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I Deserve This: Searching for Peace and Serenity Underwater

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 9/18/2020 Meredith Carey, Lale Arikoglu
a person flying through the air while riding a wave © Christa Funk

You can listen to the Women Who Travel podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify each week. Follow this link if you're listening on Apple News.

This is a special Friday episode of the Women Who Travel podcast and the final installment in our three-part ‘I Deserve This’ series, presented by Cloudy Bay. We've long admired Kimi Werner, a Hawaiian freediver and spearfisher, so we thought there was no better woman to join us this week. A new mom, she's had to find a way to balance her active new role above land and the regenerative power and calm she finds underwater. We chat about how she's found that balance, what it's meant to introduce her son to the ocean, and how she's managed to leave her anxieties on the shore and just relax.

Thanks to Kimi for sharing her story and thanks, as always, to Brett Fuchs for engineering and mixing this episode. As a reminder, you can listen to new episodes of Women Who Travel on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, every Wednesday morning.

Read a full transcription below.

Meredith Carey: Hi everyone, you're listening to Women Who Travel, a podcast from Condé Nast Traveler. I'm Meredith Carey and with me, as always, is my co-host Lale Arikoglu.

Lale Arikoglu: Hello!

MC: This is our final installment from our special three-part episode series, ‘I Deserve This,’ which celebrates all the ways we travel for ourselves, whether it's by furthering our education, finding a private slice of peace and quiet, or simply spending those hard-earned savings guilt-free.

LA: For this week's chat, we're catching up with freediver and spearfisher Kimi Werner. Based in Hawaii, Werner has both won awards and garnered a major internet following for her trips to the bottom of the ocean, often diving as deep as 150 feet on a single breath with only her spear for company. Thanks for joining us, Kimi.

Kimi Werner: Thank you so much for having me.

LA: So, I'm going to kick things off with what I'm sure to you feels like a very big question, but one that I think a lot of people who do not grow up on or by the ocean would be fascinated by, which is how on earth did you get into freediving in the first place?

KW: I got introduced to freediving when I was about maybe five years old, and it was my dad who introduced it to me because that's what he would do. He would go freediving, to go spearfishing, simply to put food on the table. We didn't have a whole bunch of money back then, and that's how he fed us. My mom was a waitress and my dad was really trying his hardest to kind of start a construction company. That was a slow start. And so to make ends meet, he would go out, hold his breath, dive down in the ocean, and catch us dinner. And when I was about five years old, instead of hiring a babysitter and having to spend the money on that, he just started taking me with him.

LA: What are those sort of early memories like of catching fish? Do you remember catching the fish? Were you successful?

KW: I did not catch any fish. I was just a tagalong. The memories I have are just these like montages of just beautiful colors and sensations and just what it felt like to feel so weightless and be in this beautiful ocean where you can just feel like you're flying because you're so high up above the bottom of the ocean. And the sense of wonder of watching my dad dive down and come back up with my favorite dinners. I mean, those are my memories. I was too little to really use a spear, try and catch fish, but I just, I just absorbed it all. I just watched what he was doing. I definitely tried holding my breath and got to practice a lot of swimming. And I think that was just the foundation that set me up to, much later in life, really become a freediver and spearfisher myself.

MC: I feel like freediving can be considered quite an intense and high adrenaline activity, at least the concept of it: going and diving that deep. But I know that freaking out underwater is not really conducive to freediving. So how do you find the calm now to really get as deep as you do and stay underwater?

KW: That is everything. I mean, that really is absolutely everything. If you panic or even if you're just too excited, it's not really going to work in your favor as far as being able to hold your breath and go deep and do what you need to do. So it is a practice. It is something I have to intentionally reach for, is that calm, especially when you're seeing like a huge fish or you're seeing exciting things or you're kind of fighting currents or you feel fear. It's something you have to tap into. And so the way I find it—it's kind of like a meditative routine I go through. But first, I really just appreciate the sensation of floating and I just tell my whole body: "Just surrender." You know this is the one time. It's like you're in space. You're not on land anymore. You're not so heavy. You're not having to use all your muscles to hold yourself up. Turn it over to the ocean. Surrender. If you're going to float, really float. Every single muscle, you are off right now, from my ankles to my neck to my jaw to everything. It's like, just relax a little bit deeper and surrender that job to the ocean. And what a beautiful feeling that is to then, you know, metaphorically and literally just feel 100 percent completely supported, because this ocean is just holding you up and your only job is to breathe. And there's something about that part where I instantly relax into it because it's quiet. There's no cars going by, there's no people talking. My own head finally is quiet because I'm present. All I can hear—and it's almost amplified by my snorkel going from my mouth past my ear up to air—I can hear my breath just… Don't you just feel relaxed already? I mean, and I just do that over and over again as I surrender, like I said, every part of physical effort to floating in the ocean. I just focus on my breath and I just do that over and over again until I can feel this whole zen-like feeling come over my entire body. It almost feels like I could honestly, like, take a nap sometimes right there. And that's when I know I'm ready to dive.

LA: Letting yourself float, and sort of, as you said, surrender yourself to the ocean almost sounds like a trust exercise of sorts. How did you learn to trust the ocean? How did you kind of give in to it and start to relax?

KW: I mean, I do think that it probably does have to do largely in part because of those very early childhood memories. And I bet that having my dad right there next to me was also a big part of that, because I do remember when I was really a little feeling so afraid of these same things that now make me relax, feeling so afraid when I see how far away the bottom was and therefore how deep of water we were in. And sometimes I would just feel like, oh, I can't swim. I can't swim anymore because I'm scared. I can't touch. And my dad would really have to drill into me that if you can swim in three feet of water, you can swim in three thousand feet of water and all you have to do is relax. And he would repeat that to me over and over again.

And he would also do some funny little tricks. Sometimes we would get to the place where we'd be going diving and we'd have to climb down these crazy cliffs to then jump off these rocks and then be in deep water. And all of that was kind of intense. But my mom would drive us and drop us off at the cliffs and my dad would always put on this whole act where he'd look over me as soon as the car would stop and he would just wipe his head and say, "Phew, aren't you happy? We just made it to the most dangerous part of our day." And I was like "What?" And he'd be like, "The car ride! Don't you get it? That's the most dangerous part of our day and we survived! Like it's all going to get easier from here." And as a little kid, I knew what he was doing. I could totally see through the whole that he was putting on. But at the same time, he did it over and over again and then I actually started to understand that there is so much truth to that. And that there is uncertainty and there's danger in everything we do, driving a car from Point A to Point B definitely being one of them. But we learn to navigate. And that's what I started doing, you know, alongside my dad in the ocean. And so I definitely think it was a huge part of being a little kid, having your dad be like Superman to you and thinking that as long as he's right there next to you, nothing could ever hurt you. Because, again, later on when I returned to spearfishing—I took a big break from freediving because that was something we did when my dad needed to feed us, that only lasted a couple of years because once my parents started making good money, which came shortly after that whole part of our life kind of went away and we grew up very civilized. So I just had all these crazy memories, you know, of this real life that I just loved. And it wasn't until I was 24 years old, not even living on the same island as my parents anymore, that I just realized, those were the best moments of my whole life and I have to go see about this. So I started trying to remember what my dad did and see if it was something I could do at 24. And when I went back out into the ocean and back out into the deep with a spear, I was scared all over again—and now I didn't have my dad right next to me. I actually had to play little tricks on myself and pretend he was right there. I would sometimes imagine his silhouette and then naturally I started to remember that trust with the ocean, to remember that bond, and to develop it further. But it definitely was a process, a slow process, of venturing out a little further and a little further, again, playing a lot of tricks on myself. I remember one time when I was scared, this wave broke in front of me and when it broke, I saw bubbles, and it triggered a memory because one thing I remembered when I was little is: sometimes I would get distracted and see something really pretty or look at a turtle and look back up and look around and [see that] my dad was nowhere in sight. And that would be really scary. I'd have to look at the very edge of my vision to see if I could see the bubbles left by his fins. Because that was my job: keep up. He didn't look back a whole lot. And as soon as I saw the bubbles, I just felt like, "OK, there's my dad. Swim. Swim so fast in that direction, you're going to be OK." And so then even as a grown adult, sometimes when a wave breaks and I see bubbles, I feel this calm and the panic would go away. That's when I realized, you know, anything you can do to get your mind to just give yourself that much more trust, that much more calm, that's what you have to do. I think that is the most important thing because ultimately, there's nothing that panic is ever going to do that's good for you in that situation. I still have fear to this day. Fear is something that can be a healthy pulse reader, check-in point, stuff like that. But it's how do you respond to that fear? Are you just going to react with panic or are you going to respond with a calm actual solution?

MC: In those years since you reconnected with spearfishing and with freediving, what is it that keeps you going back to it now that it's become a major part of your life?

KW: It's so much. Oh my gosh. It really is so much. It's the “quiet button” in my mind. It is the one place where I feel like the minute I stick my head underwater, this is my time. And I am not thinking about all the other things in life I'm trying to figure out. I'm not thinking about any problems that I'm trying to solve. I am present. And to me, it's just like, that is the greatest gift you can ever give yourself in life: to be truly present. So I would say that, number one, is what keeps me coming back, the fact that I need a good dose of just presence to make me happy in this life.

But there's so many other things. I mean, just the ocean in general at this point in my life, it's like this living beautiful mother-being that I almost feel like, you know, she raised me. She's seen me through my absolute lowest lows and my highest victories and all of that. I don't know how to say it without sounding cheesy, but when you have something that has seen you not just through your greatest accomplishments, but through your very darkest moments and has given you this love and sense of self throughout it, that is what unconditional love is to me. And so it really has just become and this relationship that I feel like I just, I need, you know?

LA: How has your relationship with the ocean and these years of freediving and spearfishing shifted your perspectives on life on land?

KW: I mean, it is exactly that. It's how to respond to your fear and how to respond to uncertainty. And I almost feel like I'm so much better at it in the ocean. Sometimes when I encounter problems or fear on land, I have to tell myself "It's just like a shark, Kimi. You know what to do." And really that makes it so much less scary to me. Whether it's going on a stage to speak, whether it's not being treated fairly, you know, in work or in any situation, whether you aren't being valued or you don't feel worthy, whether you're about to do something important and you're afraid you're going to fail..anything! Anything. Whether you're going to be late and you can't control that. There's so many things every single day that trigger us into this very reactive mode that usually doesn't make things better. When you're in an argument and you're just reacting and reacting, it only escalates it and makes it worse. And so what the ocean has taught me... I mean, when I see a big shark, my triggered reaction is going to tell me to do what I see in movies: swim away, splash, yell for help, or scream "Shark!" What is that really going to do to help me? Nothing at all. I can't outswim a shark, you know, panicking is not going to help. And so it's the same thing on land. If you're late for work and you can't find your keys, freaking out and just going crazy about it isn't going to make them come there any quicker. And the same in conversation, and the same in just having to talk about things that are hard or not comfortable. I really just think that so many times when we get triggered, there's a reaction—a fake solution, which is just the reaction right there on the tip of your tongue or right there in your actions—and it's almost always not the right thing. And so, again, that's what the ocean teaches me, that when something happens, whatever that first knee jerk reaction is, question it and usually do the opposite.

MC: Wait, I have a quick question. I don't think that I will encounter this, or maybe I will, who knows... But what do you actually do when you see a shark?

KW: I swim towards it. I swim towards it. That is something that took me a lot of times of swimming away, of kicking backward, of all these other reactions, to realize that I only made the situation worse. I only triggered that shark to be more aggressive, only acted more like panicked prey than to just hold my ground. Sometimes you don't even have to swim towards it as long as you don't swim away and you just look at the shark, you just face the shark. You just square up with the shark, calmly. That's usually enough to tell that shark, "OK, hey. I'm here, you're here. It's cool." You know? But sometimes if that shark's coming in hot at you, I know it's scary, I know it was like playing chicken, but that's exactly what you need to do. Instead of just running away, swimming away, pulling back, you just calmly need to swim towards that shark. It's so true. Like, that's one thing that I've learned in hunting so much is that when I'm trying to get a fish, I never swim towards the fish. That's what all beginners do. They're trying to hold their breath and they know they only have so much time, so as soon as they see a fish, they're just beelining it straight to the fish because they don't want to run out of breath. And it's like, well, that's not going to work and that fish is just long gone. They just see this big, crazy, clumsy, seal-like thing just splashing its way towards them, and you think they're going to hang around? No. And so what I do is I breathe up, I get as calm as I can, I almost to the point where I said I feel I could take a nap I'm so calm. And I go and I lay down. And I just kind of lay there. And I almost pretend I'm taking a nap and I do things to pique the curiosity of the fish and then they're going to come in towards me and that's why I'm able to catch fish. Being that, you know, even with a shark that is a bigger fish, it's the same theory, but you're applying the opposite technique where basically if I want that shark to come in, then I should be acting like I'm hiding, like I'm scared. Panic is a whole other thing because that can trigger something in them. But if I wanted to hold a good distance, then I should just calmly swim towards it, because that's what predators do. They'll come in to check out other predators. They'll come in to check out their prey. You don't want to act like a scared, wounded prey. So I swim towards the shark.

MC: That's amazing. I kind of want to go back to what you were saying about the ocean being like a nurturing, mothering figure for you. Obviously, you have recently had a son, Buddy. He is so precious.

KW: Thank you.

MC: And I know you've spent a lot of time already introducing him to the water on boat trips and stuff. Can you tell I follow you on Instagram? What do you hope that he learns by spending so much time on the water?

KW: Oh, I just hope he learns that he's never alone. It's so crazy, being a mom makes me so emotional. But I do. I hope he learns that he's never alone, that I will have that kid’s back until the day that I die and beyond. But even long after I'm gone, I want him to always have a place of belonging. Because the ocean is where I get that connection from, it's so natural for me to introduce that to him and want to give him this place of comfort, fun, exercise, joy, and all of these things early on so that it is so a part of his core that no matter where he is in the world or where I am or he is in life, that if he needs to feel connected to something, hopefully, he can just get in the ocean. And if it's not the ocean, you know, if it's the forest, if it's the mountains, whatever it is for him, I just want to nurture him knowing that he belongs.

MC: You can't take him with you at six months old diving. What does that time now, where you can be relatively on your own, mean with a newborn?

KW: It means everything. It has become so much more important to me. And I didn't even think that was possible because it has been such a passion for so long, and it was one where I wasn't sure what that would mean, how much of it I would have to give up. And it's so true, I can't take him with me underwater and I don't have necessarily the freedom to go just whenever I want to. But I'm really lucky that I do have a great support system of a wonderful husband who understands. I taught this Minnesota boy that I married how to freedive and spearfish, and he loves it so much. He also shares this passion. I think because he understands it so much and he understands how vital it is for me [to be] happy, when the ocean is nice, when it's beautiful, when it is just one of those epic days where he knows that I can't possibly be thinking about anything else except what it's like under there, he will do daddy duties and tell me to just go. And then the next day, if it's nice, I'll take over and tell him to just go. But it means everything.

It means so much more to me now because I'm not spoiled with it. Before, I feel like I had that option whenever I wanted it. Most of my work trips were based around diving and being filmed diving. I was so saturated within this passion where that's just what I did and I loved it. But now it is something that I really have to cherish as this sacred and special resource of joy. It's crazy because I feel like it's made me a better diver. And that is something that I didn't expect. But now the minute I hit the water, first of all, I know I'm on a clock. Most of the time, I only have a couple [of] hours before I have to go back and breastfeed him. And so it makes every single second that much more important, that much more valuable, that much more appreciated. I didn't even realize that I could tune in that much more to freediving as a craft, as a passion, but it's been crazy. I honestly feel like since being a mom, my diving, my spearfishing, all of that has improved because I don't take a single second for granted. And it's just so necessary. It is just, you know what I like about it too? It's my time right now. There's going to be a point, maybe when he turns five, where I'll probably put him on my back and bring him with me, and I bet you life will teach me that that's even more magical. But for now, it's my time. Once I cross this boundary of below sea level, it's like goodbye, Buddy. Goodbye, everybody. It's Mama's turn. And I like it like that for now.

MC: I feel like that is a perfect place to wrap up. For people who want to keep up with your diving, your spearfishing, your cooking, with Buddy, where can they find you on social media?

KW: I would say the biggest thing I'm excited about right now for people following along, it's our YouTube channel, which is new. It's only a couple of months old. But man, we are just having so much fun making it. It's just been so cool. And we do everything with Buddy in tow. Some days it's just cooking what we have, usually the fish that we recently caught, and it's a little recipe-driven. Other days, it's just all-out diving adventures and, you know, and doing all these things: climbing down cliffs, jumping in the water, going out to get dinner. It's everything that is our real life, and I think that would be the most fun to follow. So that's just Kimi Werner on YouTube. I'm also on Instagram, @kimi_swimmy.

MC: I'm @ohheytheremere.

LA: I'm @lalehannah.

MC: Be sure to follow @WomenWhoTravel on Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter, which will be linked in the show notes, and links to Kimi's Instagram and YouTube channel will be there as well. And we'll talk to you next week.

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