Jill Heinerth serves as the documentarian for the Abaco Blue Holes Project. Her hybrid career includes teaching, photo-journalism, motivational speaking, consulting and pretty much anything that keeps her underwater. She is the Explorer in Residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and a member of the inaugural class of the Women Divers Hall of Fame.
Expedition Blog 9 / Dec. 12 / By Jill Heinerth
I have an odd business card. The title simply says, “Explorer.” In reality, I am the Explorer in Residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, an underwater photographer/cinematographer, a writer, dive technology contractor, instructor, and motivational speaker. In a nutshell, I do the creative things that help keep me underwater and (most of the time) underground, in water-filled caves. This hybrid career is an occupation that defies easy description and leaves me pinching myself every day with excitement over my rewarding work.
On this project I am reunited with friends with whom I have worked for over twenty years. It is a joy to be in the field with such a capable and effective team. We all fall into place and jump into roles that keep us extremely busy without too much direction. Whether you are washing the dishes, finding the next roll of toilet paper, or blending life support gases, there is important work that keeps the expedition moving along.
Everyone has to be a specialist of some sort but also a generalist who is motivated enough to see what needs to be done. Good teamwork means that everything runs smoothly and operations are safe and streamlined.
My specialty role involves capturing everything that happens with photos and video. That means I get to miss a few dish washing sessions, but have a lot of tasks that need my constant attention. My day begins and ends with camera maintenance. Batteries need to be charged, dome ports polished, and O-rings cleaned. Troubleshooting and making minor repairs are a constant issue. When you take cameras and lights underwater, things will go wrong and gear will get damaged regularly. I am running four separate cameras topside and three can be encased in waterproof, pressure-proof Aquatica housings. Each camera needs to record audio as well and without a sound guy on the team, I have to do my best to keep on top of that too.
When I hit the water I carry my life support equipment weighing approximately 150 pounds with an additional lighting kit of 45 pounds, camera strobes logging in at 22 pounds and two cameras that come to roughly 25 pounds. Each component is carefully weighted and trimmed so that it is relatively neutrally buoyant underwater—left on its own, it’ll neither sink nor float. That means that while I still have to push the mass through the water, I don’t have to fight with the weight.
Brian Kakuk and Kenny Broad assist National Geographic Innovation Fellow Corey Jaskolski (center with camera) on a photogrammetry mission, where the team captured images to reconstruct notable cave formations for display in 3D, virtual, and augmented reality. Photo: Jill Heinerth
Once I am submerged, my right brain fights with my left. I switch between video and still photography while monitoring life support, swimming through an overhead environment. I also have to arrange a creative dance with my teammates and that is where the experience comes in. I am not able to talk to them, so we work on a combination of experience, telepathy, and hand signals to orchestrate the taking of stunning pictures that tell the story of swimming through the veins of Mother Earth. On some television projects I have the luxury of underwater communications and a large support team, but this a raw, voluntary exploration. There is no budget beyond the reward of a job well done.
When I surface exhausted at the end of day, the job really begins. I rush back to our base camp, download footage and stills, and start the editing process. Social media and news today is about relevance, so each evening we reach out to the world with a new expedition blog. We all take turns writing posts, but it is my role to create these short videos for you each night before I crawl into my hammock for a few hours sleep. I choose fun over polish in my edits and hope these simple nuggets of our work will bring you a little closer to understanding the life of an explorer. There isn’t a person on this team who would rather be anywhere else in the world right now. Whether we’re assembling activities for school kids, carrying equipment, or surveying these stunning caves, we know we have the best job in the world.