But in 2000 she was involved in one of her most ambitious projects to date — to dive inside a giant iceberg.“It was the largest moving object on the planet,” she recalls. “It was called B-15 and the size of this iceberg was so enormous that it had enough fresh water locked within the ice to fuel America’s drinking water needs for two years! It was absolutely incredible — and also probably the most dangerous diving I’ve ever been involved with.”During the two-month expedition, Heinerth, 47, made repeated dives into the belly of the iceberg using ‘rebreather’ equipment, which recycles exhaled gas and adds oxygen, similar to what astronauts use in space. It allows divers to stay down for very long periods of time.“Our job was to intercept B-15 and be the first people to dive inside an iceberg and really see the full mechanics of how they work.”“It was exceptionally dangerous,” she adds. “It’s a very dynamic environment, shifting and changing constantly and we encountered a lot of hazardous situations such as unusual currents. In one case we were swept through an iceberg and deposited on the other side, out of sight of our recovery crew on the research ship. Ascending against a tidal shift, we almost didn’t get out another time, and the culmination of the expedition occurred when the cave we had just been diving in minutes before literally exploded and shattered into a field of icy shards.”“It was incredibly grueling,” she adds. “But also amazing. We photographed eco-systems that had never been seen before and secured DNA samples of a new species of killer whale.”Twelve years on, the underwater explorer is embarking on her most ambitious project to date — she’s launching We Are Water, a campaign to make people think about where their drinking water comes from and do more to protect their most precious resource.
“We take it for granted that nice clean water comes out of a tap but we can no longer do so,” says Heinerth.The Canadian explorer is making a documentary film that takes viewers on a breathtaking journey through the Earth’s arteries, from deep underwater caves to North America’s Great Lakes — and some more unlikely locations.“I swim under your homes, your businesses, golf courses, bowling alleys — all kinds of places where people don’t imagine their drinking water is flowing,” says Heinerth.“The film entices viewers with the natural beauty of our watery world, challenging them to make simple changes to protect and preserve the earth’s clean water,” she adds.The film also looks at humanity’s traditional spiritual connection to water, from modern baptisms to its significance in ancient mythology.“Every time I slip beneath the surface, I feel a spiritual connection to the earth and a deep reverence for water,” Heinerth says. “I realize that I am swimming through the very essence of the planet.”One of Heinerth’s favorite diving experiences is to swim with manatees near the home she shares with her husband Robert in Florida. “They are very playful, curious animals that enjoy interacting with humans. They’ll nudge you and push your hand underneath their little flippers where they can’t reach and seem to want to be scratched. They’re just the most amazing animals you could imagine. ”Heinerth grew up in Canada and wanted to be a diver ever since she watched the famous late underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau on TV as a kid.“I’ve always loved water but as a child I was sometimes prevented from getting in and swimming because of local pollution.”
As a result, she’s always been passionate about environmental action. Her life-long advocacy for water, through photography and film work, was recently recognized with the prestigious “Wyland Icon Award,” an honour she shares with Cousteau.“More recently, living in America, I’ve seen a decline in the Florida Springs systems. Things are not the same as when I started diving. Some places are better but a lot are worse. People don’t intentionally pollute, they just don’t realize how their actions affect their fresh water resources. I think I can be that voice from inside the planet — letting them know how they’re connected and how to do a better job.”The documentary is scheduled for release in November, but Heinerth is issuing a call to arms for people to pledge their support via the fundraising platform, www.IndieGoGo.com/WeAreWater.On the website, www.WeAreWaterProject.com, users can learn about how they can minimise their water consumption and discover why the world’s natural water resources are depleting.“One of the most important things that I want to encourage is to simply take a child to a river, a lake, a spring, or the ocean. Reconnect yourself and your family with water. Enjoy it, dive it, swim it, paddle it, experience it because when you love it, you’ll want to protect it.”“This project is the most important thing I’ve done in my life,” Heinerth adds. “Water is the most important thing in everyone’s life.”
Images by Jill Heinerth