As a 7-year-old tag-along on her dad’s spearfishing adventures, Kimi Werner’s only job was to keep up. She distinctly remembers swimming after the tiny bubbles her father left behind as he dove deep below, hunting for dinner. As long as he was down there somewhere, Kimi felt safe.
She was without such companionship when she completed her first solo spear dive 17 years later. Kimi was 24 years old and working as an elementary school art teacher at the time. The dive wasn’t anything glamorous: just her, a three-prong pole spear, lots of nerves, and her childhood memories of chasing her father through the ocean. The memories were Kimi’s best defense against the nerves. When she started to panic or struggle, she would remember chasing the tiny bubbles.
Kimi emerged from the water with a few fish and a newfound sense of what it meant to be alive. Underwater, with a spear in her hand, she saw a world that she could navigate with her curiosity, bravery, and hunger. It was a world that would satisfy her every craving—national competition, international travel, creative inspiration, and every decadent flavor the blue deep has to offer. She wanted it all and spearfishing was poised to give it to her.
Seventeen more years have passed since that day. In that time, Kimi has become a record-setting champion, esteemed chef (her dad now requests gourmet fresh-caught fish dishes with every visit), trucker hat saleswoman, ocean conservation advocate, wife and mother, YouTube star, and a member of the MeatEater crew. If variety is the spice of life, Kimi has seasoned hers heavily. Now she does exactly what she told the befuddled principal she would do the day she quit her teaching job.
“She asked me what I was going to do for a career. I told her I was going to do art, just sell paintings and see how that worked out,” Kimi said. “And she looked so concerned. She was like, ‘Kimi, what else are you going to do?’ And then I said ‘I've really been thinking about spearfishing.’ And this look of absolute shocking concern came over her face. That was when I realized for the first time, ‘Oh, people aren't going to get this.’”
The Early Days Kimi spent much of her childhood living in a shack next to the ocean in a rural part of Maui. Her father, who spearfished for dinner most nights, was trying to start a construction company. Her mother was a waitress.
“We were definitely poor at the time,” Kimi said. “The shack was totally falling apart. It was embedded in nature and super cool, but yeah, we didn't have much money.”
There were two options for Kimi when her dad was diving and her mom was working. Babysitters were expensive, so the family chose the second option: she would dive with her father. She fell in love with it quickly.
But by the time Kimi was seven, her mom had finished nursing school and her dad’s business became successful. More money meant a home in the suburbs, grocery stores, and trips to the ocean for recreation rather than subsistence. Kimi disliked the lifestyle change and it remained a thorn in her side throughout her youth.
“By the time I was 18 and went to college on Oahu, I just kept thinking about those early days,” Kimi said. “Those early days were my favorite days. When we moved to the subdivision, I was heartbroken. I missed everything about our old life. I didn't know that we were ever poor, I was too young to understand status, and I just felt like we had so much more before.”
She graduated with degrees in fine arts and culinary arts and launched into the world of restaurant cuisine, hoping she would find a home there. But she found the opposite.
“I was working in a restaurant with food that was imported and frozen and had no story to it and I was making the same thing every day. It wasn't fulfilling,” Kimi said. “It wasn't the path that I wanted. And now that I had graduated from college and had a job, I felt like that was going to be it for the rest of my life if I didn't do something.”
Return to the Water Kimi realized there was a hole in her life that only her childhood passion for diving could fill. She tried to seek out spearfishing mentors but couldn’t find any, so she took matters into her own hands.
“I just decided to go on my own,” Kimi said. “I got a simple three-prong spear, not a speargun but just a pole spear, and I decided to drive to the North Shore and take to the ocean. And that freaked me the hell out.”
Kimi’s first time spearfishing started out terrifying, lonely, and uncomfortable. But it ended with fish for dinner and an unquenchable obsession.
“Holy shit, the woman who came out of the water that day was totally different,” Kimi said. “I had a totally different mindset than I did when I entered. I just remember walking out feeling like, ‘This is me. I am proud. I did this.’ And then to take those fish home and clean them and cook them and share them with my roommates, it was the best culinary meal I felt I ever made. That was the day that changed my life.”
From that point forward, spearfishing became Kimi’s focal point. She did everything she could to make a living so she could spend as much time in the water as possible. This also meant leaving the restaurant scene behind and taking up the aforementioned elementary school art teaching gig, which she enjoyed for four years. But, ultimately, the 9-to-5 lifestyle didn’t suit her or her dreams very well.
“I just felt like a hypocrite because I felt like I was constantly telling my students to follow their dreams,” Kimi said. “I was that teacher. ‘You kids can do whatever you want in life. You have to follow your dreams and don't give up.’ I was like their biggest cheerleader. But then it started to sink in that I wasn’t really living that.”
She took her show back on the road, this time to try selling artwork. At first Kimi struggled while her paintings weren’t exactly flying off the shelves. But she adapted and found a different—if not entirely conventional—niche.
“I got creative and started painting the fish I would see underwater on these trucker hats, which were just coming back into style,” Kimi said. “I'd sell these trucker hats for $20 apiece. And those actually sold. Every month I was unsure if I was going to make rent, but I would find a way to turn these trucker hats and this paint into rent somehow. I really did become this one-woman sweatshop.”
Kimi would work on hats all night just to spend the next day diving. She created her own schedule and made sure to work in as much time in the water as possible. After what felt like forever, Kimi started reaping the benefits of her commitment to spearfishing. Opportunities to travel, spearfish, and get photographed—and subsequently paid—started to arise. She was really doing it: She was spearfishing and making art.
Simultaneously, something else arose in Kimi. It was the call to compete.
From Amateur to Champion By this time, Kimi had friends and mentors in the spearing community who recognized her capability. They told her to just say the word when she was ready to participate in competitions and they would help get her there.
“I told them I was ready. And they were all like ‘Wait, no, not this year, the championships are in Rhode Island, are you crazy?’” Kimi said. “They told me to wait until it goes somewhere warm like Florida, or somewhere closer like California, or until it comes to Hawaii and I would have the local knowledge. But then one mentor of mine, Andy Tamasese, was like ‘Yeah, that's all true. Except for one thing. If you feel it in your gut that you're ready now, now is the time. You have to do it when you feel that feeling. You don't wait when you feel that.’”
Fast forward through an intense training schedule and soon Kimi and Andy found themselves in the dark, icy waters off the coast of Rhode Island in the throes of the 2008 U.S. National Spearfishing Championships. Any nerves Kimi felt leading up to the event beaded off her the minute she started paddling. She had paddled competitively as a girl and didn’t understand the usefulness of such a hobby until she paddled right past all her male opponents with a smile on her face.
She arrived at her dive spot, stretched on her thick 5mm wetsuit, and submerged. Miracles started happening almost immediately.
“I jump in and this 33-pound striped bass instantly swims right by me in the murk. I react and just swim after it and pull the trigger. And that fish was the second biggest fish in the whole tournament,” Kimi said.
It was the start of a very successful tournament that ended with four titles between her and Andy: Women’s National Champion, Mixed Team National Champion, Rookie of the Year, and Women’s Biggest Fish. The gut feeling that told her to compete and the mentor who told her to listen to it had been right.
Kimi competed for another year and a half but started to feel shallow and misguided in chasing trophies. She wanted to get back to the real prizes of her spearfishing adventures: the fish, their ecosystems, and the meals they provided.
Fish, Family, and Food After putting herself in the champion ranks, Kimi spent almost a decade traveling around the world with the help of sponsorships from Patagonia and other companies to engage with ocean conservationists and promote marine sustainability practices. She saw a gap between the spearfishing community and the marine science community, one she was determined to close.
“It became clear to me that this was the bridge that I really wanted to live on,” she said. “We're not on different sides, it is actually the most harmonious combination of pursuits. They're the same. So I saw conservation and spearfishing as a path. Eventually I got to travel and make films about conservation and other things that I cared about. I got to see the world through freediving and taste the world through spearfishing. That path ended up being one of extreme exploration that fulfilled me in such an amazing way.”
In 2012, she met her husband Justin, a snowboarding cinematographer from Minnesota. Justin wanted to explore Hawaii and took a job on a set for a production that Kimi was spearfish guiding. She quickly melted his love for snow with saltwater. Now he’s an underwater cinematographer for much of Kimi’s work, including her episode of MeatEater Season 10.
The extreme fulfillment from all her travelling ultimately became enough for her to once again choose a whole new path. In 2020, she and Justin gave birth to their son Buddy. His caramel-colored curls and curious palate often grace his mother’s cooking videos these days. He isn’t afraid to eat with his fingers and leave some on the cheeks and chin for later.
Kimi and Justin decided to dig their roots deeper into their oceanside home as they raise their child. This decision couldn’t have come at a better time: A strange viral infection was about to start spreading around the world with frightening rapidity, and a lot of people were about to become interested in procuring their own food—and would look for video content to teach them. Kimi and Justin started making weekly backyard cooking videos for their YouTube channel and amassed a serious following, some of the MeatEater crew members included.
A New Journey You can now witness Kimi’s spearfishing prowess on Netflix as she guides Steven Rinella and Ryan Callaghan on a multi-day Big Island spearing trip that culminates in a some incredibly indulgent backyard recipes. But every bit of knowledge she exercises today ties directly back to chasing tiny bubbles through the water at the age of 7. After four decades of following her dreams, Kimi continues to reinvent herself. But she’s still just spearfishing and making art. Edible art, that is.
“I love becoming tenaciously obsessed with things and doing them on repeat until they run through my blood,” Kimi said. “But then I like to find another way to step out of my comfort zone and do it all over again.”