How to Explore Like a Girl

Explorer in Residence of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, underwater explorer Jill Heinerth shares her advice for women in exploration.

On Friday, February 5, 1971, the PA system at Munden Park Junior Public School in Mississauga, Ontario reverberated with a special announcement. The school principal informed us that we should assemble in the library to watch television! By the time classes started that day, there were two men donning spacesuits for a walk on the lunar surface that lasted over five hours. At roughly 4 am, Apollo 14 had landed in the Fra Mauro region, the intended landing site of the aborted Apollo 13 mission. Our teachers seemed a bit nervous, perhaps because of a fresh awareness of the risks that astronauts faced on their historic missions. Alan Shepard seemed relaxed as he filmed Edgar Mitchell bunny hopping down the Antares lunar module’s ladder with a Maurer 16mm movie camera. The crew planted the U.S. flag, off-loaded an experiments package and even hit a couple of golf balls before the day was through. It was the third human-crewed lunar landing, and I was mesmerized.

Jill Heinerth preparing for a dive in Florida at Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park. Photo: Cas Dobbin

“Mom, Dad, I want to be an astronaut!” I declared over dinner. They were accustomed to my earnest goal setting at family mealtime. I had already expressed interest in people I had seen on TV. Whether it was Jacques Cousteau, Marlin Perkins, or “the most trusted man in America,” CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, our popular culture and goals were influenced by early TV personalities. A new sitcom, All in the Family was considered edgy, but perhaps not as influential as the forward-looking show Maude that would soon spin-off. It was a transformational time when we had no Canadian space program, no women astronauts and a lack of  women-positive role models on TV. The women in my young life took care of their families. My Mother, a graduate of Queens University, left behind teaching to pursue her most important role in life – to ensure the solid upbringing of three children.
On Sunday evenings, we were permitted to eat dinner in our den in front of the TV. It was always a special occasion for us to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. These programs made me aware of the world and beyond. That same year, the Canadian IMAX film, North of Superior, opened at the new Cinesphere at Ontario Place. Seated in comfortable reclined seats, we soared over Ontario’s landscape in an entirely new way. From the aerial camera, we could view the endless pristine wilderness that was, in our province’s motto, “Yours to Discover.” Our family spent weekends combing through rocky crevasses along the Bruce Trail or paddling our canoe in remote lakes in Muskoka. As a young school girl I felt like anything I set my mind to was possible. I wanted to be an explorer.
We are all born as explorers, putting everything in our mouths, taste testing  to discover pleasure or elicit disgust. We learn boundaries through experiences that are either exhilarating or leave us injured. We soak up new information like a sponge and find the fundamental interests and experiences that give us the most satisfaction. For me the joy was found outdoors, hiking with my Brownie Pack, swimming in Lake Ontario and digging fossilized crinoids out of a local construction site. Opportunities to explore were everywhere.

Heinerth is a pioneer in the use of an advanced life support technology called a rebreather. Photo: Jill Heinerth

Sharing knowledge was encouraged around my family’s dinner table and in classes as early as kindergarten. “Show and Tell,” was one of my favorite activities where I was invited to tell a story about something I had brought to class. An unusual rock, the shed skin of a snake or a jar of “The Amazing Sea Monkeys” (brine shrimp), were props that launched a love of public speaking. I read books about the Bermuda Triangle, the Group of Seven painters, and built a model that showed how earthquakes worked. I mixed a love of science and geography with my artistic talents, never quite landing on a specialization other than a love of learning.
When it came time to choose a direction for my university studies, I was stymied. With good grades, I could go anywhere, but what would I study? Should I follow my Dad’s background in engineering at Queen’s University? Could I take a program in the newly emerging subject area of environmental science? Instead, I chose to pursue the successful background of my paternal grandparents and become a commercial artist. I imagined a career in advertising that would involve collaboration, problem-solving and touching base with a diverse client base in varied disciplines. I envisioned travel and learning as a foundational part of my new existence. While I worked hard in my program in Visual Communications and Design, I also signed up for a class in something I had always wanted to do: scuba dive.
I consummated my new hobby in Tobermory, Ontario’s newly designated national marine sanctuary. Fathom Five National Marine Park represented a pioneering departure for Canada’s national park system, which had centered on land-based conservation until then. Descending beneath the glassy surface of Lake Huron to explore a hidden grotto in the limestone cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment changed everything for me. When I looked up to see the light beaming through a portal in the rock, I felt like I was exploring the womb of Mother Earth. Growing up as one of the first of the Post-Boomer generation known as Generation X, many people considered that the age of exploration was over. The highest mountains were climbed, oceanographers had reached the deepest undersea trenches and men had walked on the surface of the moon. What did I have on any of them? At  that moment, floating in the neutral buoyancy of a new world, I realized that I could be an explorer too. The childlike, carefree joy of discovery was re-ignited and soon cast me into a new career direction. I would find a way to combine my creative talents with my love of learning, and the underwater world.

Heinerth learned to dive in Tobermory Canada, where divers can explore well-preserved wooden shipwrecks in the clear water of Lake Huron. Photo: Jill Heinerth

From there, they say, the rest is history. Through volunteerism and collaboration with scientists, I rose toward the top of my sport, exploring caves and deep underwater vistas as a documentarian/storyteller and the hands and eyes of scientists who were not able to travel to the dark corners of our water planet that I had explored. In underwater caves, I work with biologists discovering new species, physicists tracking climate change, and hydrogeologists examining our limited freshwater reserves. Probing the underground pathways of the planet, I document grisly sources of pollution, the roots of life inside Antarctic icebergs, and the ancient skeletal remains of Maya civilians sacrificed in the cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula. Deep inside our planet, and with my camera, I share concealed mysteries locked away in places less visited than the Fra Mauro crater on the surface of the moon.
So how does a young woman today pursue a life of discovery and exploration? The opportunity lies at the intersection of volunteerism, research, and active outdoor experiences. We hit the geographic jackpot growing up in Canada. Whether you seek discovery opportunities in our vast landscape or choose to look inward to explore the microscopic geography of DNA, nano-technologies or quantum particles, there are boundless opportunities for pioneering research. It just takes stepping over the threshold of darkness to bear witness as your eyes adjust to the dim light of a new opportunity.

Heinerth's specialty is diving in water-filled caves all over the world. Photo: Jill Heinerth

For me, that life of discovery has led to the ultimate reward of serving as the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s first Explorer in Residence. And with my honorary role, I intend to continue serving as the role model I wish I had met when I was ten. Today there are no bounds for women explorers. We can swim through submerged caves under a ceiling of solid rock or smash through the glass ceiling of gender bias to explore where no human has been before.

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