Master cave diver Jill Heinerth offers some lessons from 30-plus years of surviving underwater emergencies.
“When we transcend the fear of failure and terror of the unknown, we are all capable of great things, personally and as a society,” Jill Heinerth writes towards the end of Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver. “We might not always know where the journey will lead us. We might feel a burden of difficulty, but all paths lead to discovery.”
It was nuggets like this, neatly tucked into an autobiography filled with wild adventures from her 30-plus-year as a cave diver and underwater photographer, that made me want to have Jill Heinerth on GQ’s Airplane Mode podcast. Who better to help us explore this season’s theme of confidence than someone whose job requires her to go to Antarctica to dive under glaciers?
Even though you likely won’t need to know how to handle 28-degree glacier water—shout-out to all the glacier divers reading, though—you’ve likely had moments of feeling overwhelmed or panicked or scared in the face of uncertainty. Jill’s survival has depended on effectively managing those moments, deftly navigating the tightrope between calm response and abject terror.
Here, she shares the lessons she’s learned from a life spent deep underwater that will most likely help you in your journey on dry land: what surviving countless underwater emergencies has taught her about business success, how to calmly ease your way out of a panic spiral, and why everyone should treat themselves to the empowering high of a two-day freediving class.
Do you still get nervous or scared before a dive?
Always. And I think that’s important because it means that I care about the outcome. It means that I care about getting home safe. I don’t want to dive with people that aren’t scared, because they don’t have the same appreciation for the risk we’re taking on. But I think that’s how you get a chance to have a remarkable opportunity for discovery, is to step into the darkness.
I really think that when you’ve got that tingle of fear and uncertainty, it’s where you have the opportunity to do something you’ve never done before.
Was that something you had to learn or is that something innate?
I absolutely had to learn that. I grew up in a very traditional family that would’ve liked to see my tick off the boxes: do well in school, go be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, and—I don’t know how this supposedly fits—but then go have a family and children. I did the exact opposite.
I was in my 20s making the most money in my life, even to this day, in advertising. I didn’t dislike what I was doing, but I love being outdoors and I knew that I needed to find a way to work outdoors, and be free of schedules and bosses and things like that.
I moved to the Cayman Islands with a suitcase full of dive gear, thinking, okay, “I’m going to have to learn how to be an underwater photographer now.” I had dabbled, but I had no formal training in underwater photography. And the best way to become an underwater photographer is to just start doing it. I had the confidence that I could just take one step towards what I was really dreaming about.
It’s really hard to solve huge problems in life. It’s really hard to figure out how to solve global climate change. It’s really hard to figure out how to become the CEO of the company. It’s really hard to figure out how to become a cave diver that makes a living. Those are too big. It’s really big to figure out how to survive when you’re trapped in an underwater cave, and the line is broken, and you can’t see and your buddy’s panicking, and she’s stuck, and everything’s gone wrong, and you think you might die. But, in all of those cases, we always know what the next best small step is towards survival or success.
Life is just a series of those small steps in the right direction, before they build up and turn into something really fantastic.
If you’re in a cave and something catastrophic happens, how do you walk your way out of the panic that sets in?
Anybody’s first reaction is their heart rate starts to race, their breathing starts to increase, and then their mind starts to get completely cluttered with useless thoughts. It’s emotions that are causing all of that. The first thing you have to do is get that mind-body control and just say, “Hm, emotions, you won’t serve me well right now, it’s time to focus on being pragmatic.”
That can be a battle. The devilish emotions keep trying to come back. They keep saying, “You might die.” And you have to go, “Sorry can’t think about that right now.” You just have to be steely, cold, and emotionless. Until later. Because later, you have to come face-to-face with those demons and grieve or just go through the PTSD of it all. But you have to learn how to do that, you don’t do it well the first time.
Survival doesn’t have to be pretty—it just has to be effective, right?
What’s the very first step in putting the fear aside?
Breathing, absolutely. The first thing has to be to take that deep breath. Because as soon as you take that deep breath, immediately your heart rate starts to go down. It’s a primal, physical response. Your heartbeat tries to race, your jaw starts to quiver, or whatever, and you just have to keep going, “No, no,” take that deep breath way down into the bottom of your lungs. Fill up from the bottom in that sort of zen meditation way, all the way up into your shoulders and neck. Then when you exhale, throw it away. Throw away the emotions.
How has that breathing technique served you out of the water, maybe in a more mundane, everyday way?
I use it all the time. There was a time when I helped someone who’d been in a head-on collision on the highway and it was really scary. The car was messed up, she was in really bad shape, the car was on fire and she was screaming. And I remember having to take that deep breath to just focus on what needed to be done.
But I’ve also used it just dealing with people. When I get reactions that I don’t expect, like when a bully reaches out on the internet with some crap. At first, you start to shake, you’re like, “They think that about me? Oh, my God.” And it’s like, okay, take a deep breath and throw that away, think this through. Where’s this coming from? It’s not about me, it’s about them.
How does dealing with crises like that then change the way you deal with stress out of the water?
Man, it gives you a really different viewpoint in life. I come back from an expedition that’s been harrowing for 60 days. I’ve been on the ball, laser-sharp focus for 60 days, and then I get into the grocery store lineup and somebody’s complaining that there’s no broccoli in the produce aisle. And I’m like, really?
How would you say that diving has changed your comfort level with the idea of death?
I’m not afraid of dying. I’m more afraid of not living fully. I also realize life is incredibly fleeting. I’ve lost so many friends in this sport—some of them that I expected were going to kill themselves in the sport and others that just shocked me to my core. But I realize that every day is precious. My husband doesn’t do what I do, so he’s home waiting every day and that’s really hard for him. But it means when I come home, that life together, that time together, is really, really special.
If there’s someone thinking about leaving a traditional job for a less traditional job and scared to take that leap, what advice would you give them?
Do what you love. The money and the success will follow. Your idea of success will also morph in that whole experience. Today is so different than when I was a kid. When I was a kid, we took these career tests and they tried to map us into, oh, you should be a secretary or you could be a pharmacist, a job that you would take for the rest of your life and work for someone.
But today, people have to be explorers, they have to create hybrid careers. This is the gig economy and you might never know where the next paycheck is coming from. You have the global interconnectivity of the internet to reach out, to meet people, to ask for a gig. I got every opportunity in cave diving and expeditions from volunteering, from calling up someone I didn’t know and saying, “how can I work with you?”
What’s the longest you’ve spent underwater in one period?
My longest mission was a 22-hour mission, and about 13 hours of that was underwater.
I imagine you’re usually diving with a buddy or with a team, but is the solitude of it difficult?
The solitude’s the best part of being underwater. I mean, all the noise of life—whether it’s the actual noise or whether it’s just the monkeys in your head kind of thing—all that goes away when you’re underwater. That’s part of the allure of diving for me: you’re so in the moment, you’re so present underwater, that nothing that’s happening topside even enters your mind.
Have you found ways, topside, to achieve that same sort of stillness or presence?
I’ve tried meditation and breathing and everything else, and it’s only for moments that I can do that before the to-do list comes screaming back into your head. It really seems to be only underwater. I’ve taken up freediving, too, which is diving without equipment. You work a lot on your breathing for that so that you can dive to great depths and stay down for a long period of time.
I can’t quite get there topside. I guess I was meant to be in the water.
What do you learn about breathing in freediving that would be of use to someone that isn’t doing it?
I think everybody could benefit from a freediving class. It’s very empowering, because in a very short period of time, in a couple of days, you will be holding your breath for periods of time that seemed unimaginable to you before. It’s not impossible within a weekend to be holding your breath for two-and-a-half or three minutes. When you’re diving underwater, you get to the moment where you feel chest spasms, like, “I got to breathe!” You might’ve even been there swimming in a pool before. But when you understand what’s going on physiologically, you recognize you don’t actually have to breathe. That’s just a physical response of your body, but you don’t really need oxygen now. You could go a lot longer. It teaches you that you’re capable of far more than you imagined that you could be. Even just a two-day freediving class, you come away feeling pretty high, pretty empowered.
It seems like you have an ability to not get an air of invincibility, which I imagine is a thing that could happen when you do these amazing things.
Oh, it’s so easy, and that’s why complacency just kills people. When a friend dies, the first reaction is, “Oh my God, what happened? What did they do wrong?” That’s what people do: they immediately start dissecting the accident. “Oh, I would never do that.” But obviously this friend of yours just did that. Obviously some chain of events caused them to do that. So, could I do that, too? Well, of course. So, what actions can I take to prevent that from happening?
That’s the only way I can honor their death, is to make sure that I communicate to myself and to others about how to prevent that chain of events and thoughts that caused them to make that decision that day. Because we all make stupid decisions. Smart people make stupid decisions.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Author: Clay Skipper
Source: GQ: How to Stay Calm When Things Get Scary