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Jill Heinerth

June 13, 2017 by Speakers' Spotlight

How Top Cave Diver Jill Heinerth Keeps Calm Under Pressure

More people have walked on the moon than have visited many of the places that Jill Heinerth has seen on Earth. From the most dangerous technical dives deep inside underwater caves, to searching for never-before-seen ecosystems inside giant Antarctic icebergs, Jill’s curiosity and passion about our watery planet is the driving force in her life. In her remarkable presentations, Jill encourages audiences to reach beyond their limitations, challenge the unknown, and overcome their fears, while applying her practical experience when it comes to lessons on risk management, discovery learning, failure, and collaboration strategies. Jill spoke with the CBC about her the techniques she has to keep calm under pressure:

It could be tempting to assume, after more than two decades in one of the riskiest jobs around, that cave diver Jill Heinerth is fearless.

In fact, the Ontario native feels fear every time she descends into an underwater cavern — and that`s a good thing.

“I enter the water scared,” said Heinerth, who last year was named the Royal Canadian Geographic Society’s first explorer-in-residence.

“It’s important for me to embrace that fear, because that tickling sensation on the back of my neck is self-preservation”

Heinerth has been nearly trapped inside an iceberg in Antarctica, and travelled deeper into underwater caves than any other woman.

Here’s how Heinerth handles the fear to get out alive and describes one terrifying night — on land — when she knew she had it in her.

What’s the worst that can happen?

Inside a cave, which Heinerth describes as “swimming through the veins of Mother Earth,” many things can go wrong.

She could get lost, unable to see from silt clouding the water. She could get stuck or run out of air to breathe, several kilometres from escape.

Rather than ignore these risks, Heinerth says she imagines every one before she dives.

“What’s the worst that could happen today?” she asks herself, then runs through scenarios like a checklist.

“I’m prepared. I have the technology. I know what to do,” she tells herself.

“That way, when I actually enter the water … I’ve sort of freed my mind of all of those negative thoughts.”

What can I do next?

When something scary does happen, Heinerth says the first thing she does is try to control her stress response.

“Your heart starts to race. You begin breathing faster, and that’s the last thing that I can allow to happen to me underwater with a limited gas supply,” said Heinerth.

“I have to … get control over my breathing, I have to take a deep breath and say to myself, ‘Emotions, you won’t serve me now’ and I have to send them away.“

Then, she “works within the moment” as time seems to slow. Even if escape is uncertain, she looks for her next best step.

It’s something Heinerth said she realized she could do after, as a university student in Toronto, someone broke into her apartment and came after her.

“I’m lying in bed, and my heart is jumping out of my chest,” she recalled.

“I need him to know there’s someone in the house and I don’t want to use my female voice to do that.”

Instead, she began stomping around her room, making noise and looking for a weapon to defend herself.

She eyed a brick holding up her student bookshelf.

“Already, my rational brain was starting to act, and it said no, don’t throw a brick at him because then it’s his brick.”

She grabbed two X-Acto knives from her drafting table and stood shaking, ready in case he came at her — which he did.

She slashed him, and he laughed at her, then ran away.

“It’s this tangle, this tug of war between the emotional brain and the pragmatic brain,” said Heinerth.

“How long can you swallow that down in order to survive? That’s what I learned that night and I’ve carried that with me ever since and into every cave that I’ve ever gone diving into.”

CBC.ca/June, 2017