‘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

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Rus­sell Wanger­sky and Cana­dian Geo­graphic staff

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).

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