it. And we actually did it several times.”
Both Werner and another diver had captured the scene on their GoPros, and in the aftermath she rejected offers from energy-drink companies and reality-TV producers, all wanting to use the footage for their own cranked-up purposes. “I felt like a huge dummy, for sure, saying no to all this stuff,” she said, “but I just didn’t want to put it out there in that way.” In the end, Werner and her boyfriend, filmmaker Justin Turkowski, created the five-minute clip I’d seen, which tucks the shark encounter into a larger conservation message. It is a quiet, modest piece, the opposite of sharksploitation. When I mentioned this to Werner, she nodded. “After it happened, I went mute for about two months. It was a sacred experience, and I wanted to protect that.”
Dropping in on Werner’s world now, it might seem as though everything magically fell into place, that she found her calling early and was instantly successful and has led such a charmed and golden existence that even great white sharks turn sweet in her presence. This would be wrong.
Kimi and her sister, Christy, were raised in Maui’s jungly backcountry, schooled in the survival arts by their “Japanese hippie” mother, June, and a down-to-earth, adventure-loving father, Chris. “We were really poor,” Werner says. “Basically, we lived in a shack.” As a toddler, Werner’s chores included collecting eggs from chickens that lived under the house and riding a pig down a dirt road to pick up the mail. On “harvest days” she watched her parents dispatch turkeys and rabbits with an ax. It was not a childhood for whiners, the squeamish, or the easily frightened.
At age five, Werner began to accompany her father while he spearfished along the island’s feisty north shore. “He would put me on his back and climb down the sea cliffs,” she recalls. “We’d have to time the waves to jump in and get past the surge.” She would cling to a kickboard while her father dove: “I remember being scared of how deep it was, but I would watch for his bubbles, and as long as I could see them I was fine.”
Werner soon got bored with floating on the surface and began to take plunges herself, learning to identify fish and observing the action below. Though she was too young for a spear, the idea of being self-sufficient—of relying on your own skill and wits to get food—was captivating. The ocean became familiar, even in its extremes. While other girls played with princess dolls, Werner was cave-diving for lobsters. Other kids scraped their knees; she got a man-of-war wrapped around her throat. “It was the most excruciating pain,” she says. “It looked like someone had whipped me.”
Even after her father started a construction business, and the shack was replaced by a suburban home, and the hunting and gathering tutorials gave way to a typical high school adolescence, Werner carried those early, hazy ocean memories with her. When she moved to Oahu to pursue a culinary degree at a community college, the memories came along too, tucked into the top drawer of her subconscious.
Post-college life started off at a trudge. She worked a restaurant job in Honolulu, took art classes, paddled outrigger canoes, and it all felt sort of dull. Something was missing. At age 24, Werner remembered what that was.
She was at a barbecue when two guys arrived with a stringer of freshly speared fish. “It just triggered something,” she says. There was something enduringly haunting—in a good way—about that simpler, rougher time in her life, when her family worked to feed themselves and nature defined every day. Werner approached the men. “I told them I used to dive when I was five and maybe they could take me with them sometime?” Thinking back on it now, she laughs. “I’m sure I sounded like a liability or a psycho.”
When the phone didn’t ring, Werner bought a three-pronged spear and went out on her own: “And I was as scared as I’ve ever been. Just totally spooked.” She calmed herself by imagining that her father was in the water with her. “I came out with six fish. It took me all day to get them, and I was elated,” she says. “There was this crazy buzz going through me. I was like, ‘This is it! I’m back!’ It was a reunion with my five-year-old soul. It felt like falling in love. Where all of a sudden it didn’t matter if I hated my job—it didn’t matter because I was in love.”
It wasn’t long before Werner’s talent and stoke attracted the right mentors, elite Hawaiian spearfishermen Kalei Fernandez and Wayde Hayashi. They taught her how to dive past 100 feet, and about the importance of safety. In the lightless depths, as a rule, things get dangerous quickly. One looming threat is shallow-water blackout, a sudden loss of consciousness upon surfacing, triggered by extended breath holding. It is a terrifyingly easy way to die, and experience is no guarantee against it.
Despite the perils, Werner loved the deeps. She loved the way the pressure squeezed her body; to her it felt like a hug. She learned to slow her heart rate, and discovered that she had an unusual ability to equalize her ears and sinuses at will, without using her hands. The best part was the peacefulness, the silence, the need to be fully present. There was a profound conversation going on down there, it just didn’t involve words.
In 2008, after only three years of coaching, Werner won the national spearfishing championships. The event was held in the frigid Atlantic off Newport, Rhode Island, in water so murky she had trouble finding the bottom. “I could barely see my fins,” she says. “That just freaked me out.”
But in the competition itself, everything went right. Almost immediately, 20 feet down in the green-black haze, Werner met a behemoth, a 33-pound striped bass that would turn out to be the second-largest fish caught in the competition, even among men. The striper battled hard, lashing her with its tail. “It was a wrestling match between me and this fish,” she says. It was an improbable win for a rookie who had never dived outside Hawaii, and who’d raised money for the trip by selling T-shirts. Spearfishing is a global community of ocean thrill seekers—and now it had a new star.
Sponsorships followed, international travel, awards, accolades, press. But it felt wrong to take more fish than she was going to eat—or to descend on a location to win a trophy, and barely get a whiff of the place or its culture—and Werner quit almost as abruptly as she’d begun. “I didn’t like what competition was doing to me,” she says. “I was a little aggro. My vibe was just different. Before I knew it, I wasn’t coming out of the water feeling happy.”
Her decision to quit was unpopular. Nobody could understand why she would give up the glory and the sponsorship money. “I was called a waste of talent, a disappointment,” she says. “I lost friends, dive partners. I really thought I was going to lose everything.”
Werner cashed in her savings and flew to Palau, the remote island nation in the western Pacific famous for its diving and its radical approach to conservation. Struggling with rising sea levels, ocean pollution, habitat loss, and overfishing, the Palauans had adopted a green tax, ended industrial fishing, made 80 percent of their waters into a marine reserve, and developed strict environmental policies, enforced on a community level by tribal chiefs. “People understood that they couldn’t take certain fish, or they would have to answer to the tribe,” Werner says. “I remember thinking, Hmmm, we don’t have tribes. I don’t know how to apply that. Then I realized that I do have a tribe: people I know who feel the same way I do.”
The trip helped Werner get clear about what she really wanted: travel, tribe, ocean, fish, nature—but not for any mercenary purposes. Reef health and water quality were declining. Plastic pollution was a scourge. Fish populations were dwindling. Corals were dying. “The ocean looked very different than it did when I was a little kid,” Werner says. “And that really got me thinking about how I could give back.”
Which is excellent, of course, but adding environmentalist to your crazy quilt of avocations still doesn’t pay the rent. As always, people had plenty of advice: Get a real job or you’re headed for failure. You’re not getting any younger, you know. No one can make a living this way. Werner recalls the stricken face of one woman who’d asked about her career plans: “It was such a look of concern and confusion. And I just started laughing, because I didn’t know what else to do.”
The naysayers were wrong. As Werner embraced her ideals and quirks and desires, she got better sponsors, new opportunities to work in film and television, a warmer
reception for her artwork, more chances to explore—and a much bigger tribe. Far from falling apart, in a surprising and fluid way, her life was coming together.
Werner and Turkowski live at the end of a narrow lane on Oahu’s north shore, in a vintage fifties bungalow ringed by a cathedral of trees, plants, and flowers. On the afternoon I stopped by, there were wetsuits hanging from a clothesline, freediving fins lying on the lawn, weight belts spread out to dry atop coolers. A sheathed knife poked out of a drybag; a beach cruiser leaned against the stairs. The walls were decorated with seashells, antlers, and a gallery of Werner’s vibrant paintings of marine life.
Werner was packing and unpacking, sorting gear, caught in a 48-hour turnaround between trips to Europe and Korea. She was also making lunch, pulling kale from the garden, avocados from trees. Earlier, she’d gone diving and caught the fish we’d be eating: papio, aholehole, and kole. The fish lay on ice, their scales glinting in the sunlight. Werner slid them onto a dish and headed across the lawn to clean and fillet them. She was barefoot, wearing a slip of a sundress and carrying a big-ass knife.
“When I’m home I cook three times a day for my own therapy,” she said, kneeling to scale the fish. Turkowski, a tall, outdoorsy guy in his thirties, ambled up, took a few photos—Werner has 150,000 followers on social media—and handed her a beer. (The two met in 2012 on a shoot.) The neighbor’s dog loped over hopefully. He was likely to be disappointed. Werner wastes nothing, and takes care to remove every last scrap of meat, even the weird parts like collars and cheeks.
Werner grilled the fish in a cast-iron pan, on a propane stove next to the porch, then tossed it in a salad from the garden. We sat at the outside table, joined by Nigel, a personable gecko. Werner had tamed him using dabs of honey, and now, being smart enough to recognize a good thing, he perched on the table, blissfully licking a chunk of mango.
I took a bite of my fish and leaned back in amazement. The papio was grilled simply, with salt and pepper, but no five-star restaurant could hope to compare. Beyond its freshness there was an extra essence—the flavor of wildness itself.
The next morning I met Werner at Shark’s Cove, a rocky inlet down the road from her house. Clouds elbowed the sun but couldn’t quite stop it from beaming. We were going for a swim along the coast—a mellow one I’d thought, possibly naively.
“Do you want to go in through a sea cave?” Werner asked.
There are few things I don’t like to do in the ocean, but swimming through underwater caves is one of them. Claustrophobia, darkness, being pinned by a current: it’s every primal fear rolled into one neat package. No, I didn’t want to. But I had a feeling that I was about to.
Werner led me across a stretch of spiky lava rock to a jagged crack just wide enough for a body to fit through. Inside the crack the ocean surged, hissing spray through a blowhole. Werner estimated that it would take about 30 seconds to make it through the passage. While I was considering this, a crab the size of a hubcap scuttled by and dropped into the crack.
Werner slipped into the water and, between waves, disappeared under the rock. I followed, nervously adjusting my mask. But then something wonderful happened: below the surface, the crack opened up into a luminous blue tunnel. Sunlight filtered through the water at the exit, which, as Werner promised, was well within sight. There was room to swim through without getting jammed between rocks or scraped against coral. The cave wasn’t terrifying—it was fun.
But my knee-jerk fear was a reminder that our worst enemy lives between our two ears. It’s important to transcend the mind’s shrieking, a skill that Werner has mastered. Adrenaline is fine; panic is not. Especially underwater. “It’s about relaxing into whatever discomfort is there,” she says. “Doing anything slowly and smoothly when you are excited or scared or running out of air—that’s the hard part. But you have to be able to switch that panic into relaxation.” To attain this state, Werner advises something that’s not always easy: trusting yourself. “Get down into your gut and let something deeper than the thought process guide you.”
We set out for Waimea Bay, about a mile away. The visibility was clear, and 30 feet down I could see a jigsaw of rocks on a white-sand bottom. Fish darted into little hideouts only they knew about; sea turtles glided by. I caught a glimpse of an omilu, or bluefin trevally, hanging out in the shadows, looking nervous as Werner swam by.
She kicked her long fins and arrowed, headfirst, to the bottom. There was something down there that had caught her eye, some detail she’d noticed: an unusual cleft in the rock, a fish behaving strangely. I watched as she took off her snorkel and probed the seafloor with it. Then suddenly she was back at the surface, holding a squirming octopus. Its body was brown and mottled and filmy, its eyes were alien moons. The octopus stretched its tentacles up her arm, down her back, across her shoulder, and into the corner of her mouth. She peeled it off gently and it jetted away in a puff of indignant black ink, happy to be rid of us.
We swam on. Werner spent most of her time underwater, taking drops and winding through lava tubes, staying down for what seemed like unreasonable amounts of time. There was a seamless quality to her movements, as though she was in sync with the water itself, just another creature on the reef.
As we approached the mouth of Waimea Bay, Werner dove and then resurfaced quickly. “Look behind you!” she said. I ducked underwater and saw a pod of dolphins coming straight for us. They were spinners, a petite, athletic species, and there were dozens of them. The animals eyed us curiously as they passed. A few hung back to examine us further, circling at close range, and letting us accompany them as they moved slowly offshore.
Nothing is quite as delightful as playing with wild dolphins, and Werner and I were giddy, pretty much high, when we hit the beach. We made our way across the sand and headed for the car, climbing an embankment of lava rock to get to the spot where we’d parked. Werner, walking ahead, stopped and looked back at Waimea. The bay is always sublime, but now the sun had lit up the water, so it appeared to be glowing. “Look at those colors,” she said. “You couldn’t even make that up.” We stood for a while, just staring. The ocean shone aquamarine, turquoise, emerald, lapis, sapphire—a spectrum of otherworldly blues. And at that moment if you had told us that we were the two luckiest women in the world, I think we would have agreed with you.
Susan Casey (@susanlcasey), formerly an Outside creative director and editor-in-chief of O, the Oprah Magazine, is the author of three books: The Devil’s Teeth, The Wave, and Voices in the Ocean. She lives on Maui. Katherine Streeter (@katstreeter) is an Outside contributing artist.
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September 15, 2017 at 11:30AM