A note from Joy Fowlkes, Managing Editor: When I first read Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, I was astonished by the variety of women that were depicted, not just in illustration style or cultural background, but in the trajectory of their lives. Our founders, Elena and Francesca, managed to redefine success by sharing a multitude of women’s risk-taking, strength, and curiosity. 

Below, you will find an excerpt to the forthcoming book INTO THE PLANET by world-renowned diver Jill Heinerth, who recognized her discontent with a desk job and chose to realize her dreams. I admit that no matter how happy I am in my career, I have indulged in fantasies of abandoning everything to catch a flight to Thailand and teach scuba diving. But fair warning, this is not that book. Heinerth was thoughtful about her departure, and more importantly, she’s disciplined. She steadily saves, trains, and invests in an unorthodox career—one that is full of risks in order to explore a world that most of us will never know.

 

I pulled the dump valve on my buoyancy control device, causing a whoosh of escaping gas, and started sinking into a new world. I  felt as though every cell in my body was vibrating with excitement. Although I was just completing my initial scuba certification, I sensed I was on the cusp of a new beginning. I had wanted to learn to dive since the first time I saw Jacques Cousteau on TV as a young girl. Now I was making it happen and I was ecstatic. It was a world apart from my drafting table at work, where I felt myself shrinking. Underwater, in this hidden world, I was expanding with the potential to do something truly remarkable.

Muffled  sounds were  coming from every  direction and time seemed to slow down. I deeply exhaled and surrendered into the abyss. Some of my classmates were flailing as they descended, eyes wide with fear and resistance. I felt a tingling surge of adrenaline that  heightened my senses and triggered a shiver through my spine. The blue void around me drew out my imagination to consider all the things I might experience in my future as a diver. Would I one day swim with whales or sharks? Would I find treasure in the bowels of a shipwreck?

I dropped through a shimmering mixing zone of water, where the  temperature plunged to 37°F, but the chill faded quickly. Moments  later I was thirty-two feet deep, hovering above the boulder-strewn bottom of Lake Huron. Smoothed by the action of  repeatedly rocking waves, the rounded stones sounded like bowling balls on a return ramp, clapping and rumbling with each passing breaker. A gentle ebb from two-foot swells pitched us back a few feet after every lunge forward. I gave in to the sway of the oscillating water and copied the moves of my instructor, Heather, who was swimming with ease toward a dark limestone archway. As  I peered into the blackness ahead, my heart rate spiked. 

The darkness was calling me forward to something absolutely thrilling. It was both a literal and a figurative gateway, and I would cross its threshold to a new chapter in my life. Three feet forward, two feet back in the surge… it seemed to take an eternity to breach the entryway and swim into this place we called the Cave. This first dive into what’s called an overhead environment—one that doesn’t have direct access to the surface—took place not far from the terminus of the Bruce Trail on the same sunny weekend I was certified as a new diver. It was rather advanced for an initiation  dive, and left a lasting impression in my mind. After three successful dives on sunken shipwrecks in Tobermory, Ontario, to demonstrate  our skills as new divers, Heather was rewarding us with a special treat. Straddling the orange pontoons of an inflatable Zodiac boat, we tightly  grasped the thick nylon ropes like cowboys on broncos. For an hour we sped across the surface of the lake toward the dive site, along the edge of a beautiful rock face that was blazing with the vermilion hues of late-afternoon light. Protected from head to toe in black neoprene wetsuits, we welcomed every trumpet of spray that blasted across our faces. The  anticipation made my body prickle and my face flush. The fourth dive of my life would lead to a proud moment when I would receive a card that certified me as an Open Water Diver.

Now, passing over the lip of darkness into the gaping maw of the cavern, I was momentarily disoriented. Beneath the rock ceiling, a single turquoise light ray sliced diagonally through the water ahead of me. Like a tractor beam, it pulled me forward and upward to float in the flickering light of a large open room. Then  the water in front of me exploded into a fury of white bubbles. Clambering legs poked out from the burst, and a scrawny white figure in an orange Speedo kicked quickly toward the surface. I realized I was inside a grotto with a glassy mirrored surface inside an echoing chamber of rock.

I  later  learned  that this  was a favorite  destination for thrill-seeking  hikers who tramped down a forested  path to reach this spot. They would crawl into the cave through a small skylight and a larger opening—a doorway, we called it— along the edge of a cliff and take their place in an orderly lineup for a fourteen-foot leap  into the water. The daylight I had seen from below was streaming from these portals, illuminating the depths of the cave like  the sun through a cathedral’s clerestory window. The light danced rainbows on the sandy bottom. It reminded me of that first plunge off the dock at the cottage. The only thing missing this time was a pair of navy blue sneakers and someone pulling me back. With a single breath, I could move in three dimensions: inhale and rise to the ceiling or exhale and sink in slow motion. It was as though I had a superpower of levitation. I transcended gravity. I was no longer a big girl or a clumsy earthling who needed to heft her weight up the rock wall of a cave. I was flying free in the water. This innocent little jaunt was a far cry from real cave diving—I was never more than a few feet from a safe exit—but it whet my appetite and stimulated my imagination. Somehow, I knew then that diving would be something I’d do for the rest of my life, and after that moment, every time I felt trapped by the demands of my job, I would take a deep breath and close my eyes to be transported back to the grotto, to float in the sapphire beam of sunlight. Each time I went diving, the call to the water was louder. The satisfaction  of a successful job and hefty paycheck were no longer enough to fill my heart.

At the time, I perceived only the magic of my first diving experiences and none of the risks. I had neglected to consider the danger imposed by a rock ceiling and, at the time, I had no idea how lucky I had been. Other divers who venture into overhead environments for  the first time have not been so fortunate. Underwater caves offer up a deceptively easy way to die, and without training, what you don’t know might easily kill you. Training as an open-water diver teaches you that in an emergency you can always swim to the surface, but in a cave or other overhead environment, that is not possible. If you are not prepared to deal with a bad situation such as malfunctioning equipment or disorientation, then you can die in the blackness of a water-filled room inside a cave.

The  2018 incident  involving the Wild  Boars football team trapped in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave brought the risks of cave diving—poor visibility, fast water, getting lost, and running out of air—into the public eye. Retired Thai navy diver Saman Kunam, ran out of gas and drowned in the overhead environment simply because he failed to watch his air gauge. When the team of civilian cave  divers took over the rescue efforts, a close friend of mine remarked, “You’d have to knock me out and tie me up to get me into an underwater cave.” And that is exactly what had to be done in Thailand. Each young boy had to be bound to a rescue sled and anesthetized so he could be hauled to safety through the submerged tunnels. Even  one of the skilled British rescue divers, Chris Jewell, had a close call when he let go of the safety line while struggling with a rescue sled holding a sedated child. For Jewell, it was four minutes of terror while he groped in the dark to reorient himself and find a way to the next air pocket.

Soon  after my  open-water class,  I learned about the  risks of cave diving when I picked up a copy of a primer called “Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival.” The little blue book was written by a pioneering explorer with one of the coolest names I had ever heard. Sheck Exley didn’t waste any money on graphic design; the stapled booklet appeared to have been photocopied from a type-written manuscript. But the information inside was lifesaving. Exley, a high school math teacher from Live Oak, Florida, was fixated  on statistics and accident analysis. Having had numerous brushes with death in his cave-diving exploits in the late 1970s and 80s, he decided to take a statistical look at why people were dying at such an alarming rate in Florida caves. He himself had recovered the bodies of divers who had become lost or run short on breathing gas. Exley wanted to share lessons from those tragedies with the  diving public. At the time, there was no formal training for cave diving, so Exley wanted to educate divers to become safe cave divers. His safety rules would have to become my touchstone if I intended to stay off Exley’s lists. If I wanted to survive my future cave dives I would need to learn more about gas turnaround pressures, running guidelines and proper equipment redundancy—all things that were completely foreign to me at the time. So  although my first peek inside the grotto in Tobermory, with an instructor close by, empowered me with a false sense of security, within a year I’d develop a healthy respect for Mother Nature’s fury and an understanding that it could happen to me.

 

More people have walked on the moon than have been to some of the places Jill Heinerth has explored right here on earth. She is a veteran of over 30 years of filming, photography and exploration on projects in submerged caves around the world with National Geographic, NOAA, various educational institutions and television networks worldwide. She is the inaugural Explorer in Residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, recipient of Canada’s prestigious Polar Medal and the diving world’s highest award from the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences, the NOGI. As a motivational speaker, Jill Heinerth educates and inspires people about our fascinating underwater world. Partnering with Penguin Random House in Canada and Harper Collins in the U.S., Heinerth will soon be releasing four new major-market, non-fiction and children’s books.


From the forthcoming book INTO THE PLANET: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth. Copyright © 2019 by Jill Heinerth. To be published on August 20, 2019 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.