My Perfect Adventure
Cave diver Jill Heinerth sold everything she owned to get away from office life and become an underwater explorer. The gamble paid off: She’s now considered by many to be the best female scuba diver in the world. Her records include being the first person in the caves of Antarctic icebergs, going farther into an underwater cave than any other woman ever, and being the first human to visit many underwater places. When the Women Divers Hall of Fame was established in 2000, she was among the inaugural inductees.
Heinerth is also a writer, a photographer, and a producer. She wrote three books about deep caving and underwater photography and has made TV series and documentaries for PBS, National Geographic, and the BBC. The aquanaut works as an underwater consultant for Hollywood movies—having helped James Cameron and other big-name directors—and for manufacturers that develop new diving technologies. As a keynote speaker, she holds forth on risk assessment among other topics.
Over the course of her many expeditions, she developed a deep and abiding devotion to conservation. Her upcoming documentary, We Are Water, is about how fresh water is vital to human life. Here, Heinerth discusses her We Are Water Project, extols the virtues of failure, tells of how Jacques Cousteau and Sylvia Earle inspired her, and ruminates on how photography just might convince others that they, too, can do the seemingly impossible.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I am in my element when I am swimming through the veins of Mother Earth, exploring the planet’s shadowy recesses. The ominous doorways of underwater caves repel most people but I am attracted to the constricted corridors and relying on delicate technology for every sustaining breath. So my perfect day would begin by tinkering with my life-support gear and cameras, preparing to shed light on some unexplored cave. There are a few people with whom I trust my life and though some of my exploration work is solo, sharing moments with these special few is fantastic. Drinking coffee and carefully knotting line for our survey reels, we'd dream of vast rock cathedrals decorated with intricate marvels. Emptying reels into the dark corridors, we'd swim through some of the most stunning galleries imaginable. Bringing home the survey and photos would end the day on the highest note.
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Though the political climate makes it challenging, I want to explore springs in Libya. The Nubian Aquifer lies below the Western Desert and I have explored some of the desert oases on the Egyptian side of the border, but there is great promise for cave exploration in resurgence springs on the other side. I'm also eager to explore some of the great Karst regions of China and the submerged caves that dot their landscape.
Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
The most remarkable expedition of my life was to Antarctica. We departed from New Zealand in a small boat, following Shackleton's historic route to the Ross Ice Shelf. Our plan was to intercept the largest moving object on the planet, the B15 iceberg, and be the first people to dive inside the caves within this massive piece of ice.
Traveling to Antarctica is like going to another planet. Taking the 12-day voyage to the Ross Sea is just as dangerous: Even before reaching our destination, we battled 60-foot seas, got frozen in the pack ice, and faced unimaginable risk. When we launched our cave-diving and science program, the risks got even greater. I'm very proud of having stayed safe in such a challenging environment and thrilled to have had such a unique opportunity to take a look at the realities of global climate change.
If you could have lunch with any adventurer or explorer, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Ernest Shackleton. He was one of the greatest leaders our world has ever known. In the face of desperate challenges, he led his team to safety after losing their vessel to the clutches of the Ross Sea pack ice. Few of us could imagine living outdoors for two years, but he took his entire crew across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia with few supplies and barely adequate clothing. His bravery saved his team from almost certain death.