Dec. 22, 2020

Staying Alive in the Underworld, Part One: Jill Heinerth On A Life Diving the Deepest Caves On The Planet

Staying Alive in the Underworld, Part One: Jill Heinerth On A Life Diving the Deepest Caves On The Planet

In this episode part one of my conversation with Jill Heinerth, cave diver, underwater photographer, and Explorer-in-Residence for the Royal Canadian Geographic Society

I first met Jill at a dive industry convention, where she was promoting her book, "Into The Planet", which details her passion for exploring underwater caves around the world. The book is incredible and has some pretty crazy intense stories.

So I wanted to talk with Jill about what drives her to such an extreme way of living and what the rest of us might be missing in terms of the rewards.

Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.

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Transcript

Speaker 1:

Hi, and welcome to the big deep podcast. Big, deep as a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong, it defined some aspect of their life . Over the course of this series. We'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. Hello, this is your host, Jason Ellis . Welcome to the big deep podcast. Welcome back to the big D podcast. In this episode, part one of my conversation with Juul Heiner cave, diver, underwater, photographer, and Explorer in residence for the Royal Canadian geographic society. I first met Jill at a dive industry convention, where she was promoting her book

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Into the planet, which details

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Passion for exploring underwater caves around the

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World. The book is incredible

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And has some pretty crazy intense stories. So I wanted to talk with Jill about what drives her to such an extreme way of living and what the rest of us might be missing in terms of the rewards.

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My name is Jill Heiner and I am an underwater Explorer. Why don't you be an astronaut when I was a little kid, but I think that rather than the actual act of walking on the moon, I was mostly interested in exploring I've had this unquenchable curiosity my entire life, and that's really how my career evolved if you were going to be national , but you ended up with someone that explores the deep ocean, where does that connection to the ocean come from? I think of myself as a water baby, cause I've always wanted to be near and on the water. And within my family, we kind of joke because I was three weeks late being born and everyone says, Oh yeah, you just didn't want to come out of your primordial ocean there in your mother's womb. And you know, maybe that's true. Maybe some of us are more drawn to the water than others, but certainly I am more comfortable. And at home under water, I am topside . My husband laughs because he says when I'm in bed and I'm deep asleep, that my feet actually frog kick. And he says that my breathing is so deep and slow that I sell like a scuba regulator. He knows I'm in my happy place. Is there any aspects of your earlier life that pointed you to the ocean then when did you start manifesting that deeper connection? By getting in the water as a kid growing, we were always encouraged to be outdoors. And I grew up in the great lakes basin. And as a kid, I was swimming, paddling, playing water polo, anything to stay in the water. So it's always felt like my place. In fact, my earliest memory is of nearly drowning. So as a toddler, I literally crawled off the dock of the cottage out of my mom's site and apparently drifted by face down in the water. And she's like, Oh my God, what's the baby. Do I get the water and jumped in and pulled me out? And as family history has it, I was laughing when she picked me up and she was screaming for help. So soon after I was into the swimming lessons right away, and I was always too young for the next step, like, Oh, I want to take the next class. Oh, you're too young. So I was constantly finding other ways to be in the water. I was encouraged to explore and we could go all day long and just being home by the time the streetlights came on, my friend and I on the way home from the public school kids at the age of eight or 10 would stop and sneak into a farmer's yard and go for a little dip in the pond. I think in the water was one of the places where not only was I comfortable and happy and felt like I was in my element, but it was also a place where I was good at something. And so that world without gravity was a place where I did well, but it also felt like a big equalizer. And I sort of feel that way about the underwater world today, where anyone of any cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic background, any size shape, it's a place where we can all be graceful in paradise. And as a kid, I didn't have self-confidence in other aspects of my life. And so that was a place where I felt very confident.

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I mean, that's fascinating for a number of reasons. It's a recurrent theme amongst a lot of the people we've talked to with us on this podcast, how it was the place where judgment fell away, something about the gravity falling away, that sense of lightness that they felt underwater that maybe emotionally, they didn't feel that lightness on land. Those were themes that were echoed for them out in the water. I want to talk a little bit what that's taken you to because reading your book it's extreme. I mean , there was no other way to say it I've met you. You seem very nice. You would never think looking at you that you are this person that lives on one of the absolute extremes that I've ever heard about. And so one of the things in your book unspoken, but is reiterated again again with

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Great risk comes, great rewards . Could you talk me through some of the extreme risks that cave diving entails so that we can understand some context about the life choices that you've made? Well, maybe I should first describe for the listeners what cave diving is. Like. There are a lot of people that dive in and environments open water where they can swim straight to the surface. When we're cave diving, we're actually swimming through spaces with a ceiling over our heads. So conduits tunnels that branch out like the branches of a tree underground. And we enter literally a hole in the ground sometimes on land and sometimes underwater . So in some cases I might be swimming through this gin clear, beautiful spring run where there's this fresh flow of current in my face. And then I get to the source of where that water is coming from. And that's a spring and a black doorway, basically that leads into these branching conduits of caves. Then I'll swim down and then enter this space, this overhead environment. When we go into these underwater caves, we first tie off a reel . So it's like a fishing reel almost except with braided nylon guideline on it. We tie that off way back in the open water. And we run that piece of string from that reel all the way through the environment where we're exploring. And if we go back to a cave, a number of times, we actually leave that string behind, but it's really, really important to have that string as a visual reference. But also if we have what we call a silt out like a white out of sediment in the water column so that we can't see, we need to be able to reach out and put our hand around that guidelines so that that can lead us back to safety just by feel. Now, sometimes the spaces within these caves is enormous. I mean, I could put an entire house in some of these spaces. They're so big at times that I can't even see the walls or the floors or the ceiling for reference. But other times when I'm swimming through these spaces, it would be the equivalent of me squeezing into the space, underneath a bed and grinding my way through chest pinned on the ground. Shoulders, you know, scraping along the ceiling, turning my head sideways so that I can fit my helmet through and still running that guidelines for that space and very carefully securing the guidelines so that if I turn around and follow it back blind, I will be able to fit through those spaces again in reverse. And that's incredibly important because you can imagine if you're leading someone through a cave system like that, that small, and they're behind you and they get stuck. When we turn around, they will become the cork in the bottle containing your life. So they have to be able to find their way out to either by seeing or by grasp in that guideline. It's wheezing through the passages. But when you work in a space like that with an overhead environment, it means that you have to be able to solve anything that could possibly go wrong in place. So you can't just swim to the surface and gasp for air. You've got to solve a problem, maybe miles away from being able to exit and come back to breathing air on the surface. And that's what makes it so extreme because there are environmental issues that can get you like silt that can cloud the water so that you can't see. People can get lost. You can have someone gets stuck inside a cave, and then there's all the equipment problems that could happen. Your very life hangs on the thread of the very next breath delivered by the technology that you're carrying along under water . And that's what makes it extreme. But what it fulfills for me is an opportunity to be on a continual learning curve and chase these curiosities. These places are like museums of natural history. They contain information that's useful to geologists people interested in climate change. They contain the remains of past civilizations who have used these portals, these doorways as a representation of the underworld for them, they contain the bones of extinct animals that are no longer here on earth. And so they're full of great mystery beyond just exploring the passages and doorways through the earth. Chase these curiosities, you to collaborate with scientists, push the bounds of human physiology and explore places where nobody has ever been before. How do you manage the emotions that arise when, like, let's say, you've see a pinch point and you can get through this pinch point, but who knows what side and who knows if you're going to be able to turn around this fear arise for you, or is fear something that comes later? Oh, fear is an important driver of what I do. Well , I have to be able to manage fear and mitigate risks. And so I have a bit of a process for that before the dive, I actually worked through all the things that could possibly go wrong .

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[inaudible]

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Like if I'm envisioning a space, that's really small, a pinch point or restriction that I have pass through. I have to think about everything that could possibly go wrong. Will I have to take off my equipment and put it back on again? Will I have a buddy with me? Is it a good idea to have a buddy with me? I have to pre-visualize everything that could go wrong. And then think of the solutions. Even before I get in the water. Wait, when I actually start the dive, the fear is gone and there's a lot of confidence over I can handle whatever happens Now, inevitably, when something bad does happen, like you're stuck or your buddy stuck and they're blocking the way out of the cave. The first thing that happens is your heart races. And what I call the chattering monkeys just started repelling in your head. There's like, Oh my God, Oh my God, your breathing rate goes up at the worst possible time. So I have to be able to take a really deep cleansing breath and slow down my heart rate and slow down my breathing and shove the emotions aside, literally say to myself, emotions won't serve me well right now and set those aside and focus on very small, pragmatic steps. Okay. My buddy's stuck in panicking. Well , let's get that panic. Just stop it . Let's see if we can free the buddy. Oh boy. The guidelines broken. Oops. Okay. Well that's the next step I've got to patch the guideline and then every time your mind starts to race, you have to again, take a deep breath and say, Nope, what's the next best step that I can make right now? And survival is just a combination of small steps towards a solution without getting overwhelmed by the bigness of the problem. You know, I was that kid that wanted to be the astronaut people said to me, Oh, well honey, there's no girl astronauts, sir. Edmund, Hillary has been to the top of Everest. Men have walked on the moon and have been to the bottom of the Mariana trench. The age of exploration is over what is there left to do? But I looked at that and went, no, it's not over. We know more about space than we do about the deep oceans or these cave passages inside the planet. And when I'm swimming through these caves and literally swimming through the veins of mother earth in the sustenance, the drinking water that provides life on this planet, these are places that are very abstract. Most people don't really understand where the drinking water comes from. Most people can envision the remains of past civilizations in underwater caves, beneath their feet. Being able to share those things with other people is amazing and an opportunity to explore those deaths . This is just unbelievable.

Speaker 1:

Thanks for listening to the big D podcast. Next time on big deep, We really appreciate you being on this journey into the big deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like, and comment because those subscribes likes and comments really make a difference for more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos and updates on anything. You've heard. There's a lot more content at our website, big, deep.com. Plus if you know someone who should think we should talk to let us know it , our big deep website, as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.