In Conversation with Photographer Jill Heinerth

03 Nov In Conversation with Photographer Jill Heinerth

Ice Island Cave #4, Antarctica, by Jill Heinerth

Exiting Ice Island Cave #4, Antarctica. ©Jill Heinerth

There are few places more remote than those that photographer and videographer Jill Heinerth explores. From the waterways beneath Florida’s communities to the caves inside the largest iceberg in recorded history, Jill’s work as an underwater cave diver and explorer has been instrumental in advancing scientific research in global climate change and freshwater scarcity. She received the inaugural Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) in 2013 and was subsequently named the first Explorer in Residence by the RCGS. Recently, Sivani Babu sat down with Jill to talk about her career, her focus on “water literacy,” and the importance of exploration.


SB: How did you get started in diving?

JH: As a kid, I used to watch Jacques Cousteau on TV and that totally motivated me to want to be a diver, but growing up in Canada, my parents thought that was absolutely insane! The water’s too cold! You can’t dive here! So, I didn’t learn to dive until I was in university. That was about 30 years ago and as soon as I took my first class, it immediately changed my life, as I kind of knew it would.

SB: Was the move from open water diving to technical diving in wrecks and caves a slow transition?

JH: When I graduated from university, I started a small advertising company in Toronto and I was teaching scuba on nights and weekends. Every time I was sitting in my office, I was thinking about how I could be underwater instead, so I eventually sold the business — I sold everything in fact — and decided I wanted to find a way to apply my creative talents underwater. I knew I needed to be exceptional. I needed to do things that nobody else was doing. I had an interest in underwater caves and I recognized that there were very few people in that niche, making beautiful and creative images and video in those environments.

SB: Why underwater caves?

JH: It’s the opportunity to explore. And to be somewhere and go somewhere and document something that nobody’s ever seen before. To be able to go to these completely virgin places within the planet is equivalent to being an astronaut to me.

SB: Diving, for me, feels like visiting another planet.

JH: Absolutely! There are still so few people on this planet that get a chance to go underwater at all. We’re all explorers in that world. We know more about space than we do about the underwater world. So, I think every diver gets that little adrenaline rush of exploration.

SB: Underwater in general is a pretty remote place, but you explore some really remote places. How do you choose where you want to go?

JH: I tell people that I have a graduate degree in curiosity. My idea of a fun night out is combing Google Earth (laughs). Sometimes I’m working with scientists as a collaborator and helping be their eyes and hands in an environment they can’t get to. Sometimes I’m dreaming up expeditions of my own based on things I’ve read and then pitching a project to National Geographic.

SB: You’ve done some amazing work in a place that I love. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about diving in Antarctica and your project there.

JH: Antarctica was amazing. In the year 2000 — in the spring — the largest iceberg in recorded history calved away from the Ross Ice Shelf. So, we pitched to go to it and be the first people to cave dive inside an iceberg. It was an early look at global climate change and some interesting ecological questions that go with that.

Although we were barely talking about global climate change in those days, I knew this was the sign of something remarkable. It was an opportunity to find out whether the ecology of the ice edge would travel with the berg. It was a chance to test my hypothesis that we would find caves inside the icebergs.

…And Antarctica is like going to the moon!

(Both laugh)

It is so remote; so foreign; so untouched. Have you been?

SB: Yeah! A few times.

JH: Oh, awesome! Awesome! Well, then, you know how much that feels like going to the moon. It’s totally foreign!

SB: That’s a big part of why I love it so much.

JH: And the Canadian Arctic is the same. There’s so much we need to communicate from these great places. It’s a privilege to see them.

SB: What did you learn from that project?

JH: It was truly remarkable to find life entrenched below and even inside the matrix of the ice. I knew I was swimming through history beneath layers that had been deposited for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. I knew we were also making history as the first to use rebreather technology in the Antarctic waters.

Our team also had a cetacean specialist onboard who gathered DNA to prove a new sub species of killer whale. We did jellyfish and bird fauna research and documented inside and under the massive berg, bringing back imagery of never-before-seen ecosystems.

SB: What are some of the other impactful projects that you’ve worked on?

JH: My husband and I started something called the We Are Water project. I looked at my lifetime of exploration and realized there was one thing that netted it all together: I have a unique voice as someone who travels inside the planet — inside drinking water resources. And I have an opportunity to communicate with people about the scarcity of that fresh, clean water. So, whether I’m traveling under a golf course community in Florida, or through the thin lens of freshwater in Bermuda, or any other place in the world, it’s an opportunity for me to be that canary in the coal mine and talk about water resources.

Jill Heinerth prepares to descend on the deepest manned dive of the Bermuda region

Jill Heinerth prepares to descend on the Challenger Sea Mount near Bermuda on the deepest manned dive ever conducted in the region. ©Nic Alvarado

SB: Are people receptive to the bigger conversation?

JH: Oh, absolutely. And I think that’s why I can be a good voice for that: I can share my adventures and they get all excited, and when they’re all excited I can shove a little truth at them (laughs). But it’s also education, because people don’t necessarily understand that they’re using too much water or that they might be unintentionally polluting. They don’t even understand where their drinking water comes from for the most part. It’s only recently that people are starting to become aware that they might turn on the tap and it might not be safe to drink, like in Flint, Michigan. Or that they could potentially turn on the tap and nothing comes out, like a California drought. This isn’t just a problem that happens in South Sudan, it’s a problem that’s coming to North America faster than we can cope with it.

And I’m a reasonable voice as a conservation advocate. There are other people who are lying down in front of bulldozers, and I respect them and admire them for their efforts because we need that kind of strong voice in society. But we also need people who can be more middle of the road as conservation advocates and accept the fact that development, to a certain degree, is inevitable, and that we need reasonable voices that can help negotiate a truce and get everybody to move a little bit closer to conservation.

SB: This is all part of what you call “water literacy,” right?

JH: Yes.

SB: How long have you been on this path?

JH: It started in 1997-98 when I was part of a project in north Florida with the United States Deep Caving Team. We were making the first three-dimensional map of a subterranean cave system — dry or wet — and it just happened to be the cave system that carries the major drinking water supply of north Florida and the capital city of Tallahassee. So, in the process of doing this project and having National Geographic document it, the biggest purpose for us was showing scientists, with definitive facts, precisely where the drinking water conduits lay. We came away from that project with the most accurate three-dimensional model of an aquifer system and its precise location beneath surface features tied in with GPS, so that we could tell them, you know, not to build a gas station on top of the drinking water in case the gas tanks leaked. It changed my life. Every project I was involved in after that point had a new focus on environmental issues.

SB: How does your photography and cinematography fit into that mission?

JH: People have a really hard time understanding that whatever they do on the surface of the earth will be returned to them to drink, and I can show them. I can show them that I can swim underneath their house. I can show them that whatever they do on the surface will soak into the ground and that it will end up in drinking water conduits, it will come out in springs, and end up in estuaries where all the baby fish are growing up, where a manatee might be trying to feed on underwater plants that are being poisoned by the fertilizer seeping from their lawns because they cut away the marsh in between their lawn and the river. And I can show them that that river is going out to the Gulf of Mexico and either feeding the estuaries or destroying the life within them if the water is dirty. It’s very hard for people to make that connection unless you can show them the pictures and tell them stories. That’s what my photography and videography allow me to do.

SB: Tell me about becoming the first Canadian Royal Geographical Society Explorer in Residence.

JH: Several years ago, I received the first ever medal for exploration given in Canada. This was sort of a follow up to that. My goal with them was to especially work with children and go to schools for speaking engagements and inspire kids about exploration, to talk to them about water conservation, and careers of the future.

SB: What advice do you give to kids with a similar thirst for exploration?

JH: I show them that I have a business card that says, “Jill Heinerth, Explorer” on it. Most of their parents want them to be doctors or lawyers or whatever else, but the truth is that these kids are going to have jobs that we haven’t even come up with names for yet. And they are all going to be explorers.

When I was a kid, I was told that the Age of Exploration was over. We’d climbed the highest peaks. We were going to the moon when I was a kid. We’d been to the bottom of the ocean. But exploration was not done. For me, it meant exploring inner earth. And for the next generation, it’s going to be exploring even further inside: cloning, DNA, nanotechnology, quantum physics. We’re exploring smaller and smaller places, but we need people with curious minds. So, I try to encourage them to remain curious and develop basic literacies —not just English, but computer literacy, and basic scientific literacy.

SB: What’s the benefit of exploration? Why is it still important?

JH: It pushes humanity forward. If we’re not explorers chasing the next impossible, then our society becomes stagnant. Exploration is critical. We have to embrace things that scare us, not run from them — embrace them and apply problem solving and curiosity to them to explore our greatest potential.

SB: When you’re done and you’re looking back on your career, what is the hope?

JH: The hope is that I see others carrying on the work. At some point, I’m going to be ready to pass it all along and I hope that humanity has a better understanding of water conservation and climate change and that we’ve made the shift to clean energy. I hope the next generation has a chance. And everything I can do to enable that is important.


Now it’s your turn…


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Sivani Babu
Sivani Babu is an award-winning writer and photographer with a deep-seated curiosity about the world and a love of extreme landscapes and weather. Her adventures have taken her to all seven continents, sailing across the towering seas of the Drake Passage, kayaking with gentoo penguins in the glassy waters of Neko Harbor in Antarctica, chasing storms through Tornado Alley, and road tripping across the United States with a former teacher of hers from high school. Sivani’s work has appeared on BBC Travel and CNN as well as in Backpacker Magazine, Outdoor Photographer, Nature Photographer, and Bay Nature. Follow her travels via Instagram: @wayfaringsiv or on her blog at
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