Jill Heinerth is a Canadian cave diver, underwater explorer, writer, photographer and filmmaker. Many consider her the best female underwater explorer in the world, and she has dived in some of the most extreme locations on the planet, from underwater caves to icebergs in the frigid waters off Antarctica.
Who or what first inspired you to become an underwater explorer?
As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut but was equally compelled watching Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea Adventures on TV. I was born with an exploration gene. I was always outdoors: hiking, climbing, swimming and canoeing. I loved finding “secret spots” and then sharing them with friends. I found a lot of confidence and joy in the outdoor world.
What does a typical day look like for you? Introduce us to your world:
I have one of the strangest business cards: my job title is “Explorer.” I’ve built a hybrid career around my outdoor adventures.
I’m the inaugural “Explorer in Residence” for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. As Canada’s chief explorer, I have chosen to spend my time reaching out to kids to inspire them to take on exploration and embrace discovery and fear as positive things in their lives.
But my special area of expertise is as a cave diver. I document these unique and dangerous underwater environments for National Geographic Expeditions, TV programs and stories in publications around the world.
As a filmmaker and photographer, underwater caves represent the ultimate challenge: I create art while monitoring delicate life support equipment at task loads that take my mind and body to the limit. Sometimes solo, and other times a member of a scientific expedition, I must be entirely self-sufficient. There’s no Mission Control to solve my problems while I am blindly groping for a broken guideline in a zero-visibility silt out.
What unexpected places has your career taken you?
As a cave diver. I swim through the veins of Mother Earth, exploring the shadowy recesses inside our planet. The foreboding doorways of underwater caves repel most people, but I am attracted to the constricted corridors, pressing my way through the blackness while relying on delicate technology for each sustaining breath. This is my workplace. Within the darkness of my office, survival depends on a finite balance between fear and discovery.
Despite the risk, swimming through the lifeblood of the planet fulfills my childhood dreams of being an explorer. While swimming beneath your feet, I work with biologists discovering new species, physicists tracking climate change, and hydrogeologists examining our finite freshwater reserves.
Probing the underground pathways of the planet, I’ve discovered grisly sources of pollution, the roots of life inside Antarctic icebergs and ancient skeletal remains of Mayan civilizations, sacrificed in the cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula. Underwater caves are museums of natural history, preserving rare lifeforms that teach us about evolution and survival. They are time capsules that safeguard cultural resources of lost civilizations. They are portals to the mythic underworld of indigenous cultures and windows to the aquifer from which we all drink.
Exploring the world beneath your feet, I swim below your homes, golf courses and restaurants. I delve into ancient conduits of volcanoes and crevices within monstrous bodies of ice. I follow the course of water where ever it guides me, from mountain creeks to glorious blue springs all emitting their bounty from inside our planet. And when the passages pinch and terminate my dive, the water still flows from some mysterious place.
The journey is endless. It beckons me forward. Exploration is boundless and the caverns immeasurable to my imagination.
What are your most memorable adventures over the course of your career?
As the first person to cave dive inside iceberg caves in Antarctica, I was able to go one of the most spectacular and fleeting places imaginable. On a sixty day journey, my team from National Geographic went to the Ross Sea to intercept the largest iceberg in recorded history. It was akin to going to the moon and perhaps even more dangerous.
Another true highlight was a project in the late 1990s, where as a member of the United States Deep Caving Team, I was able to complete a 22-hour mission to go further into deep caves than any woman in history. More importantly, our project created the world’s first accurate 3D map of a subterranean system and linked it to the surface so we could fully understand where precious drinking water conduits lay beneath the surface. That project changed me forever and helped me get a grasp of my responsibility as a steward for our water environment.
Given the inherent dangers of diving, what keeps you coming back?
Underwater caves are one of the last frontiers for humanity to explore, and I’m living in the time of the greatest revolution in technology. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of cave diving from very early roots and participate in the revolution that brought us rebreathers, one atmosphere suits and autonomous, artificially intelligent robots.
These explorations have taken me around the world to remote corners of the planet. Countless times I have been able to explore our underwater equivalents to Everest and K2 and truly go where no man has gone before.
Is there one place you haven’t explored yet? What’s your next big adventure?
I have a very long bucket list of exploration goals and destinations. I would still love to see the Galapagos and Cocos Islands, and I have goals to continue working with colleagues in 3D mapping and digital preservation activities in Mexico and other locations.This fall I’m back in the Bahamas with National Geographic mapping one of the most beautiful caves on earth. Beyond that, I have a project in Australia’s Nularbor Plain. There are caves in this desert region about 24 hours drive from anywhere.
You’ve mentioned that cycling is another passion you love to pursue. Tell us about your favorite cycling adventure:
Two years ago my husband Robert and I decided to ride our bicycles across Canada on a 7000 km journey. We took four months to stage and make the trip unsupported while we stopped and showed our documentary film “We Are Water” along the way. We visited with small groups, churches, museums and dive clubs and helped spread the word about conserving fresh water resources by telling adventurous stories from my work.
What makes you a KÜHL kid? How did you first learn about KÜHL, and what is your favorite thing about the company?
I actually reached out to KÜHL since they were my favorite clothing brand. Everything I have ever ordered fit me beautifully and fulfilled the role of functional womne’s outdoor clothing with a beautiful style. KÜHL apparel fits my lifestyle but still celebrates my femininity.
It all started with a pair of Splash Roll-up pants! When I sent an email to the company, I didn’t expect a response, but was soon overwhelmed with awesome friendly emails. It opened the door for a great new relationship.
In a nutshell, KÜHL just fits – my size and my lifestyle!
Jill has produced TV series for PBS, National Geographic Channel and the BBC; consulted on movies for directors including James Cameron; written several books; and produced documentaries. A fellow of the Explorers Club and National Speleological Society, Jill has won numerous awards and been inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame. In recognition of her lifetime achievements, Jill was awarded the inaugural Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration. Established by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013, the medal recognizes singular achievements and the pursuit of excellence by an outstanding Canadian explorer.