In this episode, Part Two of my conversation with Jill Heinerth, cave diver, underwater photographer, and explorer-in-residence for the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.
As we discussed in Part One, there's a visceral thrill for Jill in terms of pushing the limits of what she and humans might think they can do, as well as a sense of exploration and discovery that extreme cave diving brings.
But as we kept talking, Jill opened further about a time she was unsure she might get back out of a cave she was diving, what kind of repercussions that had for her, and in the end, why she still finds magic in some of the darkest recesses of our planet.
Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.
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Hi, and welcome to the big deep podcast.
Big deep is 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. In this episode, we continue our conversation with a woman who spends her life exploring the deepest caves on the planet.
Hello, this is your host, Jason Ellis. Welcome to the big deep podcast.
In this episode, part two of my conversation with Jill Heinerth , cave, diver underwater photographer, and exploring residence for the Royal Canadian geographic society as jewel discussed in part one, there's a visceral thrill for her in terms of pushing the limits of what she and humans in general might think they can do as well as the sense of exploration and discovery that extreme cave diving brings. But as we kept talking, Joel opened up about a time. She was unsure. She might get back out of a cave. She was diving what kind of repercussions that had for her and in the end, why she still finds magic in some of the darkest recesses of our planet. I've lost more than a hundred friends throughout my career. These people have had cave diving and technical diving accidents, and each time something like that happens, it causes me to reflect on what I do, but I always try to rule out why I wouldn't have made the same decisions or choices, but there's some times when things are out of your hands and there was one time I really thought I wasn't going to get home that day. There was a dive where I led a scientist into a very small cave and through the course of two dives earlier in the day, we had gotten to successively smaller and smaller parts of the cave and things have been going well. So I thought, okay, well, we'll do one more cave, dive into a very small restriction where we can get exactly what the scientist needs for her work. And when we pass through this last restriction and got farthest in to our cave dive, it was time to turn around. And in the process of turning around, my partner got snagged in the guideline and stuck, and it was very alarming to her and she panicked . And I remember reaching out and grabbing onto her. We were in a space that was only just slightly taller than my helmet. So my chest has been on the floor. My shoulder blades are pinned on the ceiling and I'm holding onto her and I'm squeezing her and trying to communicate calm down. And I've got my other hand on the guideline, which is becoming progressively tighter and tighter and tighter. And so he, it snapped. So now I've got the bitter end of our safety line in one hand about her and the other, Oh , what if I don't solve this for both of us, then neither of us is going to make it home today. So through the course of dealing with this emergency, I had to calm her down, move her laterally into a slightly larger part of the cave patch, the guideline. And then at one point we were face to face and I was certain that I was pointing in the direction to go out of the cave, but there she was face-to-face with me disoriented and thinking she wanted to go the other way. I put the guideline that I just patched into her hand. Then I put a little plastic arrow that indicates the way out on the guidelines so she could feel it. And then in the midst of that in the silt, I lost her. But at that point I knew that I needed to stay and search thoroughly. I only had one chance to make sure that I wasn't leaving her behind. So I actually backtracked further into the cave until I hit clear water. Because as soon as you hit Clearwater , you know, nobody's been there. And at that point I could then slowly work my way out and search all the side passages up and down and everywhere. But this point I was also dealing with a failing life support system. So w one of my two tanks was having what we call a free flow , where the regulator's malfunctioning and it just wants to spew air continuously. So the only way that you can use that gas, so that wasting it is to turn the tank on, take a breath and turn it right off again. And so I was manipulating that hand wheel on my tank, turning it on and taking a breath, turning it off, and then exhaling, turning it on and taking a breath, turning it off exhaling. And the bottom line was that she actually did get out of the cave and called for help. And now there was a team of people filling tanks on their way to search for me. And probably what they thought was that they were coming to retrieve my body, but I was just in there looking for her. And when I finally got out 73 minutes after she had exited and was able to call off the alarm, I had been dead to my friends for 73 minutes. And that's quite a sobering thing to deal with emotionally after the fact, when people write you letters and send you notes about things that they might've written in your eulogy, you have to justify what you do to the people that you love in life. I mean, it was very, very hard on my husband to deal with the knowledge of what had happened. There there's a lot of reckoning and no reevaluation of your career in event like that,
As you were coming out and you didn't know that she had gotten out is at a certain point, you have to say, I can only do so much. Is that part of the calculus of cave diving you have to be accepting of? Well, that's a really great question and very multifaceted because before you actually cave dive, the last question you ask yourself is, am I capable of self rescue? And am I capable and willing to execute buddy rescue? And if the answer is no to either of those, then you shouldn't be on the dive. Like you've gotta be able to get yourself home and you've got to be able and willing to help out someone else. However, you also have to enter any dive with the knowledge that it's something really horrible could happen. That's beyond your control. And at some point, do you save yourself or do you go down to , and there are certainly quite a number of people who lost their lives searching too long for their partner, and then not thinking about themselves. And in some cases, the tragic situation where they're searching for their partner and the partner made it out. So at some point there is that horrible decision of I might be leaving someone behind. Fortunately in my situation, I was really taking the time to sweep the cave. And I knew in my heart, I could not live with myself if I had not done everything possible to search for my partner. And if I had reached the entrance and she wasn't there, I would have gone back in with every last bit of air supply. Now, would I have sacrificed my own life to continue , uh , uh , search? No, I think I would've saved myself, but imagine how difficult that would be to live with, but whatever risks we take in life, we have to be fully responsible for our own choices. I think that's really important. Well, thank you for being so open and honest about that. I like most people live their lives and have passions and interests. There's always something inspirational about talking to someone who pursues those as far as they can conceivably take it. And I think if we go back to the great whisky , great rewards idea, could you tell me one story where you really felt that deeper connection, something that's resonated with you and stays with you in the pit of Mises, why you do what you do? There's a cave. I would call my favorite cave on the planet
And that's in The Bahamas in Abaco and the caves, there are more beautiful than almost any other place I've ever seen. It's like swimming through crystal chandelier and they're very extensive caves, but they've kind of have everything. There's animals that live in these caves that have been unchanged for over 65 million years. So these are like living swimming dinosaurs. We find them in the fossil record, or we see them swimming in the caves today. These animals, they have no eyes. They have no pigment and live their entire life cycle in the darkness. They also live in this very food scarce place. And what we might learn from them about evolution is extraordinary, but this particular cave has even more than just unique biology. It has layers upon layers of beautiful calcite formations because the rock were formed when this cave had no water in it. There's actually three different times in history. When this cave has been dry, we actually find this bright Crimson red Sahara dust in this cave on the opposite side of the Atlantic ocean during dry epics on earth, like when the ocean levels were lower, this red material that alone up from the Sahara across the Atlantic ocean, and then it rains down on The Bahamas and then this sediment was so fine. It could actually work its way in between the grains of sand and drips from the ceiling land on the floor and create a carpet of this Crimson material. That's now trapped inside the rocks . We see this inside stalactites. We see this inside the slag mites. If we can actually look at the much in the way you look at a tree with rings of growth, we're looking at rings of rock deposition, and we can count back in time, 350,000 years. To me, it's like, Oh my gosh, am I swimming inside this well of time? It's just a capsule of the most important scientific laboratory. I mean, I get to be the eyes and the hands for so many scientists that will never cave dive . When we have some very urgent scientific issues, someone who's a citizen scientists can really add a lot to the conversation. And when I get to go into these environments with my camera and bring back images and ideas, that speeds up the communication and the outreach, and hopefully bring people's awareness down to where their water comes from, how they can protect it or how the world is changing in terms of climate change. Finally, we end every interview and every episode with a single open-ended question, we ask everyone, we talk to, what does the ocean mean to you? The earth is 70% water. My body is 70%. We're all intertwined the oceans of our souls and the oceans of the planet. And we have to figure out how to all dance together in this thing of life. Yeah , the ocean is the sustenance. It's tears, it's sweat . It's all intertwined. Thanks for listening to the big D podcast. Next time on big, deep streaking down the line of the waves, thinking about the rhythm of the swells and the cracking curl, how I really felt was there just wasn't anything more worth doing there wasn't any other reason to be. 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 at 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.