More people have walked on the moon, than have been to some of the places that Jill Heinerth’s explorations have taken her right here on the earth. From the most dangerous technical dives deep inside underwater caves, to searching for never before seen ecosystems inside giant Antarctic icebergs, to the lawless desert border area between Egypt and Libya while a civil war raged around her, Jill’s curiosity and passion about our watery planet is the driving force in her life.
Jill’s accolades include induction into the Explorer’s Club and the inaugural class of the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame. She received the Wyland ICON Award, an honor she shares with several of her underwater heroes including Jacques Cousteau, Robert Ballard and Dr. Sylvia Earle. She was named a “Living Legend” by Sport Diver Magazine and selected as Scuba Diving Magazine’s “Sea Hero of the Year 2012.”
In recognition of her lifetime achievement, Jill was awarded the inaugural Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration. Established by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013, the medal recognizes singular achievements and the pursuit of excellence by an outstanding Canadian explorer.
“When you get to the edge of that dark doorway, don’t just run away, take one step closer into the unknown and let your eyes adjust. That’s when you’re on the brink of exploration and discovery. If you just step a little further and test your limit, that’s when you have the opportunity to do something truly remarkable.” —Jill Heinerth
Interview: Brian Peech
Welcome to MULTIPLICITY 2018. Tell us about your presentation?
It’s a mix of stills and video of action and adventure from cave diving expeditions I’ve done around the world. From inside Antarctic icebergs, to beneath the Saharan desert and the deep caves of the Bahamas, I think it will be a glimpse into a world that few people have seen before.
OK, wait, the Saharan desert?
So, you can picture the Oasis Springs, where palm trees grow, right? Well, there are water resources there. I pitched a project to National Geographic after I’d done some reading on Alexander the Great. He had actually done some early dive expeditions in the Mediterranean, believe it or not. This was in 333 B.C., and Alexander traveled to meet an oracle at a well in the Egyptian dessert near the border with Syria. He thought that the water in this well connected all the water in the Oasis of Egypt. So, I thought, the only way this water would be connected was underground. I wanted to go there and see if I could find connected cave systems, but I really didn’t know what I would find. I went with a small team, right during the Arab Spring. Egypt was falling apart right during my expedition, and people were being shot in the desert near us. Probably a lot riskier out of the water than in the water during that one.
“Egypt was falling apart right during my expedition, and people were being shot in the desert near us. Probably a lot riskier out of the water than in the water during that one.”
How did you get into cave diving?
I used to enjoy dry caving as a kid, and always wanted to be a diver. Pretty early in my diving career, I went into a cave environment and realized just how unbelievably free I could be just inhaling and floating up a water column instead of climbing a wall. It totally captivated me. I started chasing that right away, and realized it was an opportunity to explore places that no one had ever been. It’s been a pretty huge privilege.
“Pretty early in my diving career, I went into a cave environment and realized just how unbelievably free I could be.”
You speak of cave diving as a serene experience, but it’s also one of the most dangerous types of exploration.
We’ve said on expeditions where we’ve run into trouble that we better be able to get ourselves out of here, because all the people who could save us are already in the cave.
Have you ever been on a dive that made you question whether it was time to hang it all up?
Cave diving is sometimes called the most dangerous sport; I’ve lost over 100 friends in diving accidents. It’s a lot worse than mountain climbing in that regard. Every time somebody I know dies, I certainly rethink everything. And of course I’ve had my own close calls. I was in a situation in a very small cave, probably 14 inches high, where I was escorting a scientist. I was leading her into a cave and she got stuck, panicked and got entangled in the guideline. She ended up breaking the guideline leading out of the cave.
“It’s a complete silt out, she’s panicking, the guideline’s broken, and she’s the cork in the bottle containing my life. I had to figure out how to solve it for both of us.”
So now it’s a complete silt out, she’s panicking, the guideline’s broken, and she’s the cork in the bottle containing my life. I had to figure out how to solve it for both of us. We separated in the blackness of the silt, and I chose to go further back into the cave to be sure I wasn’t leaving her behind—I don’t know if I could have lived with that. She actually got out 113 minutes before me, so I was searching for her all that time, not knowing whether she was alive. Meanwhile she was out and already called in the rescue team. My friends thought I was dead for that 113 minutes. There was a lot of reckoning after that. My friends were writing me the notes they were probably going to read at my funeral.
Out of all these dives, do you have one that’s particularly memorable?
The first expedition into a cave inside the largest iceberg on the planet. A big piece of ice calved away from the Antarctic ice shelf and became the largest moving object on the planet. I went down there for National Geographic and was the first person to go cave diving inside an iceberg.
“From childhood, watching the Apollo missions, these guys drive around on the moon, it totally captivated me.”
How do you find a cave in an iceberg, let alone reckon you can dive into it?
We were watching satellite photos for a while. This was in 2000, when you couldn’t just look at Google Earth to see what’s happening. We noticed this large piece of ice was slowly cracking, and we were forecasting it was going to break away. When it did, we went to National Geographic and pitched that we would go climb it, look at the ecology, and cave dive inside it. They were like, ‘Oh my God, there are caves inside of icebergs?’ My partner at the time was pretty audacious, saying, ‘Hell yeah, there are caves inside these icebergs!” But it was just a theory. They funded the project and we went down there. It was literally 30 days down in the ice before we found a cave system I thought was worthy of what we’d promised. I was already thinking what the B movie was going to be if we didn’t find what we’d promised.
Has exploration always been a part of your life?
Oh, yeah. From childhood, watching the Apollo missions, these guys drive around on the moon, it totally captivated me. When I was a kid, we grew up with this common media experience: two TV channels, and if there was a moon landing, they were showing the same thing. And if there was a moon landing, all the kids would be moved into the library to watch the footage. That just captivated me. We didn’t have a Canadian space program; we didn’t have female astronauts. But as a child, I was always digging holes in my friend’s back yard, so I guess it’s always been there.
“I sometimes think of myself as someone who’s swimming through the veins of Mother Earth, swimming through the lifeblood of the planet.”
You’ve been front-row-centre to the human impact on some of these environments. What’s it like to be somewhere so removed from human interaction, but so touched by it at the same time?
It’s shocking. I sometimes think of myself as someone who’s swimming through the veins of Mother Earth, swimming through the lifeblood of the planet. And I’ve seen it change. I’ve seen the flow, the strength, the current of the water inside these caves drop because we’ve withdrawn too much of the water. I’ve seen the water quality change. I see how the sea ice is changing, and it’s shocking how fast it’s happening. When I did the movie Ice Island in 2000, I used the words “global climate change” and “sea level rise” in the script, and there were people telling me, “Wow, this is way too political; we don’t know if you can use those terms. People won’t know what that is, and the people that do won’t believe it.” And here we are, only 18 years later, and it’s happening fast, and it’s terrifying.
Seeing what you’ve seen, do you still hold on to hope?
The situation is dire, there’s no doubt about it. But I have to be an optimist. If we can make some big decisions in the next few years, like fast, we’re really making decisions for the future of humanity, for the future of the planet. We need to pay attention to how we use water, how we pollute it, and make decisions about our carbon imprint. We have a lot of room to do better, but I think there’s still a chance for mitigation, otherwise I wouldn’t keep talking about it.
You’ve used the term ‘water literacy’ before. Can you explain what that means to you?
I think it’s important for people to think about where their drinking water comes from, how they might be over using it, how they might be unintentionally polluting it, and how they can preserve it for future generations. Most people aren’t connected with their water resources; they think they just turn the tap on and it will always flow clean drinking water, but that’s not really the case. I think we need to connect with where that water is coming from. Does it come from the local reservoir? Is it local ground water? Is it through desalination? From the ocean? And I think we all need to get a feeling for our water footprint, just like we do with carbon impact–whether it’s the water we use for a shower or for brushing our teeth, or used to create the blue jeans we’re wearing or the hamburger we’re eating. I think we need to have a better connection with that, because when we understand what our water footprint is, it’s really hard to be as wasteful as we’ve been.
“Most people aren’t connected with their water resources; they think they just turn the tap on and it will always flow clean drinking water, but that’s not really the case.”
You travel and talk with children about water, how has their reaction been?
I teach kids about water literacy, and they often go home and time their parents in the shower, or say, “We need to be part-time vegetarians.” Essentially the message is anything you do on the surface of the earth is going to be returned to you to drink. So even if you live in the middle of the Yukon, you need to think about every activity that happens on the surface of the landscape. Kids listen, and they are going to live a completely different existence that we did. We lived in a time of plenty, and they’re going live in the time of change. But kids are all ears, they take it all to heart.
I guess it doesn’t hurt that you’ve got some pretty incredible images to show them.
Yeah, I like to say that I can get people really excited with the visuals, and when their mouths are open, I can shove a little truth in there, too.
Do you have any advice for young adventurers?
I talk to kids a lot about fear. The number one question kids ask is, “Aren’t you afraid?” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? I’m always afraid.” That’s self-preservation. And I want to dive with people who are also afraid, because that means they care about the outcome, too. I want to get home at the end of the day. But the thing you have to ask yourself about fear is, “Am I really in danger of being hurt or dying here? Or am I just afraid of the unknown?” When you get to the edge of that dark doorway, don’t just run away, take one step closer into the unknown and let your eyes adjust. That’s when you’re on the brink of exploration and discovery. If you just step a little further and test your limit, that’s when you have the opportunity to do something truly remarkable.
Imagine sitting around a campfire telling stories, then take that experience and multiply it. That’s MULTIPLICITY at the 2018 Ski and Snowboard Festival. The annual event, presented by Mountain Life Media, captures human beings’ rich tradition of storytelling, then elevates it, adding in visual elements of photography, slideshows and video. The result is best compared to a TEDTalk® on adrenalin, with stories brought to you by explorers, athletes, outdoor thought-leaders, and passionate personalities from the mountain world.
Hosted by Mountain Life editor and emcee extraordinaire Feet Banks, MULTIPLICITY is a must-see celebration of true-mountain and adventure culture, and one hell of a good ride. Plus, the event is a special flagship fundraiser for the Spearhead Huts Project.
This event premiered in 2013 and has been a sell-out success each year since – don’t miss out. Grab your tickets today.