Jill is an underwater explorer, photographer, writer, speaker, and filmmaker. A pioneer of technical rebreather diving, she has led expeditions into icebergs in Antarctica, volcanic lava tubes, and submerged caves worldwide.
She is the first Explorer-in-Residence of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
Her memoir, INTO THE PLANET, has been lauded by the Wall Street Journal, Oprah Magazine, and the New York Times.
She is also a Fellow of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, Underwater Academy of Arts and Sciences, Women Divers Hall of Fame, and the Explorers Club, which awarded her with the William Beebe Award for ocean exploration.
Join Alastair and Jill as they look back at what drove Jill to become one of the worlds leading cave divers and as they discuss the dangers, the beauty and the technical difficulties of the work that Jill does and the worlds she loves to explore.
Learn more about Jill:
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Alastair Jolly: Welcome to another episode of the podcast, my guest today, is an underwater Explorer, writer, photographer, speaker, and filmmaker.
A pioneer of technical rebreather diving. She has led expeditions into icebergs in Antarctica, volcanic lava tubes, and submerged caves worldwide. She is the first Explorer in residence of the Royal Canadian geographical society.
Her memoir 'Into The Planet' has been lauded by the wall street journal Oprah magazine and the New York Times. She's also fellow of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, Underwater Academy of Arts and Science, Women Divers Hall of Fame and the Explorers Club and the Explorer club awarded her the William Beebe award for Ocean Exploration.
I am thrilled to welcome to the podcast. Jill Heinerth.
Hi, Jill, how are you?
Jill Heinerth: Hi, it's great to be here with you today.
Alastair Jolly: Thank you so much for joining me. That was the short version of your bio. Or shortish version of your bio. Cause we have a lot to talk about today.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah, we sure do.
Alastair Jolly: Let's start at the beginning. It's probably the most obvious place to start.
So how, and when did you decide you were going to become a diver and an Explorer?
Jill Heinerth: You know, I grew up in the sixties and seventies and we actually watched men walk on the surface of the moon and I want it to be an astronaut when I was a little kid and then my mom informed me that, well, dear, there's no Canadian space program and there are no women astronauts, but you know, we all in that era grew up with this sort of common media experience.
So, the other thing that we all watched on TV was Jacques Cousteau. And that, yeah, that inspired me
Alastair Jolly: watching Jac, you decided you wanted to, to, to learn more about the sea and the ocean. But when did you actually start to learn to dive?
Jill Heinerth: You know, same thing with, with diving in Canada. I mean, I'm here in, in Ottawa, Canada, and, and growing up when I expressed to my mom that, well, maybe I could be a diver if I can't be an astronaut, she said I'm not sure that people actually dive in Canada dear. It's too cold here. So, I didn't get a chance to try scuba until I was a teenager working as a lifeguard in a swimming pool. And then I didn't have the money to get myself trained and ready to dive until I was in university. So, I was kind of a late bloomer.
Alastair Jolly: So, when you're at university and you're, you're learning to become a diver, was there an obvious moment to you when it was what you wanted to spend the rest of your life doing?
Jill Heinerth: Oh yeah. I mean every day, leading up to that first breath on a scuba class, like I was one of these crazy people that bought all the scuba equipment before I was even qualified as a diver. So, I was so excited the first time I was underwater. And as an artist, just, you know, in this new element, I thought, oh man, this is what I want to do.
Alastair Jolly: So were you that ultimate person that has all the gear and no idea right at the start.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. You know, it's kind of funny. Cause when I, I did all my research because I wanted to buy good gear. I knew this was something I was going to do for a long time. And I told the dive shop owner that I wanted to have a schematic for the regulator that I was purchasing.
So, the breathing apparatus and he said, we don't give people like schematics for regulators. He said, he said, this is life support equipment. You need to get it properly serviced by, by a skilled technician. And I said, well, you know, I've been taking the class using your rental gear and well, frankly, you're, I don't know if you have skilled technician, that's doing a very good job, which is why I want to buy my own gear.
And he was like, really like offended, but, but it was true. Like they had a lousy stuff in terrible maintenance. And so, I wanted to do my own and I wanted to fix my own.
Alastair Jolly: That stuff's important, you know, it's your life support system. You want to know how it works and make sure it's a perfect for what you needed to do.
So how long did you dive for before you explored your first cave?
Jill Heinerth: Well, I mean, my first career in life, I had an advertising company here in Canada and I was teaching scuba nights and weekends, and that was, you know, my, my hobby really. I literally, you know, one day kind of sat in my office and thought I can't do this anymore.
Like, I love the creative process. I love, I love what I'm doing. The job is, I mean, my business is successful, but I want it to be underwater and I wanted to be creative underwater. So, the first thing I did was sell everything, sell the business and move to the islands down to the Cayman Islands. And that's where I discovered my first cave that was before I was actually properly trained as a cave diver really set the wheels in motion.
Alastair Jolly: This would have been. Back in what maybe the late eighties or something?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. Late eighties, early nineties. I lived in the Caymans. Yeah. Yeah.
Alastair Jolly: And then what was it, especially that drew you to caves and the exploration of caves?
Jill Heinerth: So, I'm that crazy kid that like a lot of people look at caves and they say, Oh my God, it's dark, it's small, it's close and claustrophobic.
And I was that kid that loved all of those things. So, I was building a Fort in the cupboard, in the kitchen or on the top shelf of my bedroom closet. I built a little camp site that I would squeeze into. So, I don't have an ounce of claustrophobia in that respect well maybe I do. I mean, I prefer cave diving to dry caving.
I'm just more comfortable underwater and the close spaces underwater don't. Don't scare me.
Alastair Jolly: Caving, you know, when I think of caving its dry, caving a lot of dry caving here in the UK and it terrifies me just even thinking about dry caving, but to add water to that environment just seems very alien to me.
And I know you've described under earth world here as being very alien and we kind of, know more about what's in space than what's under our feet in many cases. Yeah?
Jill Heinerth: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I get to go to places that nobody has ever explored before and be the first to photograph a document and survey these places.
And that's an incredible opportunity. But you know, you said something a moment ago about dry caving in the UK. There is no dry caving in the UK. It's, it's pretty messy, but I have been cave diving in the UK. I've been at Wookey Hole, which is quite a famous little spot. And it's pretty messy.
Alastair Jolly: Oh, I meant dry in that. You know, we can, you can go to caves here and you can kind of explore them as a tourist and you see a lot of people exploring further and finding new routes, but I know all caves obviously have water and the thought of submerging into that is incredible. And when I look at your photography, I'm in awe of your photography.
And I've told you this in many conversations that I just love the photography and the work that you do, but it does trigger some feelings in a lot of people when they see some of these tight, tight claustrophobic places that you go. And I don't think there's many people geared or shaped to be able to do what you do.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah, it's I guess there's sort of a unique set of things that drive me forward. Like I believe part of what I do is genetic, like there's this gene called the 7R gene. That's the adventure seekers, novelty seekers genetic predisposition, like, you know, if I was some ancient person, I might be the hunter gatherer for the family, as opposed to the person maintaining the homestead.
And so, I think there is something that just drives me forward, but, but I'm also that little girl, like in kindergarten, that's still loves show and tell. And so, I can't go to a place without, without sharing it. And that's, I guess what drives me to take pictures?
Alastair Jolly: I guess a lot of times now we maybe refer to it more as like adrenaline junkie type stuff.
But I don't know if that's necessarily the same, the same thing, an adrenaline junkie and someone that has the 7R gene, right?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. No, I mean, I I've, I guess I've always sort of fought that perception about being an adrenaline junkie. I do like new sensations and novelty. Like I might walk a different route every day that I go out for a walk from my house, but, but it doesn't necessarily mean that I'm taking on additional risks. Like I, I am in a really risky environment, but part of what I do is all about problem solving and mitigating those risks before I get in the water so that I can come back with great images get home to my family at the end of the day,
Alastair Jolly: Almost in some ways the opposite, right?
You don't want the, the adrenaline taking over, you have to be in control and, and follow procedures and all this stuff.
Jill Heinerth: It's kind of a, an interesting thing because you don't normally, when you go out and take pictures, you don't have to worry about something killing you. I mean, some people do, maybe if you're here photographing wild animals or something like that.
But so, I have this weird dance between my right brain and my left brain. I'm, I'm trying to be as creative as possible, but that takes you off into this place where you're just free and not paying attention to things that are necessarily important. So, I have to have this dance between the right brain and the left brain, so that I have a certain amount of pragmatism that's, you know, maintaining, you know, vigilant watch over my, my life support system.
While I'm still trying to get these great pictures and sometimes coordinate other people to, you know, dance with the light through these lightless environments.
Alastair Jolly: You've mentioned creativity a lot there already. Where does the artist in Jill come from? Is that something that's been with you all your life?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah, you know, my, my grandparents on my father's side were both professional artists, illustrators, and I kind of grew up under grandpa's drafting table. He used to get these little booklets of color paper from Domtar and other paper manufacturers. These are like little swatch sheets, and he would give me these little booklets and, and tell me it was a miniature sketchbook.
And I would sit there and draw all day long at his feet while he worked on ads for different companies.
Alastair Jolly: So, when did the sort of passion for photography kick in? Is that something that just kind of went along with the fact that you're exploring places and wanted to document them? Or is it something that as an artist you felt you had to also include in your journey as you explored it?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. You know, I was always interested in capturing photos and moments and my dad had a nice Pentax camera set up for some of the things that he did at work. He was an engineer though, so not a, not an artist. And I always wanted to, to grab his camera from him. But when I went to university, I only had one single class in photography ever in my life, actually.
So pretty much self-taught and it, I guess, came from the desire to just share what I was seeing, because I knew it was so extraordinary and a world that so few people had an opportunity to explore. I mean, Today, there are a lot more tourists and certainly cameras are ubiquitous. Everybody's got a GoPro, at least when they're diving, but I feel like even when I began with my little Nikonos film camera it was a rare thing to see underwater photos.
Alastair Jolly: I guess, even if you had been taught photography more extensively at school. It wouldn't have really prepared you for an environment where nobody had really photographed before a lot of what you photograph the techniques you've invented and created to capture these alien environments.
Jill Heinerth: It's true. I mean, I'm working in a completely dark three-dimensional studio.
And sometimes I have people helping me with strobes and lights, and sometimes I'm on my own kind of setting things up very painstakingly and then maybe even, you know, leaving the cave and coming back to, to trigger everything. But it's a very long, slow kind of patient process in the one sense, but it's also this real time limited process.
We only have so many resources underwater. And so, you've got to plan ahead and then get to the task at hand and then also be willing to kind of shift gears. There is a fair bit of what I do. That's just pure exploration photography, so I don't have any pre-planning and then just trying to catch things on the fly as they unfold.
Alastair Jolly: I can only imagine there has been a lot of photography that never worked out in that kind of environment. A lot of, a lot of misses as we would probably say when you're literally working blind.
Jill Heinerth: You know, there's one story that, that I recall where I'd discovered a really significant cave, a deep cave system in Mexico.
And it was the size of a stadium. It was so big. And I had my little Nikonos 5 camera with me, and I had a very, very long sort of hang time underwater. It's like a decompression hang where we slowly allow our body to reacclimate, to pressure before surfacing. And so I was swimming around trying to capture the beauty of this entrance with my film camera.
And of course, you know, 24 frames, that's all you've got. And I didn't, I just had ambient light. So, I had to have this lengthy exposure and I'm trying to hold the camera still unsuccessfully. And, you know, I came out with something that would remind me of the place, but nothing near a professional photo.
And this was back in the nineties. Now I got bent. So, I suffered from a diving accident on that dive and it very nearly ended my career and more than 20 years later, I decided to go back because that image burned a hole in the, my head for all that time. So, I went back in 2018 with the sole intent to reshoot that same photo.
So that I could use it for the cover of my memoir Into The Planet. I hung underwater in that very place where I felt the first symptoms of the bends and waited literally for hours until the light was right. And everything was right. And, and this, this small anonymous scuba diver, I don't know who it is, swam into the frame in the very perfect location as if I had posed them.
And I went, oh my God, that's the frame and click, I had the cover for the book. And I don't know who that person is yet. It, to me, it looks like my own ghost.
Alastair Jolly: So let me tell you a little bit, cause we'll come. I'll come back round to that photograph, which I believe the cave is known as The Pit. Is that correct?
Yeah. So, we'll come back to that in a second, but I first discovered your work through my love of TED talks. And I think I've told you this before. I watched your TED talk. I watch a lot of TED talks and then I go on my little exploration, a much safer exploration than you do, but I go in my little exploration of people and their passions, and I watch a TED talk and I can find out a little bit more about the people.
And when I saw your Ted talk, I was intrigued and captivated, and I went on and Googled you as people do and found out a little bit more about you. And that led to me, discovering your memoir Into The Planet. A phenomenal book, an absolute phenomenal book. It also led me to discover that you are a SmugMug customer, which made me even more intrigued.
And then we connected and got to know each other. What I wasn't expecting to find when I got your book and read it, it didn't prepare me to be on the edge of my seat, reading a terrifying, thriller novel. In some ways it really was like a suspense thriller, but it was also your life. You, you have lived an incredible life and reading it in that book I really couldn't put the book down and just was kind of blind-sided me a little bit just what that book made me feel, but also knowing that you had lived that it's an incredible books. Congratulations on that.
Jill Heinerth: Thank you so much.
Alastair Jolly: The photograph you just spoke about is the cover, the photograph of The Pit is the cover of that, but one of my favorite photographs of yours, but to hear that means so much to you and has that bigger story to tell about it being in a place where you said there, it almost cost you your career.
I guess it could have cost you your life as well.
Jill Heinerth: Absolutely. And it, it, you know, after I took the photo, I knew I had it. I, I knew I had it. I got out of the water, finished my dive and I, I literally like crumbled to my knees and cried. Just, you know, the profound experience of, of, of going back there was, it was, it was really meaningful to me, but I still had a battles on that because when an author writes a book, like they rarely get to title their own book.
Or select the cover and, you know, already had written the book. And then we were down to the, the, you know, final edits on the book. And I sent the photo to my editor and I said, this, this is what I want. And this is the name of the book. And I thought I was going to have to fight for it. And they were like, Oh yeah.
So they got it. They definitely got it and realized that that kind of captured everything inside.
Alastair Jolly: I love how you said there is, it's your ghost, that little scuba diver that you see as that kind of ghost of that moment, is that the only time you've had the bends?
Jill Heinerth: Well, the funny thing is, is once you've been bent kind of look on your career and you go, wow.
You know what? There were a few times that I came home feeling a little achy or extra tired or you know. Maybe those were very minor hits. Cause it's not really black and white. It's sort of this whole cascade of, of different symptoms and severity. And so maybe I have certainly the experience made me much more cautious about trying to prevent it from happening, but it, but it is literally a sports injury for divers.
They don't necessarily have to have done anything wrong. I mean, we're, we're pushing the physiological envelope.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. And does it, does it go completely away or are you always bent something that's always in your, your system when you get the bubbles basically in your system?
Jill Heinerth: We do know that people who have been bent are more likely to get bent again.
So, we're kind of predisposed whether that's because of, you know, the way we dive or the kinds of diving we do, or whether it's sort of leftover injuries. I think I probably do have some, you know, remnant injuries from that. And certainly, people that have been diving for a really, really long time that have been found to have something called osteonecrosis where their bones are kind of dissolving.
So I'm always asking my doctor to make sure my bone health is good and I do everything to stay fit, to make sure that I don't fall down that kind of osteoporosis rabbit hole.
Alastair Jolly: The photography that you do on your exploration. It's very, very varied. I mean, you photograph everything from shipwrecks to wildlife, to the caves themselves, the travel that you do in amongst that, do you enjoy that variety within your photography?
Jill Heinerth: Absolutely. I I'm also a filmmaker. And so, I guess once you have to edit your own work for a film, or even for like a photo story that you're writing for someone, then you, you realize all the little things that you need to shoot. So you don't just need that massive grandeur of a place like The Pit, but you need the details of like the Sherpa that helped you get back into the woods on a donkey or, or, you know, all the aspects of, of the expeditionary travel that give you the, the gritty sense of what it's all about.
Alastair Jolly: Proper full documentary and, you know, capturing everything from the, you know, the setup, the travel, the people who help you. And then ultimately the environments that you explore. Within that varied nature of photography what is the one specific genre of photography that you like the best? Is it the caves themselves, or is it the travel, the wildlife? What do you, what really connects with you photographically?
Jill Heinerth: Really? It is the, the caves, I think more than anything else, like, because they're so abstract to people. I mean, most people don't even think about the fact that there are like these rocky passages beneath your feet, filled with water. Like I'm swimming through the veins of mother earth, like in the sustenance of the planet.
And people don't even know that those caves exist. So, going in there, I kind of feel a sense of responsibility to document and share what it's really like. And. And I like the challenge of that, cause it's hard. And it's very, very fulfilling when I come back with a, with a great shot from those environments.
Alastair Jolly: And what is the, as well as the artistic nature of the photography that you do, what is the other things that your photography is used for? I guess from the exploration side of things it's used by the societies to understand more about the cave systems and our own planet.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. I think of myself as a, I guess a science communicator.
I mean, I'm not a formerly trained scientist, I'm a citizen scientist, but I act as the hands and eyes of scientists in environments that they can't reach. But I also act as their voice because many scientists are really good at their specialty, but they're not really good at communicating about why that matters to the average human being, whether that's through my writing or my photography.
I think that I can help extend the motives, the purpose of their work. And for me, I, I like to be involved in projects that. Projects that communicate about climate change and water issues. If I can help them to reach the average citizen about why their work matters, then that feels like a pretty good purpose.
Alastair Jolly: And you, your photography's the kind of great gateway to open up people's understanding of what this, you know, these places are like, and the science that's been done there and the importance of these places. So very important photographs. Indeed. The nature of what you do is for some of us, as I mentioned there, terrifying you, and you've heard a lot of terrifying, scary moments.
I don't want to dramatize it too much, but it's real life. You know, and there's been moments in your career where you have had to deal with a lot of loss and grief. I guess it's the risk that you take on every day with what you do?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah, it's I mean, I, I've lost over a hundred friends and colleagues to technical diving, rebreather diving accidents through the course of my career.
And that's it's humbling. It's, it's something that I, I never forget, you know, but I do feel like I'm also furthering their efforts. You know, those people didn't go into a cave or underwater that day intending to die. You know, they, they were joyous and experiencing the true vision of exploration.
And so, I feel a degree of responsibility, I guess, to, to continue their work in a sense.
Alastair Jolly: You know Jill, something that really humbled me and struck home to me while reading your book, was this realization that, you know, when something tragic happens within your community, the only people skilled enough to do the rescue mission, or unfortunately, the recovery mission are the people most impacted by the loss of that person.
You really are the only people capable of going and rescuing somebody that you are dear friends.
Jill Heinerth: Oh yeah. And there are sometimes when I'm so far away. So remote, like inside an iceberg in Antarctica and you know, in a fight for my life. And I look to my two colleagues that are underwater with me, and I recognize that the best people to save us are already in the cave.
So, there is no mission control to call for help. You know, you're, you're left to your own devices and have to be willing to execute a self-rescue or a buddy rescue. Yeah. It's, it's sobering. And you have to make those decisions before you, you go in the water, you have to, you have to know in your heart that you're going to be able to conquer whatever. Whatever happens or you don't go in the water.
Alastair Jolly: I know from talking to you that a lot of these procedures and these decisions that you make before going into the water, the calculations that you make, you're one of the pioneers who invented the processes and the, the understanding of the risk factor.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah, it's funny. Sometimes I go to a place where nobody knows anything about me or my background, and when you dive even have a certification card, but you also have a, a big pile of certification cards that, that indicate, you know, your level of competency in certain special areas of diving. And I'll go to a place to dive and they'll say, Oh, we need your C card and I'll give them a C card and they'll go, Oh, well, well, no, we need your, you know, your rebreathers C card or this C card or that C card.
And. The truth of the matter is, is that I teach a lot of things that I was never qualified in because the courses didn't exist. And so I don't have C cards for some aspects of it, of the kind of diving that I do.
Alastair Jolly: I don’t have the C card but I did invent it.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. It's, it's funny.
Alastair Jolly: You told me the story. We were talking earlier about you going back to The Pit where I think you, I think you told me you've got the bends there in new year, 2000. Was that right? You went back 2018 to take the cover, the photograph for the cover of the book. And, you know, that's quite a gap between the visits. You know, a couple of decades earlier, you'd had the bends and you went back, and you said the place had changed quite, quite dramatically. And you had quite a funny experience when you went back to take the photograph.
Jill Heinerth: Well, what I was exploring in that part of Mexico we were literally hacking through the Bush with machetes. We were carrying gear sometimes on donkeys or just, you know, carrying a single tank on our shoulder way far back into the Bush and making multiple trips to get our gear there. But when I went back in 2018, there was this massive, like ticket booth, this giant, giant palapa hut and infrastructure and trucks coming and going out of the bushes fast as they could.
And I went sort of to the gate and I saw a map that I had made in 1995. And I'm like, Oh, I made that map then. And the people in the booth were all excited and I kind of hoped that they might be family members of people that I knew back in the nineties. And, and it came out and they took pictures with me and we had this, you know, fun little experience.
I was trying to figure out if they were, you know, related to my old friends and, and you know, all said and done, we had our celebrations, pictures were taken and then, and then I told them I was going to go back and take this photograph. They said, Oh, Oh, you're going to take a camera. Oh, okay. Well then, the entrance fee is $150. And I laughed because you know, back in the nineties, as we were exploring these places, we thought, well, this will create some economic opportunities for some people who are really, you know, in financial dire straits. Well, it certainly did. So, in the end I was, I was glad to contribute, but I thought it was hilarious.
Alastair Jolly: You bought ticket and you didn't play the, do you know who I am card?
Jill Heinerth: No, no. I bought my ticket happily and just chuckled about it.
Alastair Jolly: You're so humble in that way. I know you would have paid it, but it's quite a difference that you've made. Do you ever think about the impact you make by discovering places and perhaps popularizing these places? Do you think about the impact and maybe some of the negative impact that might have on these locations?
Jill Heinerth: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, when I started exploring in Mexico, it was. You know, there was no big giant highway. I mean, there's like a six to eight lane highway down there now there's, there were no, you know, resorts and things. We camped on the beach. And today there's like tens of thousands. If not, there's probably more than a hundred thousand hotel rooms along the Riviera Maya now.
And I'm sure in part, you know, the photographs or TV programs that I contributed to also contributed to, to driving tourists down there. I mean, you know, people love to be by and in the water, but we so frequently moved to these beautiful places. And then just spoil, the very places that, that attracted us in the beginning. And so yeah, that kind of humbles me, but, but I do realize that these caves are like museums of natural history and they can teach us about, you know, the science of, you know, climate. They can teach us about ancient civilizations that have used these as portals to their underworld.
They can teach us about the biology that lives in the blackness of these underwater spaces. And they can give us an appreciation of how our activities on the surface of the land will eventually be returned to us to drink. And so, I think, and I hope that by sharing my photos and stories and by mentoring the next generation of responsible explorers, that then I can leave some sort of a, a positive legacy.
Cause because I think that that move to tourism is, is inevitable,
Alastair Jolly: inevitable. And what you do has a much greater positive impact and is so important. And, and what you said there about it, the stuff that you discover in the caves letting it. Letting us know more about what we're doing on the surface that was brought home to me by one of your images.
It wasn't something that humans had done. But I remember seeing one of your photographs where there's a lot of red sediment within the cave, and you discovered that its actually sand coming from the deserts, right?
Jill Heinerth: Oh, I love that, that whole story. So, in The Bahamas, these beautiful crystal caves, they are like swimming through a crystal chandelier.
They're so beautiful with these stalactites and stalagmites that were formed when the cave was dry. So, imagine, you know, the water soaks into the ground. It moves in between grains of sand, it drips from the ceiling to the floor and these underground, dry caves and builds up these formations. When the ocean levels, the sea levels were much, much lower.
Well, during those dry epics on planet earth, the dust from the Sahara Desert, that's a Crimson red color will blow across the Atlantic ocean and traveled to The Bahamas and then rain down on the surface of the earth. Then slowly soaks into the ground and gets deposited into these caves and layers. And then later, like calcium formations, this clear, clear sort of crystal deposits on top of it and traps that red layer in the rock.
And there are multiple times in history that these caves were dry when the ocean levels were lower. But today with higher ocean levels, we swim through these environments and we see this Crimson red material just kind of bleeding out of layers into the water column. You know, divers frequently experienced these blue Indigo, dark dim environments and they don't see, like we lose the color red just from the filtration of the water. And so when you suddenly see this incredible Crimson color, it's, it really, really stands out and documenting that it was a, it was kind of fun. We did that for, for several national geographic projects.
Alastair Jolly: Something as natural as sand can make its way from the Sahara into these caves in The Bahamas, the damage we can do with chemicals and stuff that we use on the surface here on a daily basis, the impact, the spread that these things can have or in the world is really an eye opener. And that's where these images literally do open your eyes and tell a thousand words.
Jill Heinerth: There's some Speleothems. These formations that hang from the ceiling of that cave that are, that are clear crystal, but you can see a vein. Of red inside that icicle looking formation. And the first time I saw that, I'm like, what? And if that's broken that red just kind of bleeds out and you're so right, that it just triggers just such a graphic representation of, of how things on the surface of the earth soak into the ground and, and sort of return to us to drink.
Alastair Jolly: Let’s turn the conversation, a little bit to gear.
We always like to talk about gear, if we can. Now, just doing what you do, not including the photography, you need an incredible amount of gear. I know when you go diving, you're carrying hundreds of pounds of weight worth of gear just to stay alive and do what you have to do in the cave. So, when it comes to adding photographic equipment to that, how do you decide what you're going to take? I'm also assuming that you may have probably invented gear or invented types of gear that aren't really or weren't really available at the time.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. That's kind of the fun of it. I love, I love tinkering with gear and I am continuously tinkering with equipment to get things just right. Because you're right. I mean, sometimes I've carried as much as 300 kilograms of equipment under water to do a mission.
And every mission is different. There are times when I've carried two complete, separate camera housings with cameras underwater, with arms and lights and strobes attached to them. And I'm holding one of my hands and I'm balancing the other one on the back of my legs too, as I'm, as I'm floating horizontal in the environment.
And yeah, it it's, it's got its challenges, but if I want to get that quintessential photograph, I have to be constantly innovating and changing and doing new things with my equipment. Even, even things as simple as, as the trim and buoyancy of the equipment, because I've got to make it basically neutral so that I can move it through the water column.
Without it feeling heavy, I mean, it can give me drag, but, but I don't want it to weight me down essentially. But I also want to know that when I pick up the camera, you know, that dome port is facing forward and not wanting to like flip over and plummet to the bottom and you know, scratch the dome.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. What is in the bag, these days, you, you mentioned that you started with very simple, small Nikonos underwater camera, but what does Jill shoot with these days?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. Yeah. I started with Nikonos cameras, film cameras had kind of been through everything because I shoot both stills and video I've switched around.
So, I started as a Nikon girl and then I switched over to Canon. And then I picked up the Panasonic GH5 to do some, some small when I have to travel with a really small package. And that's was great for, for video, but, but I just bought a Sony Alpha 1 and I am so excited. I can't wait to get it.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah, that's the hot ticket at the moment the Sony Alpha 1. And I guess it's the invention of mirrorless camera. It helps many of us due to the smaller nature of everything and the size, but I guess in your environment, size and weight, it really is critical.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. It's critical underwater. It's also critical for travel.
And the beauty of this camera is that it's going to allow me to shoot a level of stills that I want to shoot and the level of video I want to shoot in one camera, body, and always up until now, a camera has been either better with stills or better with video. And that's why I always ended up carrying around two housings with me on a, on an expedition.
But with the Alpha 1, I could have everything in one body. So, when something incredible is happening, I can shoot it. Both ways. And the, the power of that is going to be incredible.
Alastair Jolly: Is there already a housing available for the A1.
Jill Heinerth: No. As soon as I get my body, I'm running to Montreal to work with Aquatica and get the final details dialed in because unfortunately with, with cameras often what happens is, is the body will be very, very similar from one model to the next model, but not similar enough.
And if you want to capture the capability of operating all the buttons on your camera, which you need to underwater, you can't just, you know, take a picture. You've got to have full control. So that means engineering a new housing. So. My friends at Aquatica in Montreal are fantastic. And they're always up for a challenge of taking on a new, excellent camera and making the right housing.
Alastair Jolly: And I guess if you're Sony and Aquatica needs someone to test it in that environment, there really is nobody better than yourself to, to really understand what needs to be done to make it correct for the job.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of funny little things that topside photographers might not think about.
Even basic scuba photographers. Like I do things that are really deep and when you go deep underwater with a camera housing, the, the buttons on the back of the housing are mechanical. So, I'm pushing a button inwards that's spring loaded to activate an electronic button on the camera. But as you go underwater and the pressure increases when you get a couple hundred feet deep, the water pressure itself can start depressing those Springs.
And so, you need beefier springs under the buttons. And that's something people wouldn't necessarily even have considered. I mean, the first time I had a camera that started activating itself under water, I was out of National Geographic shoot and I'm like, oh my God, my camera's recording video and I can't turn it off.
Well I guess let's just shoot as much as I can.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. These are definitely not the things we think of top side. The camera will start taking pictures itself purely because of the pressure of the water on the housing. What other things do you have to think about from a photography perspective that we just don't.
On the top side. What about color? Color is so different underwater? I know a lot of the places you are it's pitch black and there is no light, but when you just, but still when you light it water does strange things to color. So how do you work with color under water?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. I mean, to begin with, as you descend down in an open water environment, you not only lose like the level of light because it's, you know, bouncing off the surface of the ocean, but, but you also lose color. So, the deeper you go, you lose the yellows, the reds, the oranges. And eventually you're just in this Indigo blue world and without lights or strobes it just looks flat and, and colorless. So yeah, we have to bring in our light, we have to, to white balance the way we want and, and, and a creative white balance can make or break, give a real character to your, to your photography.
But yeah, it's, you're shooting like in the, in the distance. There are some things that you can aluminate and then there's some things that you can, you know, revitalize with the color and how you play with those lights and strobes really gives a certain uniqueness and artistry to your work.
Alastair Jolly: So, when you discover a new cave, obviously when you're in the cave, there's no light there.
So, you don't know what's in the cave. You then light it up, I guess, to see what you've discovered.
Jill Heinerth: No, I was just going to say like in the perp, in the, the task of exploration, like I've got a big primary light, but it's. It's limited. I'm just kind of sweeping it around and looking. And if I'm exploring for the first time, I'm actually laying guidelines.
So, a piece of string that leads me all the way back to the surface for safety. And so, I've got this spool in my hand and I'm tying it off on rocks and, and creating my navigational path. And then I've got, you know, four or five or six strobes or lights that are just like tucked away, like clipped to my butt behind me and a camera housing in my hand.
And, and then when I get to the point where I want to take some pictures, I might have to swim around and set up lights and strobes. The caves are tough because if you're making bubbles in that cave and the bubbles are striking the ceiling, then silt is raining down on you and destroying the very image that you want to take.
And also eliminating the visibility. I have to be quick sometimes with, with documenting something that's new and I might be retreating from that cave in complete zero visibility holding onto that guideline. That gets me back out of the cave again, with all that gear,
Alastair Jolly: With all that gear and guide-lines and meters and meters of it.
Jill Heinerth: Kilometers of this. Yeah. Sometimes. Yeah.
Alastair Jolly: Do you always photograph. When you first discover something or are a lot of the exploration about finding it, and then you go back to photograph it.
Jill Heinerth: If I'm on my own, I'm doing the exploration, usually separate from the image making, but when I'm on a team, sometimes I am documenting the exploration experience.
And so I might be with two other divers where one diver's laying the guideline, the second divers kind of checking everything. And then I'm shooting images. Just on the fly. That's the easiest way really to, to shoot those kinds of images because we're kind of obliterating the, the visibility just by swimming through that new environment.
Alastair Jolly: That's really interesting. You mentioned there about bubbles, bubbles hitting the surface and disturbing the silts and the, the elements of the cave. And we mentioned that you were inspirational in helping develop a lot of the procedures, but you also were helping develop what we know known as rebreathers, right?
Jill Heinerth: I mean, I'm always looking for the next best tool for exploration and back in the nineties you know, there was all this talk about this technology that had been used in commercial diving called rebreathers. And I thought, Oh, I need that because what a rebreather does is it's completely different than normal scuba diving.
I mean, most people wear a single tank on their back. They take a breath and then they exhale and make bubbles into the environment. But within those bubbles are a lot of really valuable gases that that could be reused if we could recycle them. And so, the rebreather actually recaptures the exhaled bubbles, scrubs, the carbon dioxide out, and then injects little bits of oxygen to make up for whatever my body has metabolized.
So it's exactly the same technology that an astronaut wears to make a spacewalk. And when I cannot make bubbles in an environment, then I won't stir up the silt. You know, it won't have silt raining down from the ceiling of the cave, but I can also get close to animals because if you make bubbles, you scare animals away underwater, but if you don't make bubbles and you move silently into their space, you're much more a part of the ecosystem.
And they're a little more curious sometimes too curious, and they might just come right, right up to you.
Alastair Jolly: What's the closest encounter you've had with wildlife?
Jill Heinerth: Oh my gosh. I've had a lot; I mean I've come face to face with a bull shark in the doorway of a cave and we'd both turned the corner at the same time and ended up like right in each other's face. I got bitten by a Steller sea lion once and he didn't injure me, but he, he did puncture my dry suit and flooded with cold water. I've photographed polar bears and walrus is in the water at very close range, which was terrifying, but when you have the rebreather on, you do have even more close encounters.
Like I remember a friend of mine in Hawaii who he was doing some deep fish collection work with his camera when suddenly he felt something hit him on the back. And he realized that a giant green sea turtle thought that his pretty yellow rebreather looked like something he wanted to mate with.
Alastair Jolly: It's a family show Jill. We'll leave that one there. I hope people listening, understand that you really have been at the forefront of diving deeper, further, longer than almost anybody else before you and discovering some of the, you know, the biggest caves in the world. What one sort of project stands out for you as the most Epic amongst all these incredible things you've done.
Jill Heinerth: Back in the late 1990s, I worked on a project called the, Wakulla 2 project with the United States deep caving team. And we made the world's first ever three-dimensional map of any subterranean space. And it was a national geographic project as well. And for me, that was a turning point in my, in my career because I realized that no longer would people perceive of cave divers and myself as just some adrenaline filled junkie, looking to get themselves killed in some action sport.
You know, I think they that after that project, people looked to us and realized that we could contribute to science and a better understanding of the world. And for me, those were, those were record-breaking dives pushing the edge of, of human physiology. And, and it was also the point where I realized that I could be a creative professional in the underwater world.
And that there was this niche for me. If I was willing to carve it out and make it happen,
Alastair Jolly: I think the one that stands out to me, reading your book was Antarctica and B 15 as it's known, am I right? This was a historical first dive of an Iceberg by anybody, correct?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. The largest iceberg in recorded history, calved away from the Antarctic ice shelf.
It was the size of Jamaica and my colleague and I decided that it would be a great idea to go down there and cave dive inside of it and be the first people to ever cave dive inside an iceberg. And we actually didn't know for sure that there would be caves inside an iceberg. It was a hypothesis, but somehow, we managed to get funding from Nat Geo to go down there and do just that.
It was fantastic. It was dangerous really, really challenging, but the beauty, I mean the first time that I swam into this sort of fissure crack in, in the iceberg and saw the, the textures of the ice that looked like, like the outside of a golf ball, kind of, you know, little, little scallops and rivets kind of carved by the hand of the sea and.
The just the myriad tones of blue and white just blew me away. I felt like I was on another planet.
Alastair Jolly: Interesting reading about that project. I mean, just even considering the fact that every day you dive, it's dangerous. Every time, anybody dives it's dangerous, but especially with the deep nature of what you do.
And I was struck by this realization that your closest help was two and a half thousand miles away in New Zealand.
Jill Heinerth: We didn't even really have contact with the outside world. We thought we were going to; we had this brand new Sony HD camera with us. It was like a serial number six of F 900 early HD camera.
And we left from New Zealand thinking that we were going to have contact with Sony, the entire trip. And we got a hundred miles South of New Zealand when the boat captain said, Oh gosh, sorry. It seems that the satellite phone is not working. You best all send a quick message to your families and let them know that they won't hear from you for 60 days.
So, I had one sentence to send to my family, basically like email through the sat phone to say, you won't hear from me for 60 days. And we were just on our own, you know, without anyone to call for help. Yeah.
Alastair Jolly: That, that whole project is, is a real thriller to read about. I mean, it was an epic journey just to get there, to get, to B15 itself on, on a boat called Braveheart, which I like that name. Captained by Nigel Jolly, I believe.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah, that's right. You'd be a relative of yours.
Alastair Jolly: Where was he based out of?
Jill Heinerth: He's based out of New Zealand. Yeah, and I think actually he used to say he got sent, his family got sent there as a bunch of criminals, he said,
Alastair Jolly: Sounds about right. But yeah, an incredible journey. I mean, a journey you almost never survived.
There was, there was moments in that boat that you knew you were almost capsized. You then had your Shackleton moment where you got stuck in the ice pack. And that's before you even got to dive.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah, that's true. I mean, we had a 20-meter seas on the way down there. I'd never been seasick in my life and I thought of myself as pretty hardy, but nobody gets through 20-meter seas without barfing their guts out.
Alastair Jolly: I'm just getting nauseous, just reading about it.
Jill Heinerth: A crossing 12 days of, you know, barfing, your guts, just to get there.
Alastair Jolly: How did you have the energy to dive after that?
Jill Heinerth: You know, most people on that expedition, it was 60 days down in Antarctica. There were 18 of us and the average person lost 20 to 30 pounds.
During the project, there were, we couldn't eat enough to make up for the, the caloric output of, of staying warm. Like we had to conserve fuel on the boat because you know, every, every ounce of fuel is, is, is enabling you to, to, to go someplace or to get home again. Right. And so, we had to conserve fuel.
And so, we decided to like, literally turn off the heat and just kind of, you know, live in our ski jackets, tuques and mints for the entire time inside the boat, just so that we could be there and move around a little bit more.
Alastair Jolly: And we won't give away too much because we want people to read the book, but there are two very close calls.
And during that expedition that Again, you know, could have meant not just the end of your career, but the end of end of your life. So, we'll let people read that thriller for themselves.
Jill Heinerth: Well, and that was just the diving close calls. Like on the way home from New Zealand, there was one night when we all just kind of stopped and we had a calm, calm day.
And so, we thought let's just stop the boat and have a meal together so that nobody has to be doing anything and just drift here. And we decided that we would all share the scariest moment that we had on the trip. And it was hilarious because the engineer said, oh my gosh, the night that the ballast pumps failed, I thought we were going to sink.
And I'm like, what? And then the captain says, Oh, no, Fire in the engine room was way worse and I'm like, what?
I hadn't even known about it. I was so absorbed in my own little world. Everybody had a different story about when they thought they were going to die on that trip.
Alastair Jolly: That one B15 project. everybody wrote their own novel after that one, for sure.
Jill Heinerth: You know, I did write letters to my family before I left. It was like, don't open this unless I die kind of letters.
I know that sounds crazy, but you don't want to leave things unsaid. Right. And that was the most dangerous, just audacious project I've ever been involved in. And so, I wrote letters to my family. Like, you know, don't open unless.
Alastair Jolly: I mean, it's, but we're kind of laughing a little bit, but it is the reality.
And literally every chapter of that book. I'm thinking, is this the, is this the moment? Is this the moment, obviously I know you're still alive and I knew the ending, but it, Oh my gosh, it really is? I can't recommend this book enough to anybody to, to go check it out. It is a wonderful, wonderful story.
You mentioned earlier about capturing 3d modeling of caves.
And I believe a lot of that was invented by your friend, Dr. Bill Stone?
Jill Heinerth: Well, there's sort of, there's several avenues with 3d modeling now involving photography be with, with bill stone, we were doing sonar mapping of the cave system. But today, like photogrammetry is kind of one of the newest, latest and greatest ways for us to you know, image something that we don't want to touch or remove from the environment.
So I work with archeologists and paleontologists. Who are looking at things like Mayan remains in caves in Mexico. So, pottery, skulls, human remains, and we don't want to touch those. So, we, we scan them literally and use the photographs to create these models that are like 80,000 data points per square inch.
I mean, my colleague Dr. Cory Jaskolski from, from he works with national geographic, but he does a lot of he's really you know, a private enterprise on his own. His software has enabled us to image these things in such detail that we create augmented reality holograms of, of individual artifacts of it rooms in caves or Cory even recently image liked Everest base camp, Machu Picchu you know, Petra Jordan.
He's done all these enormous spaces with photogrammetry.
Alastair Jolly: So, it's an incredible technology. And you mentioned that you have this love. Well, I, I, I see it as this love of water and understanding the flow of what water underneath our feet. And you've used a lot of this technology to map our watercourses right under our feet.
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. I think when people realize that I'm actually swimming through their drinking water and that they're walking on top of the surface of the earth and the drinking waters below their feet. They might think twice about, you know, dumping the oil from their home oil change onto the grass and letting it soak into the ground.
We're all connected. And it's interesting living through these COVID times because maybe, maybe humanity will now recognize that, that we are all connected and that there isn't, isn't a way to separate yourself from the actions of individuals in some very remote corner of the planet. Especially when it comes to, to water issues.
Alastair Jolly: And a lot of it is a lot closer to home than we think and not remote parts, because you've told me about where you're underneath the earth in these caves and these water systems. And then you have a team on the surface, mapping where you are and you end up walking through people's back yards and through restaurants and stuff. Yeah?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. We use this radio location technology. So, it's an ultra-low frequency radio beacon that I can carry through the cave. And I can send this like pinging sound through the earth to a team top side. That's just got a pair of headphones on and they're, they're carrying this big loop antenna and sensing the signal that I'm sending so that they can walk precisely over the surface of the earth. And they've tracked me through industrial parks, golf course communities. I mean, there was a time when they even tracked me through a bowling alley and a Sonny's barbecue restaurant. So, I was cave diving, a hundred meters beneath this restaurant, and they literally went in the side door with their backpacks and machetes and all covered with dirt and they're yelling cave survey team coming through and tracked me right underneath the potato salad and the salad bar.
So, it's, I mean, the people in that restaurant that happened, gosh, like. 20 years ago now, I guess, and the people in that restaurant still talk about the fact that they're sitting on top of a cave now. Yeah.
Alastair Jolly: Can it be more bizarre if they walked in saying Ghostbusters, you like,
Jill Heinerth: and it kind of looked like that.
Alastair Jolly: What is he future for Jill? We've had a very strange year. And you know, what's ahead? And I think reading some of your latest work what's ahead is future technologies and new frontiers. Yeah?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. I hope to always be sort of pushing the envelope in, in exploration technology and image making. I can't seem to stop. COVID has kept me home for a year, but I do have Canada's longest underwater cave nearby.
So that's enabled me to keep doing new, fresh exploration, but you know, as soon as I've had my vaccine and travel gets a little back to some level of normalcy. I hope to restore some of those expeditions that went by the wayside during this time. So I've got work in the Arctic and Newfoundland and the South Pacific that I, I hope to pick up and, and hope to bring home pictures of these remote places and maybe inspire people to want to protect them in some way.
Alastair Jolly: And some of the work you have ahead, and some of the technologies you're working on there for exploration, but maybe not even on this planet. Yeah?
Jill Heinerth: Yeah. Well that mapping device that I drove through the cave back in 1997, 98 has continued to be developed by Bill Stone. And now it's a fully autonomous artificially intelligent robot.
And fortunately, I still get to go along and document that the work of this device and, and sort of help out as they're continuing the engineering and development, but its eventual destination is to go to Jupiter's moon Europa and explore the liquid ocean beneath the frozen surface. So that. You know, that robot, that artificially intelligent robot is going to be a cave diver in space.
And although I never got to be an astronaut, I get to send one out there into the universe.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. I don't think there'll be sending you to document the, the journeys of that in, in Jupiter. I think that's maybe just a little bit out of reach.
Jill Heinerth: Well, but you know, did you hear about the pitch by the the Japanese Explorer that just bought a Space X expedition for 2023.
He advertised for people with the hashtag dear moon. He's going to take eight artists with him to go for a lap around the backside of the moon and back to earth. And so, it was an open invitation for any artists that had a pitch that would want to go along. So, I filled out the pitch eagerly. I want to see the big blue planet from space.
And I think, you know, in the next couple of months, they'll announce the successful candidates and they'll begin training to be citizen artists, astronauts. But that, that's my ultimate dream. That would be incredible to have documented the deep oceans in caves and then also outer space.
Alastair Jolly: Oh, my goodness.
Well Jill that takes us full circle because you said as a child, you wanted to be an astronaut and here you are now pitching to be one isn't that incredible. Did you ever have imagined that may have been a reality?
Jill Heinerth: Yes, I would say yes. Yeah.
Alastair Jolly: Of course, you could. If anyone could it would be you.
Jill Heinerth: I just wrote a kid's book called the Aquanaut that just released in January, and it's really about what we dream about as children and how we can make those dreams come true.
And it really is an expression of me, you know, chasing, chasing my dreams,
Alastair Jolly: Jill, you know how much I love your photography. I love the exploration you do. I love having these conversations with you. You definitely have inspired me to think more deeply about our own planet, as well as the things we're doing on other planets, I hope all your future dreams come true.
And we can't wait to see where the next exploration takes you. Thank you so much for your time
Jill Heinerth: Oh, thank you. It's been a great conversation. It's my pleasure.
Alastair Jolly: Glad we finally got to record one. okay. Take care of Jill and we'll hopefully catch up with you when you're back from your trip around the moon.
Jill Heinerth: That's great.
Alastair Jolly: Take care.