Explorer Jill Heinerth: ‘Swimming through the veins of Mother Earth’ in a bid to save her

More people have walked on the Moon than have been to some of the places that veteran Canadian explorer, diver and filmmaker Jill Heinerth has visited.

Heinerth has always been drawn to the unknown. Molded by the cold, she didn’t freeze—she’s flourished having crafted a trailblazing career focused on raising awareness about the fragility of our planet.

Heinerth grew up swimming in cold water with her first dives in waters of 4 degrees C (39 degrees F).

“I wanted to swim underwater even before I knew what diving was all about,” Heinerth said in an interview with States of Life. “It’s hard to describe how drawn I was to the sport. It seems like I found my element.”

Nearly two decades ago, Heinerth and a small group of like-minded explorers sat before National Geographic representatives to pitch a bold, new idea: Successfully cave dive inside an iceberg.

“We had hypothesized that we would find caves inside icebergs, but it was only that—an idea,” Heinerth said. “The promise of cave diving inside icebergs was one of the reasons that National Geographic was interested in our pitch. Fortunately we delivered.”

Heinerth captained an expedition to the B-15 Iceberg in Antarctica after eyeing satellite photos along the Ross Ice Shelf. After the iceberg broke off, it represented the largest moving object on the planet—the size of Jamaica.

As an experienced cave diver, Heinerth said the expedition was unlike that of standard cave diving.

“It was very different,” Heinerth said. “The ice is always moving, shifting, breaking, and dissolving. The ice caves are extremely transitory. Some of the icebergs we were exploring, were also on the move, drifting miles in the ocean while we dived around them.”

Read a first-hand account of Heinerth’s experience in a NPR-WBUR article published in September of 2019 here

Looking back, Heinerth said the experience helped shape her career.

“It was a bit stressful, but I also felt like I was finally on a path leading to a full-time career in the creative end of diving,” Heinerth said. “I gained a lot of confidence from that project, in all aspects of film production.”

She said she left the project ready for the next adventure, but was struck with a sobering sense of reality after learning of a friend’s passing in a cave diving accident.

“It was another humbling reminder of how dangerous our sport could be,” Heinerth said.

Those dangers are ever-present in the diving world, a sport that requires special training, equipment redundancy and adherence to strict safety protocols.

“If a problem comes up, you must be able to handle everything inside an overhead environment, perhaps miles inside the Earth,” Heinerth said. “There is no mission control to call for help and you could be hours from being able to surface. Silt can cause a loss of visibility, equipment can fail, and it is possible to get lost or wedged in a small space. You have to be able to deal with all of that calmly and also be prepared to assist a partner.”

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Courtesy Jill Heinerth / Canadian Explorer Jill Heinerth is an experienced cave diver and filmmaker. Pictured here are cave formations in Bermuda on one of her adventures.

Heinerth said she tries to deal with fear before leaving the surface by planning properly, rehearsing and mentally visualizing the adventure ahead.

“By doing that, I can leave behind stress and focus on the job at hand, leaving a bit of space for the wonder and joy,” Heinerth said. “Once underwater, I am unwavering in my attention to detail and sticking with the plan. I am also prepared to accept defeat, aborting the dive if needed. I have to be willing to get within a hair’s breadth of complete success and know when to turn around and abort. That keeps me alive in the long run.”

Even in the grip of ever-present danger, Heinerth said she’s still immensely connected to nature during dives that’s translated into a strong sense of responsibility to share her experiences few will know.

“I feel like I am swimming through the veins of Mother Earth,” Heinerth said. “It feels like I am immersed in the sustenance of the planet. The things that I get to see and document may never be visited by another human being. That feels like an incredible privilege.”

The film Under Thin Ice, follows Heinerth and Mario Cyr on an expedition to get a first-hand look at how the world’s cryosphere is being impacted by the global climate crisis.

In her project Arctic On The Edge, sponsored by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Heinerth also explored the journey of ice through Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea.

“As someone who has seen first hand, the rapid changes in the polar regions, I feel compelled to communicate about and share what I have seen,” Heinerth said. “I think it is one of the most important films that I have ever made. I think humanity needs to see examples of climate change in order to join in solutions.”

In her role as the first-ever Explorer in Residence of the RCGS, Heinerth focuses on raising the status of Canada internationally while reaching kids across the country. She works directly with young people in classrooms with the help of the W. Garfield Weston Foundation.

“I visit schools to spend time presenting and working with kids to help them embrace an explorer’s mindset,” Heinerth said.

She recently completed a book tour for her new book Into The Planet: My Life As A Cave Diver and will enter the new decade once again photographing and filming in the Arctic; working with Titanic discoverer Bob Ballard and collaborating with scientists around the world.

Jill Heinerth is a noted cave diver, writer, photographer, cinematographer, test pilot, instructor, speaker, and explorer. She is a fellow of the Explorers Club, a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame and recipient of Canada’s prestigious Polar Medal and the diving world’s highest honor from the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences, the NOGI Award. In recognition of her lifetime achievement, Jill was awarded the Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration.

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Courtesy of Jill Heinerth / Canadian explorer Jill Heinerth has dedicated her life to traveling to the farthest reaches of our planet to highlight the impact of human-caused climate change.

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