Photos by Justin Turkowski
In 2013, Kimi Werner was on a shark research expedition in the middle of the ocean, but the group hadn't spotted a single shark all day. As the day drew to a close, Kimi jumped in the water to go for a swim. Seconds later, she felt her dive partner grabbing her shoulder. She knew exactly what was behind her.
“I saw the head of the biggest great white shark I've ever seen about three feet away," she says. Unprotected by a dive cage, Kimi knew she had two choices. She could try and out-swim the great white shark, kicking and screaming like in a Hollywood movie, or do the opposite and swim towards the shark. “So that's what I did."
As a professional freediver and spearfisherwoman, Kimi understands the importance of body language to marine animals. “As soon as she swam towards me, I knew I had to swim right back down towards her. It felt like a rhythm, like a dance." By swimming towards the shark, Kimi communicated that she was a predator and therefore not on the menu today.
“It came to a point when I was at negative buoyancy, so I was sinking," says Kimi. “I could either touch her or quickly turn around and swim to the surface. I gently reached out and touched her dorsal fin to let her know I was there. It was the most beautiful moment, we were just swimming in slow motion."
Kimi didn't release the video footage immediately because she didn't want to encourage people to ride sharks. However, days later, the video was leaked onto the internet and it went viral. Kimi quickly became known as “the woman who rode on the back of a shark" - but there's far more to her story than you might think.
The 36 year-old grew up in Hawaii, swimming in the ocean and watching her dad go spearfishing for food. Kimi would pick what she wanted for dinner and her dad would dive down and catch it for her.
"You need to be so present and alert in the water, because you're frickin' hunting while holding your breath"
When deciding on a career path, Kimi really wanted to be an artist but everyone around her discouraged it. She studied for a culinary degree instead, working in the restaurant business and later becoming an art teacher at an elementary school – but she wasn't satisfied. “I was telling kids to go after their passions, but I still had two unrealised dreams. It dawned on me that I couldn't sit around and wait for something to happen to me."
She remembers telling her boss she was quitting her job to become an artist. “She looked at me and said, 'Well what else are you gonna do?' I laughed and said, 'It's funny you should ask but I was thinking about spearfishing'," says Kimi.
Kimi rediscovered her father's passion for spearfishing at the age of 24, holding her breath and diving under the water with a speargun, ready to catch fish. “It was like falling head-over-heels in love," says Kimi. “Diving just made me so happy. It did something to me that nothing else in the world did. I got so much satisfaction from going out with a spear and coming home with dinner."
But it wasn't easy trying to make a living as an artist and spearfishing. “I had all these voices going through my head, saying 'you're a screw up, why the hell are you going diving today when you should be working?' But the minute I got in the water, it all just melted away. I was just completely present and I came out feeling a million times better."
At first very few people took Kimi's passion seriously and she struggled to find diving partners. But when she started bringing fish she'd caught to friend's barbecues, people started to take notice. Kimi was taken under the wing of two super elite champion Hawaiian spearfishermen, Wayde Hayashi and Kalei Fernandez. They trained her to dive to depths of 159ft and hold her breath for up to 4 minutes and 45 seconds.
Wayde and Kalei taught Kimi to be humane and selective about the fish she caught. “I watch people all the time aggressively swimming after fish with their spear guns and it never works," says Kimi. “A fish can swim a lot faster than you. Now it knows you want to eat it, it's going to take off."
"Kimi tickles the octopus, assesses whether it's a keeper or not and then crunches her teeth down on its brain, right between the eyes"
Kimi learned to entice fish in by turning away from them, pretending to be afraid and sparking their curiosity. “That's when I shoot them," she says. “When I'm spearfishing, I'm immersed in this beautiful world. I become a part of it. I don't take one second underwater for granted. It's the same with fish – I don't take them for granted."
One of Kimi's favourite delicacies is octopus. Rather than haphazardly jabbing her speargun in an octopus' hiding hole, Kimi tickles the octopus until it emerges, assesses whether it's a keeper or not and then crunches her teeth down on the octopus' brain, right between the eyes. “Once you feel it crunch, the octopus dies immediately. I have not found a more humane way to put anything down."
Kimi continued to train in freediving and spearfishing, but felt she wanted to take it one step further and start competing. Wayde and Kalei stopped competing after their teammate and best friend, Gene Higa, died while freediving at the National Championships in Hawaii. But Kimi knew she needed to give it a shot.
She wasn't a sponsored athlete at this point. She fundraised enough money to get to Rhode Island on the east coast of America, just four days before the competition started, only to find the conditions were nothing like Hawaii.
“I would dive down and see a layer of green and think that's the bottom. But then I'd go straight through it. I'd see a layer of brown and go straight through that as well. I honestly didn't think I would ever find the bottom."
But if there is one thing freediving has taught Kimi, it is how to stay calm in stressful situations. “My dad always told me the absolute worst thing you can do is panic. I just stay as calm as I can while I figure out what to do. Just slowing down and assessing situations has definitely saved my life."
"Everything in life that I've really cared about, I've been told no probably 100 times before anybody ever said yes"
Eventually she did find the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and the visibility was a lot clearer, thanks to mussels filtering the water. Four days later, she won the National Championships and came first in every category she was eligible to place in, including Rookie of the Year.
When she arrived back in Hawaii, Kimi was treated like a mini-hero and thrust into the public eye. Magazines wanted to shoot photos of her for their front cover, she was bombarded with interviews. Kimi admits it was great at first. Her art was finally starting to sell, she was competing in competitions all over the world and being paid to do it - but after a few years diving just didn't have that same magic anymore.
“Competing changed what diving meant to me. When I went hunting on my own, I couldn't stop my brain thinking of fish as points. That wasn't the reason why my dad taught me to dive." She realised the only way to keep that passion alive was to walk away from competing entirely.
“I thought my spearfishing career was over and I would lose all of the small sponsors that I had. It was a hard decision and it made me depressed for a while. I couldn't fish anymore because my brain was too consumed with self-criticising thoughts. You need to be so present and alert in the water, because you're frickin' hunting while holding your breath. My mind was a mess for a long time."
But one day, a single dive changed everything. “I was spearfishing with some friends, I wasn't catching anything and I felt really lame," she says. They were about to head in when Kimi decided to take one last dive. “I just dropped down to the bottom of the ocean and lay there. I don't know how many minutes went by. I felt all those voices of criticism come through me and I waited long enough until they had nothing left to say."
“It went quiet and this feeling of calm came back to me. It was like coming home. I hadn't felt it in so long. When I returned to the surface, I was back. From then on, it didn't matter if I went out and didn't catch fish, that feeling was back."
"We all kill innocent animals every single day. You might not have a spear in your hand, but as long as you are eating anything that comes from animals, you are killing animals"
Kimi retuned to spearfishing, but this time just to catch a couple of fish and eat them with her friends and family on the beach. She began travelling the world – from Thailand to the Arctic Circle – learning how other people cook fish and manage their natural resources.
“Hunting is sacred for me. It keeps me completely honest and accountable. If I'm going to eat a fish, then I'm going to kill it with my own two hands. We all kill innocent animals every single day. You might not have a spear in your hand, but as long as you are eating anything that comes from animals, you are killing animals. You're just paying someone else to do the dirty work."
“I used to buy a piece of meat from the store and not really care if I didn't finish it off. Hunting taught me that's the wrong attitude to have. When I catch a fish, I'm really selective about who I share it with. I try not to waste a single morsel. If every single human ate the whole animal, not just the prime cuts, we would live in a much more sustainable world."
She began sharing her experiences on social media and gained a whole new following of people who were interest in Kimi's love of the ocean, the environment and living sustainably off the land. “People could relate a lot more to that than chasing trophies" she says.
Not only did she not lose her spearfishing career, but she gained new sponsors who cared about her values of eating locally and sustainably too. She became a Patagonia ambassador and now travels the world sharing her environmental messages.
“Everything in life that I've really cared about, I've been told no probably 100 times before anybody ever said yes. If you really want to change your life, you need to change it. You can't just wish and hope. If you're passionate enough, you'll get there."
Watch Kimi Werner's inspirational TED Talk here.