I Learned to Freedive in Hawaii — Here's What 'Underwater Flight' Is Really Like

One of Hawaii's coolest and most inspiring waterwomen taught me to free dive — and how to slow down and savor life.

Free diving with Kimi at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
Photo: Justin Turkowski/Courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

A sublime sense of peace, divine serenity, and head-to-toe calm — that's what I feel while 15 feet underwater, eyes locked into freediver Kimi Werner's tranquil and reassuring hazel gaze. Extreme amazement, too. That's because I'm in a snorkel mask holding my breath and holding Werner's hand at the bottom of a brackish body of water known as King's Pond, willing my brain to fight the flight response that's only natural when oxygen is withheld. After all, we humans aren't built to breathe in saltwater like the spotted eagle ray gliding past. Yet here I am being guided to question that belief by a Hawaiian-raised spearfisher who's proof that our lungs and minds are all the equipment needed to tap into perhaps the most spectacular sensation of all: underwater flight.

The boat that takes you out to the diving spot at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
Justin Turkowski/Courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

I've checked into a renovated ocean-view room at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai for their $18,000 Kimi Werner Ocean Experience (bookable through 2022), a rare opportunity to spend two half days with the champion freediver, ocean conservationist, devoted mama, YouTube chef, and all-around uplifting individual (@kimi_swimmy to 273,000 Instagram followers). I'm learning freediving, a.k.a. breath-hold diving, which involves only a single breath, no SCUBA gear or oxygen tank. As part of the package, Werner's husband, underwater photographer Justin Turkowski, is documenting it all.

I'm an ocean addict who surfs cruisy knee- to chest-high peelers but tends to panic when held under pounding waves, letting out my gulped oxygen immediately and fighting to the surface gasping. The opposite of chill. In freediving, I'm seeking breath control and mental resilience.

Before getting wet in King's Pond on day one, Maui-born Werner tells me about her experience with freediving, recounting her earliest, happiest memories as a five-year-old tagging along with her dad as he hunted their family's dinner in the Pacific Ocean. "It really was love at first sight for me," she says of this different world where she could fly, trailing him on the surface while trying to match his breath holds.

Putting on diving gear with Kimi at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
Justin Turkowski/Courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

Playing under the sea is a mental game, she explains: "Our brains are the biggest barriers that keep us from truly living up to our potential underwater." Reacting to triggers with panic is the worst mistake one can make. Instead Werner works to feel, listen to, and acknowledge impulses — and then respond calmly. "The more I can train myself to [do that] underwater, the more it carries over to land and helps a lot in everyday life."

But first, I must learn to breathe on land — on my stomach. A meditative practice of deep inhales and longer exhales like letting the air out of a balloon readies the mind. It takes effort to fill my shaky lungs. "This is how you're gonna be floating," says the guru, who at 41 tells herself each dive, "it's time to surrender, it's time to give yourself to the ocean and let her support you." I slip on my gifted Riffe mask, snorkel, and fins, enter the water, and float face down while Werner's voice, dreamlike, guides me: "Give every single muscle permission to just let go."

We talk through the critical elements, like "breathing up" for longer than the breath hold, to slow my heart rate (conserving oxygen) and re-oxygenate my body and lungs. Each time I breathe up, schools of purple fish flying around me, thumping heartbeats rock my body a little less, and each time Werner reminds me, "don't rush."

It's the same message before she folds at the waist and scissor-kicks her flippered legs to the bottom to wait for me like a sea siren. I can see her cherubic, hopeful gaze drawing me into her secure orbit where I feel nothing bad can happen. Werner is Xanax in human form. When my brain tells me to flee, her reassuring eyes transmit courage to hold just two seconds more before turning my face to the sky and letting the water lift me effortlessly to the surface. The pause surprises even my Mrs. Miyagi, who's stoked. "Honestly, it was your face!" I tell her.

Free diving at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
Justin Turkowski/Courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

I practice again and again, gaining peace, presence, and time until the longest, deepest, and easiest hold of maybe 50 seconds at around 15 feet. I had quieted my inner alarms, and even let Werner pull me just a little deeper. "You let the water take you," she says afterward, beaming. "I'm so proud!" A small triumph, maybe, but I'd discovered an entirely new energy in the water: slow, meditative, and feminine.

We meet later for dinner, a five-course spectacle at Ulu Restaurant featuring only Hawaii island's finest ingredients — including prawns and oysters raised on the recently renovated resort, plus obscure native flora such as mamaki leaf alongside impossibly tender Kahua Ranch lamb. During this thoughtful, wine-paired affair under an enduring pink sky, we lose track of time, laugh, and bond, as humans, ocean lovers, parents, friends, and children. After what COVID-19 has stolen, especially, this four-hour meal — so stimulating and restorative — truly nourishes our souls.

The next morning, on what would be my last free dive in the ocean — no thanks to my stubborn left ear and its tiny muscles — we breathe up, then Werner drops and holds the edge of a pastel reef, patiently awaiting my arrival 20 feet under as if we're meeting for tea. Halfway down I can't equalize, but I keep trying and kicking to reach the protective grasp of this aquatic angel. My left ear doesn't feel great, but my breath is strong, my mental state relaxed, and Werner's unblinking eyes are filled with encouragement and confidence.

Free diving video still at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
Justin Turkowski/Courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

We hang there weightless while time decelerates around us. This, I realize, is a reason to free dive: slow-motion moments of quiet appreciation and total immersion into a gorgeous new-to-me reality. As I sense this magic, Werner breaks out into a smile so wide that water bubbles begin invading her mask like carbonation. With that, we ascend gracefully hand in hand, like transient mermaids in a supernatural world. My spirit cleansed by Mother Ocean, I'm high on dopamine, which eases my ear discomfort. Most unbelievably, I'm more relaxed than I've been in weeks. This is definitely a practice I need in my life. After all, the lessons apply on land, too. As we sail back, Werner tells me her "true blue answer" for how to free dive better: "to slow down. If you can just wrap your mind around that, you can apply it for a lifetime."

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