Canadian underwater explorer Jill Heinerth has dived in some of the most extreme locations on the planet, from underwater caves to icebergs in the frigid waters off Antarctica. But she's not in it for the kicks. Each adventure brings back valuable knowledge of our fresh water systems. Heinerth's next project is to snorkel the entire Northwest Passage as part of an all-female team. We spoke to her recently about the thrills and dangers of exploring the depths of our underwater caverns.
Introduce us to your world.
As a cave diver I swim through the veins of Mother Earth, exploring the shadowy recesses inside our planet. The foreboding doorways of underwater caves repel most people, but I am attracted to the constricted corridors, pressing my way through the blackness, while relying on delicate technology for each breath. This is my workplace. Within the darkness of my office, survival depends on a finite balance between fear and discovery.
How did you get into it?
I've always been mesmerized by the cave environment. When I first got into a wet cave and floated three dimensionally though space with the ease of flying it was an unbelievable revelation to me. It's also a deep spiritual experience. I liken cave diving to swimming through the veins of Mother Earth. I'm swimming through the lifeblood of the planet -- the fresh water that nourishes what is the essense of life.
But it's dangerous, no?
Cave diving has been characterized as the world’s most dangerous sport, as well as the edgy frontier of earthbound scientific exploration and discovery. Even with modern equipment and training, an average of 20 people die each year. A bad decision at work could cost me my life, and my name and legacy would be added to the long list of cave divers who have perished in the seductive murkiness of the bowels of the earth.
Any spicy moments yourself?
I called the dive inside the iceberg as the current was getting stronger and stronger. It was picking up in a way I had yet to experience. We turned around but were hardly making any headway and I started to think there was a possibility we weren't going to get out. When we finally got to the edge where I could see some open water over our heads we couldn't get up. The freshwater that was melting was pouring down in a tremendous down current and was pinning us down. I thought, how are we ever going to get up an ice wall?
How did you?
I realized the only way was by jamming our fingers in these little holes that these tiny icefish were occupying and use those as climbing aids to pull ourselves up. By the time we got back on the boat we'd been underwater for three hours, which is a long time in those temperatures. A mere two hours later we were having dinner and heard these shrill screams. We rushed out on deck to see the entire iceberg we had been inside crack and dissolve into a pile of slush. We looked at it and realised Mother Nature was telling us it was time to go home.
What keeps you going back?
Despite the risk, swimming through the lifeblood of the planet fulfills my childhood dreams of being an explorer. It is a privilege to uncover these hidden shrines, and share these concealed mysteries deep inside our planet.