When Kimi Werner slips to the bottom of the ocean, she looks for the light. “I steal glances up at the sun,” she says. “It’s just magic, the way it dances across everything.” On a single breath of air—one meant to last almost five minutes underwater—she lets herself drop down to 150 feet, the flickers of sunlight slowly dimming. The deeper she goes, the more the pressure increases, the ocean tightening around her. But rather than resist it, she embraces it. “At first, it would make me feel kind of uncomfortable, but once I relaxed into it, I just felt so good—the ocean would just squeeze me and hold me and hug me the deeper that I went.”
A 37-year-old Hawaiian free diver and spearfisher, Werner spends her days catching her own food in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Maui, wearing nothing but a swimsuit with a snorkel around her head and a three-prong spear in her hand. She may have the weather on her side and be able to go out seven days a week, coming back with a haul of fish to prepare at home; sometimes, it’s only one in seven. For a successful ocean dive, you need to respond to—and respect—your surroundings, she says. She looks at the textures of the sand and the reefs; the way that the seaweed falls around her. She reads the currents, and the behavior of the schools of fish that follow them—what they eat, where they swim. “In order to hunt these fish, I pretty much have to fall in love with them,” she says.
Werner has spent much of her life exploring parts of the ocean most of us will never see. After first being crowned a national free diving champion in 2008—a rare and wonderful title that women hold as frequently as men—she has gone on to compete all over the world, give TED talks about survival in the deep, and become a certified chef and United States National Spearfishing Champion. She’s also garnered a 152K following on Instagram thanks to the mesmerizing videos she posts of her descents: diving with whales, swimming underneath icebergs, or catching octopus in underwater caves. Werner is fascinated by our connection to food and its source, and wants us to be, too.
Whether they’re spearfishing in Hawaii or catching pearls in Japan, female free divers are a fearless sort, voluntarily going into the dark unknown without scuba gear or fins—often entirely alone. It’s as much a feat of mental strength as a physical one: Divers have to master breath-holding techniques, and learn to adjust to the intense pressure that comes with being so deep below the ocean surface, a pressure that can cause you to pass out, even when trained properly. For some, diving for fish on a single breath is a tradition passed down through generations; for others, testing your underwater limits is a championship sport that’s taken years of practice and training. The latter often train nonstop, first in swimming pools to build up their endurance under water, and then in the sea. And it comes with risks, regardless of ability: In 2015, Russian free diving champion Natalia Molchanova died during a recreational dive off the coast of Ibiza, Spain—a holder of no fewer than 41 world records, including holding her breath during a dive for 9:02 mnutes, she had descended to a depth of 130 feet but never resurfaced. Though her death has never been solved, it’s thought that a strong current that day may have been the cause.
Free divers feel the need to protect the ocean, in part, because of everything that it has given them: a meal; a community; an income; or a place to feel free. Though the rest of us will probably never make it to the bottom of the ocean—or more than a couple of feet down—environmental activist and world champion free diver Tanya Streeter (who has held the overall "no limits" free diving record since 2000 for reaching a depth of 525 feet on one breath, a record she almost died while setting) believes all of us can be transformed by the water that surrounds us. “You don’t have to dive 500 feet to learn something about yourself,” she says. “Your lessons are no less than mine just because of the difference in the distances that we travel.
The desire to know exactly where her food comes from can be traced all the way back to Werner’s childhood when, at the age of five, she tagged along with her father on one of his daily spearfishing trips to catch dinner along the coast of Maui. Though Werner and her family moved away from a rural lifestyle on the island just a few years later, she never quite let go of those early days diving with the fish—even two decades later, as a 24-year-old living in Honolulu. “I had just written it off as nostalgia, but one day I went to a barbecue and these boys brought some fish and, as soon as they hit the grill, I just recognized them,” she says. “It wasn’t the fish that they sold in stores or restaurants, but the fish that I grew up eating. It gave me this awesome feeling of hope.”
Soon after, Werner says, she bought a spear and went to the beach. “I had no idea what I was doing, and I was kind of ashamed by that. When I got in the water, the anxiety did not go away, it only intensified,” she says. “But then I saw bubbles in the water ahead, and I felt this calm come over me.” Hours of standing the water, staring out to sea, trying to amp herself up—and failing—passed and, eventually, she spotted a small reef, rich with fish—the same fish she grew up eating: Kole, Menpachi, Aweoweo, and Aholehole. She caught five or six before sunset.
“The woman that came out of the water that day was a different woman than the one who went in,” she says. “I felt like a lioness coming back after her hunt.”
Of course, Werner isn’t the first woman to consider the ocean as a place of renewal, nor the first to dive for her own food. In Japan, the ama have been free diving along the Ise-Shima Peninsula for thousands of years. Ama tools known as awabi-okoshi, including a small metal scraper (not unlike a seafood fork) used for pulling abalone off the rocks, date from Japan’s Jomon era (10,500–300 B.C.), and have been uncovered by archaeologists. It’s thought that only women have been amas since the eighth century. Today, they dive as deep as 65 feet, tied to wooden tubs that store their catch—lobster, abalone, scallops, sea urchin. Yet while they remain revered within their community, their future is uncertain: The average diver is 65 years old, and younger women are showing little interest in following in their footsteps as they move the cities and pursue different careers. As of last year, there were only 2,000 amas in Japan. Seventy years ago, 5,000 lived in Ise-Shima alone.
South Korea’s haenyeo, or women of the sea, share a similar fate. This tight-knit community of women, mostly aged 50 or older, free dives for shellfish off the coast of Jeju, a small island not far from Seol. According to Brenda Paik Sunoo, author of Moon Tides—Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea, they are perhaps the most visible sector of women on Jeju: Walk along the island’s many hiking trails, and they’re hard to miss. “It is quite extraordinary to see [these] gray-haired women leaping into the sea and emerging with turban shells, octopus, sea cucumbers and sea urchins in their hands,” she says. “But they are women of the land and sea. Remove their rubber suits, and you have women who have very layered lives embedded in a traumatic history of Japanese occupation, the April 3 Massacre, the Korean War, and a continual struggle for economic survival with one main goal—to better the lives and education of their families.
“The women don’t just dive together,” she says. “They raise their families together.”
For Cho Jeoung-Sun, who was featured in Paik Sunoo’s book, diving was in her DNA. Both her mother and mother-in-law were haenyeo, and during her childhood she would go out into the ocean with the older women and see how long she could stay under water. Now she’s considered one of the island’s best haenyeo, and spends most of her time catching fish and prying shells from the reefs before selling them to tourists, and dividing up the profits equally among her fellow divers. At 61 years old, she’s never been in a swimming pool.
Though there has been growing interest among tourists, filmmakers, and journalists in the haenyeo over the past decade—and a heightened level of respect paid to their work—it might not be enough to save them. “The haenyeo’s future is bound with the environment—the same global climate change issues that everyone around the world is facing,” Paik Sunoo says. “They would be the first ones to tell you that the water is increasingly polluted. Their vision of the landscape underneath the sea is getting murkier, and the amount they are able to harvest is diminishing. In some villages, the haenyeo that aren’t diving anymore go out with the others on a boat in order to help collect plastic bottles, ropes, fishing nets, rubbers and all sorts of debris polluting the sea.”
No one is more aware of the impact climate change and pollution is having on our oceans than those who spend their time in or on the water. “Growing up in the Cayman Islands, it was easy to recognize how fragile and important the ocean environments were,” says Streeter. “It didn’t take much for a kid to notice that year after year, there was just more [plastic].”
According to the Plastic Ocean Foundation, which approached Streeter in 2011 to help make the film A Plastic Ocean, humans produce nearly 300 million tons of plastic a year, and over eight million tons of that ends up dumped in the ocean annually. It contaminates our water, damages reefs, and kills the same fish that Werner, the ama, and the haenyeo seek to catch with their spears. Streeter’s lifelong relationship with the ocean has left her feeling indebted to it: Over the years she’s swum to the song of humpback whales; dived with penguins in the Galapagos; sat on the ocean floor, where the sand is rippled like miniature sand dunes, as flying gurnards wiggled over her. “[The ocean] was a safe place for me, a place where I could run to, a place where I could feel safe,” says Streeter. “I was the best version of myself when I was in the sea.”
But not all of us can dive 25 feet under the ocean surface, or swim alongside a great white shark like Werner once did. So how do you make people care about protecting a world they’ll likely never see? Education, says Streeter. “Sylvia Earle [the American marine biologist and explorer] says it in our film: ‘If you don’t know, you can’t care.’”
It’s a sentiment shared by Ocean Ramsey, a marine biologist, conservationist, and free diver, who swims almost daily with sharks—many of them great whites—in the open ocean surrounding Hawaii. She saw her first shark at just eight years old, and has spent the majority of her adult life working to educate people about the importance of protecting them from threats like finning. “Over 90 percent of large shark species have been wiped out. Many will go extinct within my lifetime if enough people don’t stand together to give them the protection they need right now,” she says. “Sharks have been evolving for over 400 million years and they have a specific role as the immune system of the ocean. Water is life, and we all tie back to the sea.”
It’s by free diving that Ramsey has gained her deep affinity with a fish more commonly associated with gorey Hollywood movies and tabloid fear mongering. Like Werner relaxing into the ocean pressure, Ramsey falls into a sort of “blissful” state when swimming alongside great white sharks. “In order to have a healthy, respectful coexistence with sharks, I have to be at my highest level of awareness. Sharks communicate with body language [and so I have to be aware] of the smallest, most subtle movement or change,” she says. With a great white, this can be anything from the flick of a fin or the opening of its mouth, to arching its back if it feels agitated. Forcing yourself to become so in tune with them, to understand them, Ramsey says, becomes an almost meditative experience. “I feel most awake, alive, free, and myself out in the ocean.”