• Jill Heinerth cave selfie

    A cave selfie in the Devil’s Eye Spring in Florida. Cave diver Jill Heinerth has made a career of exploring inside the earth, a vocation that requires her to balance confidence and fear. (Photo: Jill Heinerth)

If I die, it will be in the most glorious place that nobody has ever seen.

I can no longer feel the fingers in my left hand. The glacial Antarctic water has seeped through a tiny puncture in my formerly waterproof glove. If this water were one-tenth of a degree colder, the ocean would become solid. Fighting the knife-edged freeze is depleting my strength, my blood vessels throbbing in a futile attempt to deliver warmth to my extremities.

The archway of ice above our heads is furrowed like the surface of a golf ball, carved by the hand of the sea. Iridescent blue, Wedgwood, azure, cerulean, cobalt, and pastel robin’s egg meld with chalk and silvery alabaster. The ice is vibrant, bright, and at the same time ghostly, shadowy. The beauty contradicts the danger. We are the first people to cave dive inside an iceberg. And we may not live to tell the story.

It’s February, in the middle of what passes for summer in Antarctica. My job, for National Geographic, is to lead an advanced technical diving team in search of underwater caves deep within the largest moving object on earth, the B-15 iceberg. I had known that diving into tunnels inside this giant piece of ice would be difficult, but I hadn’t calculated that getting out would be nearly impossible. The tidal currents accelerated so quickly that they’ve caged us inside the ice. We’re trapped in this frozen fortress, and I have to figure out how to escape.

There are no training manuals or protocols to follow. When you’re the first to do something, there’s nobody to call for help. The most qualified cave-diving team in the world, with the experience and skills to rescue us, is right here, trapped inside the B-15 iceberg: my husband, Paul Heinerth, our close friend, Wes Skiles, and me.

The glazed tunnel we’re swimming through is magnificent. Three hundred feet of ice presses down upon us from above this narrow passage, groaning with emphatic creaks and pops that signal its instability. The current is gaining momentum, and the garden of life on the seafloor beneath the iceberg bends like palm trees in a hurricane. Frilly marine creatures—brilliant orange sponges, worms that look like Christmas trees, and vibrant red stalks—double over and shake in the flow of the tide. Wes is trailing behind Paul and me, attempting to film our exploration for National Geographic, and I sense him losing ground in the current.

Our planned one-hour dive is stretching out of control, and I’m not sure how long we can tolerate the cold. Can we survive two hours? Three? The 15 crewmates on our battered research vessel Braveheart are likely unaware of the drama unfolding in the water. They only know that we’re overdue. If we don’t return soon, our captain will have to call for help into a radio handset, but no one will hear him. We’re beyond the range of communications—utterly alone against the wilderness. And there are no other capable divers on board. Our colleagues will search the horizon through binoculars; they’ll launch the ship’s helicopter and ferret feverishly over the endless white ice of the Ross Sea. But they’ll know that nobody survives for long in these indifferent waters. We would be remembered at best as gutsy, but more likely as lunatics.

The incredible pain in my hand begins to yield to a numbness that threatens to hijack my resolve. I know that as my core temperature drops, confusion will soon follow. When pain subsides, death is often lurking. I plunge my frostbitten hand into the doughy seafloor to pull myself forward, and columns of clay rise like smoke. I’m simultaneously hot and cold. My chest is heaving, my lungs burning.

There’s a beam of daylight, soft and elusive, about 300 yards away, and I begin kicking as hard as I can, latching on to anything on the ocean floor that could edge me closer to it. I can hear Paul’s and Wes’s heavy panting, but my mind is turning inward to my own survival as I gain one inch of ground at a time. How does a dying person know when it’s over? They say your life flashes before your eyes, but that isn’t happening to me now. All I can think about is escaping from the water that I love more than anything else. I’ve spent my life immersed in a relationship with this element that nourishes and destroys, buoys and drowns— that has both freed me and taken the lives of my friends. Now, I have come to my moment of reckoning. My life began in water, and I refuse to accept that it may end here.

***

As young children, we exhibit a complete wonderment and lack of fear about the world around us. In our youth, everything is fresh and sensational, and we don’t have to work hard at exploring. For me, it seemed normal to examine the natural world around me, boldly cresting every hill without fear of what was on the other side. But eventually, painful life experiences shaped me to accept fear as a reigning doctrine. Like most people, by adulthood I found myself searching for stability and certainty. It’s easy to become comfortable with the status quo, more concerned about losing ground than reaching new heights.

We all have fears, rational and irrational—spiders, storms and germs, killer bees, killer dogs, and killer cars with runaway accelerators. We worry about losing our jobs, paying our bills, and protecting our families. Government leaders encourage us to fear others, especially when they don’t look like or worship like us. Nations shut their borders and citizens close their doors, choosing to be sequestered in triple-locked, protected enclaves and preferring synthetic lives where stimulation is satiated digitally. All news is breaking news these days, and sometimes it seems like every headline promises to march us closer to the end of the world as we know it.

For me, acknowledging and then living my wildest dream has meant learning to accept and welcome fear. Cave diving, at the intersection of earthbound science, exploration, and discovery, tests the extremes of human capability. My job is never simple—whether I’m filming documentary footage, mapping previously undiscovered caves, or gathering data and specimens for a scientific mission, I’m also always combating the elements, navigating tight passages, and monitoring the complex life-support system that keeps me breathing underwater. My survival depends on my balancing fear and confidence. When I get snagged in a tight, body-contorting crevice or am lost in the blinding murk of a silt-out, I have to measure each setback in single breaths. If I allow fear to seize me, then my breathing shoots through the roof at a time when every molecule of oxygen I use up tugs me closer to death.

It is impossible, at such times, not to recall that more people have died exploring underwater caves than climbing Mount Everest. Perhaps more than in any other adventure endeavor. Cave diving is so risky that even the most casual enthusiasts can’t get life insurance at any price. Even with modern equipment and thorough training, an average of 20 people drown every year in these watery catacombs.

So why would any reasonably sane person want to swim into what many would think of as a death trap? For me, cave diving is a kind of “back to the womb” experience. It feels primal, like I’m being called by some ancient ancestor. Underwater caves are alluring, challenging, and seductively dangerous. They’re often filled with gin-clear water and fantastic geologic formations unlike anything seen elsewhere.

As well, I believe in the purpose of my work. Caves have always been a source of fascination for humanity, but their extensive exploration is somewhat recent. Underwater caves are one of the last frontiers of discovery on earth. Surprisingly, we know more about outer space than inner earth, and this is a problem. With each season that passes, the science of “water moving underground” becomes more and more relevant as we try to protect our most vital resource. My highly specialized skill set allows me to be a scientist’s eyes and hands underwater, and I often work with biologists discovering new species, physicists tracking climate change, and hydrogeologists examining our freshwater reserves. I’ve found grim sources of underwater pollution, the roots of life inside Antarctic icebergs, and the skeletal remains of Maya civilizations in the cenotes, or sinkholes, of the Yucatán Peninsula. Underwater caves are museums of natural history, protecting rare life forms that teach us about evolution and survival.

In a workday, I might swim through the veins of Mother Earth, into conduits in volcanoes or cracks in monstrous bodies of ice. I dive below your homes, golf courses, and restaurants. I follow the trail of water wherever it guides me. And when the passages pinch impenetrably, the water still flows, emanating from some mysterious source. The journey is endless. It beckons me to dive deeper into what is humanly possible.

I am not fearless. I’m alive today because I’ve learned to embrace fear as a positive catalyst in my life. As I dwell on the threshold of darkness, I might be scared, but I don’t run away. I dance in the joy of uncertainty.

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