‘WE’RE CAPABLE OF FAR MORE THAN WE THINK WE ARE.’
A profile of diver Jill Heinerth, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s newly minted Explorer-in-residence, and 24 other top Canadian women explorers
A profile of Jill Heinerth, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s newly minted Explorer-in-residence, and 25 other top Canadian women explorers
IT’S THEIR LIGHTS you see first, yellowish-green brightening to a milky magnesium white as the divers rise through the silt-laden water. It’s fresh water, millions of litres of it, caught in the shafts of the former iron mines at Bell Island, N.L. The mines were abandoned in 1966, with artifacts left behind: shovels, electric wire, even huge pumps, everything discarded when the mine closed and the shafts were allowed to fill with water. Jill Heinerth comes out of the water with an ungainly stagger, nearly 140 kilograms of gear weighing her down, water pouring from her. She takes off her pink fins. Her dive partner, Cas Dobbin, lurches up the steps behind her. “Wooooo!” Heinerth shouts as soon as her mouth is clear of her rebreathing equipment, the sound echoing off the wedge of iron-rich hematite above her head. She’s still exhilarated, even though it’s just one more dive for her. In fact, it’s the latest of more than 7,000 dives, some of them the most technically difficult possible. She’s been inside underwater caves that twist and bind. Inside icebergs. Winner of the 2013 Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and now named its first-ever Explorer-in-Residence (see “Your Society,” page 60), Heinerth has swum more than 3,000 metres in a single dive, deep into Wakulla Springs, Fla., marking the longest known travel into a cave by any female diver. Her gear may be 140 kilograms on land, but Heinerth says she’s “neutrally buoyant in paradise” once she’s in the water. In a lot of ways, she’s less like a grizzled dive veteran than she is an excited kid. Her face is creased with the curved line from the tight seal of her diving mask. The only other lines appear every time she smiles, which is often. She’s 51, wet blond hair packed in tight under a black stocking cap. Dobbin simply describes her as a “phenomenal diver,” adding that Heinerth’s planning and thoroughness put her in a class of her own. “I’ve been a student of hers, I’ve been a dive partner — I wouldn’t call it a peer. The level that she’s at … a lot of people would be intimidated or star-struck. It’s like getting on the ice with Sidney Crosby. And yet she’s so humble and encouraging. She makes it seem so easy.”
IT’S BEEN QUITE THE ADVENTURE for a girl from Etobicoke who grew up wanting to be an astronaut. “But there was no Canadian space program. There was certainly no girls’ Canadian space program,” Heinerth laughs. And while she might have traded outer space for the inner-space confines of deepwater caves, Heinerth, one of the world’s greatest underwater explorers, is still one of a few women in a field dominated by men. How dominated? “It’s kind of exciting that there are three women on this project,” she says, “It’s the first time I haven’t been the only one diving.” In other circumstances, that has meant she’s had to learn to “ask for the gig” and develop new confidence — “to reach out and tell people that I was capable of a role or show them that I was able to lead,” she says. Watching the divers getting ready, you can’t help but notice a curious detachment: they’re alert and conversational, but their hands move over their equipment with a strange independence, a deliberate and patterned order. There’s new and old: high-tech wrist-worn gauges, yet divers still spit in their masks and wash it around to keep them from fogging up. The safety briefing in the mine says not to pick anything up, not to touch the walls in case you trigger a rock fall or collapse. You’re not to remove your hard hat. It’s orange in the mine; orange lights, orange walls, orange iron-stained water. A steady trickle, a shallow stream, travels the long shaft, gurgling downward at a steady decline of 10 degrees. Heinerth has been photographing artifacts while Dobbin helps identify what they’re seeing — right down to pop bottles, lunch tins and even graffiti. “Nobody really left a list of what was left behind, and at the time they flooded it, things might not have Heinerth in Florida’s Devil’s Eye Spring cave ( this image), where she often dives in winter, and completing a “decompression hang” ( below) after a dive of nearly 140 metres in Bermuda in 2011 — then the deepest made in the country. Heinerth’s image of the wreck of the Kittiwake, in Grand Cayman ( previous pages).
seemed important,” Heinerth explains. “A lunch pail might not seem significant in the moment, but it’s an artifact now.” Other divers on the expedition are stretching out new guide ropes to prepare the mine for future dives and preparing to take biological samples, and all of them are taking part in lung condition and decompression studies. Every dive ends with two hours of medical work, from ultrasound scans to lung function tests. In the miners museum built above the No. 2 mine, Heinerth strips down to her black thermal underwear and lies on the floor for her ultrasound. It shows her heart beating on the computer screen. She talks about the toll on her lungs of diving with rebreathing gear, and how a February dive in Newfoundland isn’t easy. “These are cold dives, and there’s almost no visibility for the first stretch. It’s linear, which is so much easier than other caves, but these are tough on the human body,” she says, citing the combination of low temperature, long length and great depths involved. “These are what they would term extreme dive profiles.”
HEINERTH DIDN’T START cave diving until 1991. Before that, she was a
Russell Wangersky (russellwangersky.com) is a columnist for The Telegram in St. John’s, as well as a novelist and short-story writer. commercial artist with a fine arts degree and a small Toronto advertising firm. Her first scuba experience was in a local Mississauga pool in 1981, when she was 16 and used one of the facility’s scuba gear sets to help inspect some broken tiles. Later, getting certified in Lake Huron, near Tobermory, Ont., she was hooked. “I was diving as much as I could, and I became an instructor pretty early in my diving career, and every Friday night I was racing as fast as I could to get up to Tobermory,” says Heinerth. “I very quickly realized that two things were troubling me: one was sitting inside, and the other was commuting. And I realized that my life was upside-down in the sense that what I really, really loved was the diving — so why couldn’t I find a way to dive and be creative?” She decided to give everything up, sold her interest in the advertising business and moved to the Cayman Islands. By then, all that mattered was diving. For three years, she lived in the islands, working as an instructor/dive master and lots of other things besides. “I became an accidental chef, I painted the lodge twice, which was fun,” Heinerth says. “I loved that. I loved being part of a team and doing whatever needed to be done to be successful. But again, I knew there was something more ahead, and I started going to Florida to get formal training in cave diving.” She’d already found her way into groundwater on Grand Cayman — by following cows to a freshwater source. “They had beaten the edges down to a muddy mess … The mosquitoes were so thick that I wore my scuba mask on land to protect my face.” Once in the water, she was in her first cave discovery. “When I ducked down beneath the tepid surface, I felt a coolness upwelling from below. The water was clearer and colder, and that was a sign that I had my doorway into the island’s groundwater.” She hadn’t known enough then to even be afraid. “My formative cave dives were more enthralling than frightening. Sometimes when you start a new activity, you don’t know what you don’t
know. Several hundred cave dives later, I was probably more scared than in the early days. I realized that I had been very fortunate.” By the late 1990s, she had come under the mentorship of diver and renowned underwater photographer Wes Skiles, who during an expedition in North Florida asked Heinerth to do some deep camera work for a National Geographic TV project he was directing. His encouragement gave her the confidence to start her own production company in 2000, “but even more importantly,” says Heinerth, “he helped me embrace the greater mission of using our exploration experiences to help connect people to their water resources.”
HEINERTH IS REMARKABLY FRANK. Ask her a question over lunch and she barely hesitates before answering. Does she mind diving in this mine, where a colleague died while underwater in 2007? “Joe Steffen had tumours in his lungs, he didn’t know he had cancer. He embolized.” Has she ever lost a dive partner? “I don’t know how I would have continued doing this if I had. I’ve done more eulogies and funerals than anyone my age should ever have to do, but I’ve never lost a colleague on a dive that I was on. That, I just can’t imagine.” That doesn’t mean she hasn’t come close. Water-filled caves are not a forgiving environment, even for experts. Heinerth remembers one particular dive to collect samples of bacterial colonies in a small cave in North Florida in 2011. “It’s small enough that your chest is on the floor and your head’s scraping the ceiling.” Her partner got caught up and wedged in place in a narrow passage, with Heinerth deeper in the cave. “So she’s the cork in the bottle containing my life. And if I can’t help her solve the problem, then we’re both going to die,” she says. “I’m holding onto the guideline, and she’s struggling to free herself. I feel the guideline getting tighter and tighter and then it breaks.” Heinerth had to untangle her lessexperienced partner and fix the “ball of spaghetti” that was the guideline — and by then, her partner had disappeared. Heinerth back-tracked all the way to their point of maximum penetration and started slowly working her way out of the cave, searching for her partner because she wasn’t going to leave her behind. By that point, Heinerth was low on air. To conserve what was left in her tank, she turned it off, then back on for every breath. By then, her partner had surfaced and called for help. “There’s a phone tree of friends who live in the cave-rich areas and are trained in recovery diving, because we don’t generally rescue people, we recover their bodies,” says Heinerth. “It took me an extra
73 minutes to get out because of the search, beyond when my partner had gotten out of the cave, so there was that 73 minutes of time when my friends thought they were coming to recover my body. “I got to the entrance of the cave, and there she was, a mask full of tears, and I shed a few tears too.”
DIVING, CAVE PHOTOGRAPHY, exploration work and documentary-making are now Heinerth’s daily fare. She created the first 3D map of an underwater cave, and her writing and photography range from showing people the remains of Bell Island’s mines to a dive through an Antarctic iceberg’s caves. During that expedition, part of the berg broke off while she and her partners were underwater, leaving their support team believing they’d been trapped or killed. The divers climbed out through another gap in the iceberg, fighting a falling vortex of meltwater. Michael Schmidt, chair of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s expeditions committee, explains that the breadth of what Heinerth has done is just one of the qualities that made her the Society’s pick for Explorer-in-Residence: “We took one look at her and said, ‘Wow.’ Jill is an amazing role model for young Canadians — she’s approachable and she’s a listener. A dynamic, unique and engaging individual.” Schmidt says Heinerth’s ability to engage with her audience is key — and it’s something that’s always been vital to her work. Inside her diving gear is a sticker with a hand and the slogan “We are water” — the symbol of a Heinerth project that highlights the risks facing the world’s freshwater supplies. She has projects on the go constantly, from testing new rebreathers and dive equipment to photographic and video expeditions, and she’s always pushing forward; just talking to her makes you want to do more. In February, she took training in free diving (deep diving without scuba gear). “I think maybe my life’s been defined by breaking
through barriers,” Heinerth says, “because we’re capable of far more than we think we are.” She says she pinches herself every day. “I get to do and learn new things all the time when I work on different documentaries, films or expeditions. Like, here I am, diving into this incredible cultural history of Newfoundland. My dad wanted me to be a scientist and, oh my God, this is so much better because I get into everybody’s craft.” She recognizes the toll it takes to push boundaries, but she does it anyway. “Each day, I’m swimming through the graves of my friends,” she says bluntly. “I went back through my diving history and I thought about all of the people that I’ve known or the close colleagues that I’ve lost, and the list was horrifically long. But each one of those was a lesson. It’s no longer, ‘Wes died,’ it’s ‘Wes did this, and I need to watch out for that.’ [Heinerth’s mentor, Wes Skiles, died in a diving accident in 2010.] Because good people make bad decisions, and I cannot isolate myself from the ability to make a bad decision, too.” And what if she does make that fateful bad decision?
What you have to understand about Jill Heinerth is that she doesn’t give up. “There are people who, when things go sideways, give up, or there are people who waste the time to pull out a slate and write a note to their loved ones,” Heinerth says. Not her. “You should be found in this position,” she says, stretching one arm out in front of herself, crouched, an unlikely runner in her wrists-to-ankles black thermal underwear. “You should be sprinting for the finish.”
Clockwise from left: Heinerth and Neal Pollock, research director for the Divers Alert Network, hold the RCGS expedition flag at Cape Spear, N.L., during the 2016 Bell Island expedition; Heinerth meets local children in western Egypt during the 2012 search for spring caves in the region; testing new “rebreathing” (oxygen recycling) technology in 1998.
In 2000, Heinerth became the first person to explore the caves in Antarctica’s B-15, the world’s largest iceberg ( above). Back in Florida, Heinerth’s shot of diver Helen Farr in Ichetucknee Springs State Park ( left).