Photography by Christa Funk, underwater photo expert. www.cfunkphoto.com Instagram: @instaclamfunk Facebook: CFunk Photo

Free-diving underwater huntress, chef, and passionate conservationist, Kimi Werner is most at home tracking fish in the open water.

Kimi Werner always felt a connection with the creatures that dwelled in the ocean. As a young child, she lived in shack in a rural part of Maui, Hawaii. Since there was little extra money for a babysitter, her father would bring her along when he went spearfishing for their dinner if her mother was busy waitressing. At first, he would tow his daughter on a boogie board in the hopes she would just sit tight as he free dove. “But I’d always jump off and swim,” Werner says, laughing. “So, we ditched the boogie board, and my job became just keeping up with him.”

And watching.

Without realizing it, Werner’s father was giving her an education that would guide her for the rest of her life. “I would watch him from the surface as he would get fish out of these little holes and caves,” she says. “He drilled into me how to relax when holding my breath, because the more relaxed you are, the farther you can swim on one breath. The first time I dove by myself, I based everything I did on what I remembered from watching my dad.”

As an adult, Werner, who studied painting and has a degree in culinary arts, soon realized the 9-to-5 life was not for her. Working as a chef in a restaurant left her uninspired. “I love cooking for its creativity,but I was making the same thing every night,” she explains.

She spent five years teaching art to elementary school children but felt like a hypocrite telling them that they could do whatever they wanted, providing they worked hard, when she herself was not living the life she desired. She decided to quit and see if she could make a living painting.

She discovered that paying the rent by selling paintings was doable—but hard. To drive income, she started painting the fish she saw diving onto trucker hats, which were a more accessible price point than her canvases. “I turned myself into this one-woman sweatshop, painting hats all night,” she says. “But this gave me the freedom to dive whenever the weather was good. That was when I started living more authentically.”

The more Werner threw herself into diving, the more she fell in love with it, and the better she got. Soon, she was getting paid to dive and was being filmed diving. Eventually, she found she was making more money off of diving than painting.

She started competing and racking up prizes, eventually becoming the U.S. National Spearfishing Champion. Then, she stunned the competition circuit when she stopped competing. “It was validating to push myself to see how I could hold up next to all these great divers, but winning was starting to feel like my value,” she says. “In those early days of diving with my dad, I went because I loved being a part of that world. I was in awe of spearfishing, because I loved the concept of getting this beautiful food straight from this beautiful source and feeding my family.”

She turned her attention to working with ocean conservationists to highlight the issues facing the ocean, like water runoff and microplastics. “These concepts are not always easy for people to understand: They go swimming and do not see any litter. However, the plastic breaks into millions of particles and becomes this almost-invisible smog of the sea that hurts everything in the food chain,” she says. To help people see how life on land affects the ocean, Werner worked with musician Jack Johnson on the documentary The Smog of the Sea and on the short film Finding Away: Kimi Werner Dives Among a Microplastic Crisis. She also accompanies top meteorologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on voyages to help them with their work in conservation. “I try to be the eyes to the underwater world and get those messages out,” she says.

It was through Werner’s film work that she met her future husband, Justin Turkowski—a snowboarding cinematographer from Minnesota—when he was in Hawaii for a project on which Werner was the spearfishing guide. Now, Turkowski chronicles Werner’s underwater adventures in breathtaking images and joins her on adventures, sometimes accompanied with their toddler son, Buddy. “Justin is the perfect cameraman because he understands how I dive and hunt, which is important when you’re working in a world where you can’t speak,” Werner says.

Werner currently shares her love for freediving and fishing on Netflix’s MeatEater. The connection with the series started when she met Ryan “Cal” Callaghan, who became MeatEater’s Director of Conservation, while giving a speech on sustainability in Idaho. They became fast friends, and when Callaghan joined the show, he suggested focusing on Werner for a segment. Today, Werner and Turkowski make two videos a month for MeatEater, showing how she creates meals out of what she harvests. They are also planning a spearfishing series.

The Werner Way

Where Werner dives dictates the gear she uses. To pin small fish that live in caves or under rocks in shallower water, she uses a pole spear or a spear with three tines powered by a rubber band. For larger fish, she uses a spear gun with a reel.

In shallow water, she engages in more active diving, swimming up and down, while in deeper water, she strives to melt into the ocean, just laying low and relaxing to attract fish. “When I dive deep, like 100 feet, my movements are exaggeratedly slow, as I’m trying to conserve as energy and oxygen. The reel is my lifesaver because if I need to breathe I can hold on to my gun and head to the surface,” she says.

For big game, Werner uses a breakaway system connected to bungees and float lines. “You don’t want to be attached when they run,” she says. “When I hit a fish, it will detach from my gun. I get to go up to breathe and try to flush the adrenaline out of my system. Then I find my floats and fight the fish from the surface.”

It took her a while to get used to the pressure the depths exerted on her body. “At first it felt like an elephant standing on me, but the more I surrendered to it the more I loved it,” she says. “It’s a cleansing, wonderful feeling—like an ocean hug.”

Although Werner can stay underwater for about five minutes, she tries to surface after two. “When I’m actively hunting, I want to cut that time in half so that I have reserve oxygen in case anything goes wrong,” she says. “If you pass out in the ocean and don’t have a partner to save you, it can be fatal. People think blackouts can only happen in the deep, but shallow water blackouts—when you’re coming to the surface or just broke the surface and are about to breathe again—are most common.”

When Werner secures a fish, she is awash with a feeling of gratitude. “It’s a hard-earned victory, a primal satisfaction of knowing that I worked hard, understood nature, understood the ecosystem, and understood this fish. The fish becomes this part of me, and I can’t wait to take it home, clean it and treat it right,” she says.

Once home, Werner feels a sense of obligation to honor the fish by cooking it with the best ingredients. “This is where the culinary side of me comes in. I want to serve the quality of this harvest, make it shine, make it be appreciated, and have it nourish people,” she says. “When you put that fish on a plate, it becomes beautiful art filled with meaning, story, and love.”

Tako Poke

Ingredients

1 2lb octopus cleaned (guts removed)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 onion sliced thinly
1/4 cue green onions
2 teaspoons sesame oil
chili pepper flakes
sesame seeds

-Place cleaned octopus in instant pot with 1 cup of water and pressure cook for 10 minutes (or submerge octopus in a pot of water and simmer on stovetop for 40 min)
-Remove octopus and chill
-Slice octopus thinly, sprinkle with salt

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