Diving after your dreams

Nelly Ben Hayoun meets Jill Heinerth – the fearless aquanaut who dives through icebergs

Jill Heinerth Nelly Ben Hayoun HERO
Nelly Ben Hayoun and Jill Heinerth | Image by TOPIA

The world’s top underwater cave explorer swims through the veins of Mother Earth deep into the Earth’s crust on a magical voyage of discovery

When I was young, I was told: ‘There are no girl astronauts.’

Jill Heinerth goes to magical places nobody has ever been before, discovering new worlds by swimming deep into the Earth’s crust. And then she returns to weave captivating stories about the amazing discoveries.

Awarded for her lifetime work in exploration, the world-renowned cave diver, photographer and filmmaker is a real-life mermaid – albeit with a torch, a camera and some very technical scuba gear. A pioneer of closed circuit rebreather diving, which allows for a new level of intimacy with marine life, Heinerth has led expeditions everywhere from Antarctica to Siberia.

Having penetrated further into an underwater cave system than any woman ever, her ‘firsts’ read like an intrepid adrenaline junkie’s bucket list: the first woman to film wild polar bears while with them in the water, the first woman to dive the iceberg caves of Antarctica, the first… wait, what, there are caves inside icebergs?

There are, and the underwater explorer almost died while being one of the first humans to search for caves inside the B-15 iceberg, the largest moving object on Earth.

In case you were wondering, yes, you do get an ice cream headache when you dive into an iceberg.

As well as leading expeditions for documentaries for National Geographic, PBS and the BBC, and consulting for movies for director James Cameron, the sea hero writes. In her stunning, critically-lauded memoir, Into the Planet — My Life as a Cave Diver, the storyteller documents a world full of adventure, danger, biodiversity and the effects of climate change, as seen from the frontline.

And fear. Her memoir is often uncomfortable, cold and claustrophobic. Heinerth very much appreciates the beauty of the world’s most exotic locations while being honest about the dangers of her world. After all, more people have died exploring underwater caves than climbing Mt. Everest. “If I die, it will be in the most glorious place nobody has ever seen.”

As a child, Heinerth was inspired by lunar exploration and Jacques Cousteau‘s television series. Later on at school, the mysterious disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. “I wasn’t just enthralled by outer space. Inner space also called my name. Watching the television on Sunday nights, I wondered what it would be like to float in the depths of Jacques Cousteau’s ocean world or soar through the evening sky with birds. There are no bounds to a child’s imagination.”

In her 2021 picture book, The Aquanaut (The New York Times, Oprah and Dolly Parton are fans), she encourages readers to explore their world, build their self-esteem and imagine what they can do and become when they grow up. “As a seven-year old, every door was open to me, and with the right encouragement, I realised my dreams of exploring places where no human has been before. I hope The Aquanaut will encourage young readers to see the potential to pursue their curiosity and set a path forward to achieving their wildest dreams, because I know with certainty that anything is possible.”

“Anything is possible” | The Aquanaut encourages kids to reach for the stars

Although Jill loves water more than anything else, it is in water that she faces her fears. Having spent her life immersed in a relationship with “this element that nourishes and destroys, buoys and drowns”, she wants us to hear the horror stories as much as the inspirational tales of wonder.

Here, Jill Heinerth joins Nelly Ben Hayoun for a short and sweet reflection on water and fear

Nelly Ben-Hayoun: Hi Jill, amazing to chat with you. You are my definition of exceptional – a true mermaid who has been all over the world pioneering the journey for all of us, for other women as well. You’ve been in places nobody else has been. Tell us all about deep diving into caves in Antarctica.

Jill Heinerth: For me as a cave diver, I think of myself as swimming through the veins of Mother Earth. I mean, I’m literally in the sustenance of the planet, the heartbeat of the planet. And it’s a remarkable place a few people ever get a chance to see and I’m very fortunate to go to places that nobody’s ever been before.

In a cave in Bermuda

Nelly: As a deep diver, the technicality, physicality and poetics of your relationship to water must be very different to most of ours?

Jill: I enjoy being in the water regardless – whether I’m swimming or free diving, paddling or doing other things – but when I’m diving inside a cave, I’m probably more like an astronaut than what many people picture as a scuba diver. I’m wearing advanced forms of life support equipment. It’s very, very technical, as you as you so rightly state, in order to keep me alive and to go literally miles into the planet in these overhead spaces that are completely dark otherwise, except for the fact that I bring many many lights with me into these spaces. 

Driving the Digital Wall Mapper at Wakulla Springs, Florida, in the late-1990s working with the US Deep Caving Team

Nelly: So what I’m really interested to hear from you is, working so closely with water all your life and making a career in it, do you choose to live by the sea or very much on the land?

Jill: I live on the water! I live on a river, right on a waterfall, in an old mill. The water used to run through this building to power a mill. And so it’s a 200-plus-year-old building. I get to hear the sound of water and I have the windows open every day. So I would say that my life is infused with water.

Nelly: Do you think you react differently to water than other humans because of your experience within it, spending so many hours training and discovering, researching and mapping deep caves?

Jill: Yeah, I mean, I’m more comfortable underwater than I am on land. I’m a huge fan of gravity! And when we’re underwater I like to say that people of every size and makeup and gender and culture are all equal underwater because we all look like mermaids when we swim in the water. And that’s one of the beautiful things about that space that I that I love so much. And so I do think I’m a little bit different and that I feel like water is my element. But it also may be a little bit different about how I approach fear because a lot of people just run from fear their whole life but most of the time when I’m working I’m actually stepping into things that really do scare me.

People of every size and makeup and gender and culture are all equal underwater because we all look like mermaids when we swim in the water.

Nelly: What does scare you?

Jill: I’m swimming into these these cave environments where I can’t directly surface and they’re dark, they’re full of silt, you can easily get lost so there are a lot of dangers that I have to manage. And then even when I’m not diving in caves, I’m doing things like I was the first person to cave dive inside an iceberg. I was first woman to film wild polar bears while I was in the water with them. And those things are all scary because they’re firsts for me. They’re dangerous and they should be scary. I mean, I try to be as risk averse as possible and try and kind of mitigate and manage my fears and the dangers before I get in the water. But there are a lot of people that have an innate fear of water. There are a lot of people that are afraid to get in the water or they don’t like cold water. But for me it really is a place of comfort like I’m being you know returned to the womb.

This must be underwater love

Nelly: You have mentioned that when you are underwater, it’s a bit like being an astronaut.Water in a way could be the start of like a whole new way of considering politics, economics. As an underworld it’s by its definition very different, what with giant squid and a weird and wonderful animal kingdom that many of us have never seen. Is it a completely ridiculous idea that water is like a new a fresh system, a new fresh ways of thinking for all of humanity.

Jill: Absolutely! I mean, we know more about space than we do about our watery planet. And yet, water is the one thing that connects us all on this planet. And in fact, anybody that’s lived through these COVID times can no longer deny that every human on earth and every being, every bit of wildlife, everything is connected by a water on this Earth. So it’s really important in that global sense, but also our water world is home to perhaps the next cure for cancer. It’s certainly home to the sustenance that feeds us all and nourishes us all so there is much to learn both about our relationship with water and perhaps the things that water may offer us as as solutions for very great problems that we’re facing as a global population.

We know more about space than we do about our watery planet.

Nelly: With climate change being a major preoccupation, what are you up to next?

Jill: These days I am working on research on endangered species found in Canada’s longest underwater cave and I am also documenting WWI shipwrecks in Newfoundland. This winter I am in front of the camera as the subject of a feature documentary. I am also working on two new books for Penguin Random House. It is a busy year indeed.

The Lord Strathcona is a WWII wreck in Newfoundland

Nelly: How can we find out more about your latest projects?

Jill: The best place to find me online is my website intotheplanet.com, which is the same name as my memoir, Into the Planet. I have many many links there to films and books and photography videos, all kinds of things. 

Preparing for the deepest manned dive in Bermuda’s history

Nelly: If we want you to become like you Jill, what do we need to do?

Jill: Stay curious and, and walk towards fear. Understand that that’s what leads to discovery and opportunity.

Nelly: And with that I kiss you goodbye, if I may say it like that! Thanks for diving deep with TOPIA today.

Jill: Thank you so much. It’s lovely to meet you!

When I was young, the world seemed too dangerous. Everything was too hard. I was too young. Places were too far away. But that was okay because I had a big imagination . . .

The Aquanaut

What’s so good about this?

Jill Heinerth has spent more than 30 years documenting and researching submerged caves around the world. So she has seen the polar ice collapsing firsthand and can confirm it is happening faster than predicted: “Every week, the headlines are filled with new warnings of accelerating ocean-level rise. Climate change is happening. I have dived and documented it firsthand for decades. How we plan for it and adapt to it in the next few years will determine the future of our civilization.”But don’t be scared. Face your fears and let’s sort this out.

Meet Nelly Ben Hayoun

Faster-talking than the speed of light, louder than a sonic boom and sparkier than a volcano, award-winning director and experience designer Nelly Ben Hayoun has simulated all of the above with Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios, which is considered one of the world’s best design studios. Her University of the Underground is a tuition-free charity with board members such as Pussy Riot, Noam Chomsky and Massive Attack, and her new “alien festival”, Tour de Moon, encourages creativity within the nightlife sector. Check out the Bowie-lover’s The Nelly Boum Show on Worldwide FM, where the French space enthusiast catapults us through her flights of fancy-made-real in mind-blowing, imagination-sparking conversations like this one.

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