From our archive
Joe Cocozza interviews cave diver Jill Heinerth
Jill Heinerth shatters your ideas of what the world’s top female tech diver would be like. A woman in a predominately male endeavour, Jill defies stereotypes. She’s a hard-core tech diver who can break down and repair a rebreather to the component level, but she’s also a speaker on environmental issues and an accomplished artist. I first met Jill eight years ago. With our shared passion for the underwater realm, we became friends and when I wanted to learn sidemount diving, it was Jill who taught me the ropes. Unlike other technical dive instructors I’ve had who run their courses like a boot camp, Jill’s laid-back teaching style is different but effective. Rather than intimidating the student into rigging their kit a certain way, she will let the experience of an actual dive gently push them into doing things the correct way.
What have you been doing recently?
Jill Heinerth: I was at Baltictech, a dive show in Gdynia, Poland. Gdynia is at the centre of diving in the southern Baltic – there are hundreds of wrecks. I gave a couple of presentations. The first was on deep closed-circuit rebreather diving. The second was a motivational presentation – a retrospective of the expeditions I’ve done and the lessons I learned along the way.
So what are these lessons?
JH: Everything from embracing failure to knowing when to turn around, to using your imagination and never discounting anybody’s wild and wacky ideas.
‘Embracing failure’? What do you mean by that?
JH: You can’t be guaranteed success and you learn a lot more from failure. When I teach technical diving, I like my students to experience ‘discovery learning’ which means I allow them to make mistakes and I’m not going to stop them – as long as their actions do not get them hurt. Then they figure out how to get through those consequences.
We all have to be willing to fail, learn lessons from failure and do better next time.
When I took my sidemount class with you, you used an expression: ‘The cave will teach you’.
JH: Yes. I could go through all kinds of drills with my students but if they have, say, a reel that’s hanging low, it’s far better for me to let themtry it out on a cave dive and discover how it becomes an entanglement hazard. Then they get to choose how to move it to a better location.
So when is the right time to turn a dive around?
JH: That’s part of embracing failure as well. You have to be willing to travel all the way around the world and yet, within a hair’s breath of achieving your goal, you have be able to say ‘not today, the conditions are wrong’ or ‘it’s time to abort’. If you get too focused on the goal, you start to break some of your own rules… and you could end up dead.
And why do you need to use your imagination?
JH: I’m an artist! That gives me a real heads up in the cave diving world. Now, I love science and I love technology, but my artist’s brain, my right brain, gives me some great advantages as well.
For example, new cave divers focus on the linear aspects of the cave – the line as it travels through the cave, the positions of jumps, gaps and of the line arrows. But it takes them a while before they can open their sphere of awareness and start to reference the spatial aspect of the cave around them. That’s an example of bringing the artist’s and the engineer’s perception together.
In many of my film projects and scientific explorations, I work with scientists who have to think in a linear fashion. They might specialise in speleobiology [the study of organisms that live in caves], geology or archeology. I get to come in with a holistic approach and make wild-ass suppositions about things I observe. Like, I can say: ‘Gee the skull we are seeing at the bottom of the cave has surgical marks on it. Did they peel the flesh off it?’ The scientist will say they have to do four or five years of study before it can be confirmed, but as the artist, I get to throw it all out there. Sometimes, some of those crazy brainstorming sessions lead to wonderful ideas and solutions.
What was it like being one of the first female cave explorers?
JH: I was not really one of the first – there were many women before me. I moved quickly into the technical diving realm. It had its challenges and a lot of men were not quite ready for women doing extreme and technical dives back then. In the early days, I did get a lot of flak from guys, but I always tried to prove myself with my own abilities, my own achievements and sometimes it meant I had to work twice as hard to get a spot on an expedition.
What advice would you offer young women getting involved in tech diving?
JH: Just go out and do it. Don’t let traditional roles slow you down. Get good training and practice and ask for the gig! If you want to go on an expedition or you are looking for a mentor, just call them up.
Not many people can say their job is their passion. Is yours?
JH: I’m pretty lucky, because I get up every morning and I do exactly what I want to do. I am absolutely living the dream. It wasn’t always easy and it didn’t come without a lot of sacrifices. My first career was as a graphic artist – I had a design studio in Toronto. I loved that work, yet every night I was off teaching scuba and every weekend I was diving.
I knew I had to find a way to combine those careers. I left the business to work full time in scuba and ended losing my entire nest egg when my former partner defaulted on his payments. I moved to the Caymans and slowly worked my way to Florida where I had the opportunity to mix my creative passions and diving. I still don’t know where my next paycheck is coming from but I’m going to keep chasing the dream.
What underlies your passion? Does your work have a higher purpose?
JH: I’ve been fortunate to travel around the world to incredible places and I’ve come to know more and more about our natural world. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of serious issues we face. I feel more aware that I have an audience and therefore I need to bring attention to some of the really important things that we’re facing.
My chosen path is to talk about water because every day, I get to swim inside the veins of Mother Earth. I get to see the lifeblood of the earth flowing through its underground passageways and that very lifeblood nourishes our crops, it feeds our families, it brings us our drinking water. Throughout my career I have seen a lot of changes – declining water quality in our springs and dire changes in our oceans. It might be easier for me to champion a particular marine animal, like a manatee or a shark, but I’ve chosen to talk about something a little more abstract – where our drinking water comes from, how we unintentionally pollute water and how we can protect it for future generations.
Without clean water and basic sanitation across the globe, we are going to end up with a lot of desperate people who are thirsty and hungry. So I can’t think of any better cause that I can champion in my life. And I use my creative abilities to communicate this to people.
Underwater explorer and filmmaker, Jill Heinerth has dived deeper into caves than any woman in history. She was a founding entrant into the Women Diver's Hall of Fame. Jill wrote, produced, and appeared in Water’s Journey, the documentary series that takes viewers through the world’s greatest water systems. She has worked with James Cameron on films such Sanctum.
She is an expert in the use of closed-circuit rebreathers. Her multi-media blog attracts a large international audience – www.RebreatherPro.com. She is also a popular presenter at international diving events from Australia to Central America, Russia, Europe and Canada.
Jill is the author of three books on cave diving and underwater photography.
Born in Canada, Jill lives with her husband Robert, in North Florida.