Jill Heinerth’s Antarctic Iceberg Cave Incident: A Harrowing Exploration

Jill Heinerth’s Antarctic Iceberg Cave Incident: A Harrowing Exploration
Incident LocationDiver Full Name
Antarctica, Cave underneath the B-15 icebergWes Skiles, Jill Heinerth

Born in 1965 in Toronto, Canada, Jill Heinerth’s childhood was filled with an innate desire to explore and the perfect storm of inspiration.

Because she grew in the ’60s, she was a live spectator of the incredible Apollo missions that would eventually put humans on the moon. This would inspire her to want to become an astronaut but unfortunately, her mom had to break the news to her that there was no Canadian space program, at least not at the time.

Thankfully, this wasn’t her only source of inspiration and spent every week anxiously waiting for the Sunday night airing of Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea Adventures. Her natural inclination to explore would only be strengthened throughout school because of some influential teachers and later, she would join the Girl Guides of Canada where there were many strong woman mentors who showed her that it was okay for girls to be adventurous and be in non-traditional gender roles.

Pursuing Diving and Overcoming Challenges

Later on, she received a Bachelor in Visual Communication Design from York University and then went on to start her own graphic design and advertising company. Then, in the evenings and on weekends, she taught scuba diving classes which she’d become very proficient at. But despite the success for business, what she truly wanted was more time in the water and so in 1991, she sold her business and moved to the Cayman Islands where she worked at a small diving lodge and handled the marketing, dive instruction, and day-to-day operations.

She would also spend this time getting really good at photography in and out of the water and then about a thousand dives later, she moved again, this time to Florida, to focus on cave diving. Throughout this time as well, she faced several challenges as a woman in a very male-dominated sport. This is the case for not only diving, but especially cave diving and later on, underwater cinematography.

She was frequently the only woman on the expedition boat or the training class and she was frequently passed over for opportunities unless she was very assertive about her desire for a specific role. In fact, at one point, she hoped to become a commercial diver and she was told bluntly that there was no room for women in commercial diving.

This should have been discouraging, but instead of being discouraged, Jill put her head down and worked hard and became undeniably good and forced her way into the niche regardless of the challenges. In Florida, she started working with filmmaker Wes Skiles who became a mentor to her and would go on to contract her to write and produce several independent films.

During this time as well, the two of them worked with National Geographic and then in the late ’90s, the two of them talked about wanting to go to Antarctica. They knew that National Geographic was also interested in doing a story there but they needed to find a compelling topic. Then, serendipitously, as they brainstormed ideas, a chunk of ice broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf.

The Significance of the Iceberg

And this wasn’t any chunk of ice, this was the largest iceberg ever recorded, later named the B-15 iceberg and it absolutely can’t be overstated just how significant this was. An ice shelf is a large floating glacier that extends from the coastal land mass. As with most glaciers, they slowly flow downward under the weight of their own mass and in Antarctica and other areas where these glaciers form on the coast, the ice flows down and into the water.

Once these sheets are massive enough, the connection point can crack and eventually break off and become an iceberg. It also can’t be overstated just how massive these ice shelves are. They can range from just 300-feet (91.44 m) thick to as much as 3,000 feet (914.4 m). The Ross Ice Shelf also has an area of 193,000 square miles (499867.7 sq km), which is roughly the same size as France. And the B-15 iceberg that broke off of it was 4,200 square miles (1088 sq km) which is the same size as Jamaica or 10 times the size of New York City. When it broke off, it became the largest moving object on the planet. Incredibly, this wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Pitching the Idea to National Geographic

Scientists had been monitoring the cracks forming in the ice shelf and figured that it was only a matter of time before it broke away entirely. When this happened, Jill hypothesized that much like soft limestone, flowing water would be carving out crevasses, tunnels and caves in the ice. And although she wasn’t entirely sure that this was the case, she and Wes pitched the idea to National Geographic who thought it was a fantastic idea, and then they got the funding they needed to mount an expedition.

Diving into the Iceberg Cave

Then in 2001, they left New Zealand and sailed for 12 days across horrendous 60-foot (18.3 m) icebergs to reach the section of the iceberg they intended to explore. When they got to the edge, Jill was stunned to see that it looked like a mountain floating in the ocean because in some places, it’s thousands of feet of pristine ice cliffs rising from the water.

Once they picked what they thought was a suitable spot, they hopped in a smaller Zodiac boat and launched from the main ship for better maneuverability. Eventually, they pulled into a small bay that would lead them into the frozen ocean and Jill realized she was nervous. Less so for herself and more so for Wes and her husband, Paul, who would be coming with her even though they were each great divers.

Her longtime dive partner, Wes Skiles, founded the film company Karst Productions in 1985 to expand his underwater film career, and always advocated for cave divers to use their skills to aid in scientific diving projects. Throughout his career, he worked on over a hundred films that he filmed, directed and produced and was an expert under the water.

Meanwhile, her husband, Paul, was a pioneer in diver education and held several positions in several different prestigious diving associations. He’s also a master instructor and has held records for depth in caves at various times. However, despite each of their credentials, they lacked experience in ice diving, unlike Jill and this would be the coldest dive either of them had ever done.

First Dive

This inexperience would prove to be a problem right from the first dive. As soon as they rolled off of the boat and into the water, Wes’ suit filled with water. Despite this, he decided to tough it out for just a minute to test out their new camera. But in such cold water, which is just fractions of a degree above freezing, you almost immediately lose motor function and quickly lose the ability to think clearly.

After that minute of footage, sitting in what was essentially just a bag of ice water, it took Jill, Paul, and several other crew members, all helping to pull Wes into the boat. Then, they had to rush him back to the main ship and get him into a sleeping bag immediately to warm him up. And this was just the first minute of the first dive.

Uncharted Territory

In addition to this, although they were all highly experienced limestone cave divers, the ice cave that they intended to dive into, if it existed, was uncharted territory. For example, instead of being able to tie lines to the rock, they would need to use titanium ice screws anchored into the ice to tie into.

Second Dive

Following that first test dive, Jill and Paul decided to head back into the water to see if Jill’s prediction was correct. They got into the water once again with a mixture of nervousness and excitement and immediately gotten almost a brain freeze-like sensation because of how cold the water was. Although they were wearing wet suits and almost entirely covered from head to toe, they opted for a slightly less restrictive face mask to be able to see better.

From the surface, they descended through the slush and chunks of ice and mixing of salt and freshwater. Then, they entered a large crevasse in the iceberg and followed it down as the light slowly faded behind them. This crevasse would eventually take them all the way down to the ocean floor at 130 feet (39.62 m).

Discovery and Challenges

They looked around for a little bit and then miraculously, just as Jill theorized, there was a passage. This passage was a cave directly underneath the massive iceberg. The two of them slowly swam into the icy cavern and were amazed to see that the sea floor was teeming with life. Above them was the deep blue and white ice of the iceberg and lining the floor was red, yellow, and orange filter-feeding organisms that Jill described as looking almost like a shag carpet.

As they moved deeper into the cave, all of a sudden, all of these spider-lobster-looking isopods started raining down on them from the cracks above. About the size of the palm of a hand, they landed all over the two divers and their camera equipment. After shaking them off, after that uncomfortable experience, the pair moved deeper into the dark blue cave.

The ice around them and above them constantly groaned, making clicking and popping noises against the sea floor. And now more than ever, they were acutely aware of the fact that unlike a limestone cave, not only was the ice moving, but it was rapidly changing. At one point, there was a deep groaning vibration that went through Jill’s entire body.

She looked over at Paul, and he clearly had felt it too. And although it was unsettling, looking around, it seemed as though everything was okay, so they decided to keep exploring. It wasn’t until later on their way back that they realized that everything was not okay. There were massive chunks of ice blocking the passage out of the cave.

The doorway was gone. The noise they had heard earlier was actually the sound of ice breaking apart and blocking their exit. But without any other options, they waded up to the chunks of ice, and thankfully, they were able to squeeze their way past and back out into the crevice. At about 20 feet (6.1 m) of depth, they had to stop to decompress, and Jill could see Wes and one of the crew high-fiving and celebrating. Jill and Paul would later learn that the two of them had watched as a giant piece of iceberg broke off and landed directly in the path of the doorway. The wave it caused was actually so big that it almost capsized the boat, and they had no idea whether or not Jill and Paul would be able to make it out again.

They also had no way to mount a rescue, so they just waited anxiously, hoping to eventually see the pair in the water. The following day, Jill, being the consummate professional that she is, was optimistic about getting back in the water. Although there were some challenges, she figured at the very least they knew more than they did the day before, giving them better odds. It was still risky and uncharted territory, but at least it wasn’t their first dive anymore. She and Paul dropped down to the water once again and quickly made their way to the cave entrance. The opening seemed relatively stable, and so they proceeded in and started taking pictures of the cave and the sea life.

On this second trip, Jill noticed that there was a small current moving through the cave that she hadn’t noticed on their first dive. Little by little, this current got stronger and stronger, and then out of nowhere, the water was rushing through the cave very quickly. Instinctively, she dug her hand into the sea floor to stop herself from being pushed forward, and the current caused her body to spin around her hand.

What they would later figure out is that the iceberg melted throughout the day, and all of this meltwater flows down and through the cave, creating a current. And with how strong it was, they knew they needed to leave immediately because it could get much stronger and suck them somewhere deep inside the iceberg. But as they turned toward the exit and started kicking, the current was already so strong that they weren’t moving at all. They kicked and kicked but made zero progress. Quickly looking around for another solution, they saw faint blue light off in the distance, which meant that there might be another entrance.

They looked at each other and then decided to go for it and then let the current take them. They drifted for a long while and seemed like the light wasn’t getting any bigger because of how far away it was. But after drifting for what felt like forever, they did reach the light, and thankfully, it was another exit. After heading back up to the surface, and once Jill finally got her head out of the water, she realized that all of the chunks of ice were so high that she couldn’t see the boat.

They had traveled far enough underneath the iceberg, and their vision was so obscured that they couldn’t see the boat, and the boat couldn’t see them. Her stomach sank as she realized that they were lost in an ice field, and if they weren’t found soon, they would freeze to death. Not sure how much time had passed, she sat there shaking, waiting for some sign, and then she heard a sound.

The same current that swept them through the cave also knocked the ship’s anchor loose. When the crew pulled it up to reset it, it made a loud noise, and then the boat moved around a little bit. As that happened, Jill saw the slightest glimmer of the hull and called out to them. She was so incredibly relieved to hear Wes call back, and then shortly after that, they were picked up.

Following that close call, the team decided to make one final dive. Wes was so impressed by the footage, he wanted to come down with them and use the best camera he had. They were already there; they might as well get the most out of their trip. So all three of them got ready and dropped to the ocean once again.

This time, Jill had just the smallest leak in her glove, allowing icy water to flow in, but decided it wasn’t bad enough to warrant getting back out. Before long, they were on the ocean floor and in the cave getting pictures. But, once again, the current picked up very quickly, and this time, it was even stronger than before.

Jill turned to Wes and Paul and gave them the signal that meant it was time to go, but again, as they headed to the exit, the current was already so strong they were barely making any progress. They used their hands to dig their way along the ground, but even that was barely enough to keep them moving. They pulled and pulled until their arms burned and shook, and Jill starts to think that they might not make it out again. She was in the front leading, Paul was behind her, and Wes was in the back, and he was losing ground. He yelled to the others for help with the camera, and Jill thought to herself, “Screw the camera, we might die down here.” Then, when Paul dropped back to help, Jill was furious. That was the type of mistake that put everyone in danger.

Thankfully, between the two of them, they did manage to pull it out of the cave and into the crevasse. But even though they made it into the crevasse, the current was so strong from all of the meltwater rushing down that it forced them down onto the sea floor and trapped them at 130-feet (39.62 m) deep under the ocean surface. Jill looked up at the slick walls of the crevasse and desperately looked for anything to grab onto. Now in the water for over two hours, Jill’s hand was almost completely frozen because of the leak, and her hand slid right off the wall as she grasped for anything. Then, she had an idea. She remembered seeing these tiny fish that burrow their way into the ice and created holes about the size of a thumb.

She ran her hand along the ice again and realized she could jam her fingers into the burrow to use as a climbing hold. Soon, all three of them slowly inched their way up 130 feet of ice out of the crevasse and back up to the surface. Almost three hours later, they emerged from the ice, and Jill’s hand was gray and lifeless. When she reached up to grab the ladder, it wouldn’t even close around the handle, but they would successfully make it out, and her hand would recover without issue.

Incredibly, two hours later, the team had their equipment laid out once again, hoping to make one final dive. They just couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to get more footage while they were there. They might be the last people to ever get this opportunity. But then as they sat there eating and planning out the next dive, they heard screaming from the watch up on the deck. All three of them ran up to see what the commotion was and watched in horror as the iceberg they had just been inside was breaking apart, rolling around and bobbing up and down violently.

Even the chunks of ice falling off of it were sending massive waves towards the boat. At that moment, they all realized that had they been in the water, they probably wouldn’t have made it out again. And just like that, they were the first and last people to ever see underneath that iceberg. Thankfully, they did manage to capture tons of footage from inside the cave that was later turned into a documentary known as “Ice Island”.

Unfortunately, it’s been several years since it aired, and I couldn’t find it anywhere online. If any of you are able to locate it, if you wouldn’t mind commenting it down below, I’d love to see it, and I’m sure many others would as well. I’m sure the footage is unbelievable. As for Jill, as I mentioned earlier, she faced several challenges as a woman in the diving world, but despite that, she is now regarded as one of the world’s best divers, male or female. In 2018, she was awarded with the Beneath the Sea Diver of the Year Education Award, and then in 2020, she was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. She’s also won numerous other awards for diving, filmmaking, and writing and is still active in all three pursuits. To this day, she considers the B-15 iceberg to be the highlight of her career.

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Who is Jill Heinerth?

Jill Heinerth is a Canadian explorer, underwater cave diver, photographer, and filmmaker.

What inspired Jill Heinerth to become an explorer?

Jill Heinerth was inspired by the Apollo missions and Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea Adventures during her childhood. She also had influential teachers and mentors who encouraged her adventurous spirit.

What challenges did Jill Heinerth face as a woman in diving?

Jill Heinerth faced challenges as a woman in a male-dominated sport, especially in cave diving and underwater cinematography. She often had to assert herself to secure opportunities and was told there was no room for women in commercial diving.

What was the significance of the B-15 iceberg?

The B-15 iceberg was the largest iceberg ever recorded, breaking off from the Ross Ice Shelf. It was a significant event because it opened up the opportunity for Jill Heinerth and her team to explore the caves and tunnels formed by the flowing water beneath the ice.

What challenges did Jill Heinerth encounter during her dives in the iceberg caves?

Jill Heinerth faced challenges such as equipment malfunctions, icy water temperatures, uncharted territory, and strong currents. She and her team also had a close call when massive chunks of ice blocked their exit, and they became temporarily lost in an ice field.

Rebecca Penrose
Rebecca, an experienced blogger, delves into the world of diving accidents, sharing insights, stories, and valuable lessons learned. Dive in and explore the depths of underwater safety.
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