On the other side of fear lies adventure
With Jill Heinerth
Jill Heinerth introduces herself as an explorer. Indeed, as official ‘Explorer-in-Residence’ at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, she has had this title thrust upon her. And whilst she gives every impression of being slightly uncomfortable with it, the description could not be more apt.
A modern day Jacques Cousteau, Jill’s adventures have brought her into some of the most inhospitable environments on earth, from cave-diving inside a recently calved Antarctic iceberg to surfacing from a dive through a service hatch in the middle of the highway in downtown Orlando. Her career has included exploring and mapping part of the deepest cave system in the Western Hemisphere, participating in the discovery of new aquatic species, looking for empirical evidence of climate change and documenting the macabre remains of the long extinct Mayan civilisation in Mexico.
As Jill is often quoted, more people have walked on the moon than have been to many of the places she has.
For someone who has built an entire career on pushing personal and professional boundaries to, and in some cases, beyond their limits, she is also remarkably humble. Perhaps a life spent one or two hasty decisions away from disaster has given her the insight to appreciate the fragility of existence, or maybe it’s just her disarming pragmatism in the face of overwhelming challenges. Whatever it is, it has informed one of the most interesting diving books of the last decade – a page turner, with more cliffhangers than Yosemite’s El Capitan on a Saturday afternoon, that seems destined to make it to the silver screen too.
‘Into the Planet’ tells the story of Jill’s life as a cave diver from her first childhood memory of nearly drowning in a lake, through several brushes with mortality. From mapping and exploring cave systems for the first time using cutting edge equipment so complex, even NASA didn’t have it yet, to diving into sinkholes in the Sahara desert and exploring aquifers deep below the shifting sandy surface.
Here with an extract from her book, re-printed with her kind permission, she captures the fear and the affirmation that can come with putting your life into the hands of others and taking theirs into yours.
Jill’s book ‘Into The Planet’ is published by HarperCollins and is available in bookshops and online.
“If I die, it will be in the most glorious place that nobody has ever seen.
I can no longer feel the fingers in my left hand. The glacial Antarctic water has seeped through a tiny puncture in my formerly waterproof glove. If this water were one-tenth of a degree colder, the ocean would become solid. Fighting the knife-edged freeze is depleting my strength, my blood vessels throbbing in a futile attempt to deliver warmth to my extremities.
The archway of ice above our heads is furrowed like the surface of a golf ball, carved by the hand of the sea. Iridescent blue, Wedgwood, azure, cerulean, cobalt, and pastel robin’s egg meld with chalk and silvery alabaster. The ice is vibrant, bright, and at the same time ghostly, shadowy. The beauty contradicts the danger. We are the first people to cave dive inside an iceberg. And we may not live to tell the story.
It’s February, in the middle of what passes for summer in Antarctica. My job, for National Geographic, is to lead an advanced technical diving team in search of underwater caves deep within the largest moving object on earth, the B-15 iceberg. I had known that diving into tunnels inside this giant piece of ice would be difficult, but I hadn’t calculated that getting out would be nearly impossible. The tidal currents accelerated so quickly that they’ve caged us inside the ice. We’re trapped in this frozen fortress, and I have to figure out how to escape.
There are no training manuals or protocols to follow. When you’re the first to do something, there’s nobody to call for help. The most qualified cave-diving team in the world, with the experience and skills to rescue us, is right here, trapped inside the B-15 iceberg: my husband, Paul Heinerth, our close friend, Wes Skiles, and me.
The glazed tunnel we’re swimming through is magnificent. Three hundred feet of ice presses down upon us from above this narrow passage, groaning with emphatic creaks and pops that signal its instability. The current is gaining momentum, and the garden of life on the sea floor beneath the iceberg bends like palm trees in a hurricane. Frilly marine creatures—brilliant orange sponges, worms that look like Christmas trees, and vibrant red stalks—double over and shake in the flow of the tide.
We’re beyond the range of communications—utterly alone against the wilderness. And there are no other capable divers on board [our exploration vessel]. Our colleagues will search the horizon through binoculars; they’ll launch the ship’s helicopter and ferret feverishly over the endless white ice of the Ross Sea. But they’ll know that nobody survives for long in these indifferent waters. We would be remembered at best as gutsy, but more likely as lunatics.
There’s a beam of daylight, soft and elusive, about three hundred yards away, and I begin kicking as hard as I can, latching on to anything on the ocean floor that could edge me closer to it. I can hear Paul’s and Wes’s heavy panting, but my mind is turning inward to my own survival as I gain one inch of ground at a time.
How does a dying person know when it’s over? They say your life flashes before your eyes, but that isn’t happening to me now. All I can think about is escaping from the water that I love more than anything else. I’ve spent my life immersed in a relationship with this element that nourishes and destroys, buoys and drowns—that has both freed me and taken the lives of my friends. Now, I have come to my moment of reckoning. My life began in water, and I refuse to accept that it may end here.”
Jill’s future projects are equally ambitious: continuing her exploration and documentation of the Ottawa River in her native Canada and a return visit to the Canadian Arctic in which she filmed her award winning TV programme ‘Under Thin Ice’ which aired in North America in November 2019. She is also involved with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and its Future Ocean Lab – a project dedicated to the creation of affordable tools for global citizen science allowing scientists to gather the vast quantities of data needed to monitor the changes taking place in our oceans. But of course, caves, and the ongoing allure of ‘wet rocks’ will always draw Jill into the darkness…and we will be with her.
Jill is a fourth element team diver, using the ProteusII wetsuit, Argonaut 2.0 drysuit and fourth element undergarments on her adventures.