Dive into Unexplored Depths with Raise the Reef Keynote Speaker Jill Heinerth

Jill Heinerth is a professional cave diving explorer and underwater filmmaker. She’s done work for PBS, National Geographic and the BBC, and she’s one of the most accomplished cave divers on the planet.

Jill driving the 3D MApper at Wakulla Springs in North Florida.

Photo courtesy of the US Deep Caving Team/Wes Skiles.

Coral Restoration Foundation™ has the honor of introducing Jill Heinerth as our Keynote Speaker for Raise the Reef. Join us for our annual gala on April 18, 2020 to hear from such a distinguished underwater explorer.

A few sea lions checking out Jill and her camera. © Trish Stovel

We talked with Jill Heinerth about her passion for the ocean and experience underwater. Read on to get a glimpse into the life and work of a world-renowned cave diver!


What is your earliest memory of the ocean?


I remember a trip to Cape Cod with my family. I was playing in the sand and was swept out to sea by a big wave. Tumbling in the surf, my Mom and Dad grabbed me. I don’t recall being scared. I loved the water!


Jill surfacing from a dive in Chuuk, Micronesia,

pleased to see a healthy, robust ecosystem.

© Pam Wooten


What drew you to diving and when did you start?

I wanted to dive from the time I was a little girl. I watched Jacques Cousteau on TV and wanted to grow up on his boat! My family had no experience in diving and couldn't imagine that people would dive in cold water. I did many different water sports as a young girl, but did not learn to dive until I was in university and had saved my own money for gear and lessons.

What is your favorite marine creature?

I think stellar sea lions are amazing. I love going out to BC to visit the sea lions in the winter as they await the herring spawn. They are incredibly curious and playful. We can drop in the open water a good distance from their colony. They leap into the water to hurry over and see us. It's like a mix of playing with puppies and getting in a bar fight.

What have been your favorite expeditions and projects to work on? Your most meaningful? Is there are particular reason they were?

In 1997-98, I was a member of the US Deep Caving Team Wakulla2 Project. We made the very first accurate 3D map of an underwater cave system. I completed diving missions spanning 22 hours each at depths up to 300 feet. We were pushing the limits of human physiology and creating important tools that helped people understand precisely where their drinking water resided beneath their feet. It changed the public perception of cave divers. Before the project, we were often regarded as adrenaline junkies out to get ourselves killed. After the project, it was recognized that we could offer significant contributions to science and exploration.

What concerns or scares you the most about climate change?

I travel to the Arctic often, and see the changes in sea ice. It is happening so quickly that I know the rest of the Earth will follow. The rate of change is stunning. I see dwindling springs, loss of sub-aquatic vegetation, coral bleaching, species loss, increased nitrates, plastification of our oceans, and so many other things. I’m 55 years old, and yet the changes I have seen in my lifetime are staggering.

Why do you, personally, care about coral reefs and environmental conservation?

The oceans are the lungs of our planet. If they are sick, then so are we. I believe that the past ten years have been about awareness. There is not a single person alive today that cannot recount a story about how their life has been affected by climate change. I hope and trust that the next few years will be about action.

Why should the average person care about coral reefs?

In addition to being the lungs of our planet, oceans provide sustenance, food security, economic potential through low impact activities like tourism and recreation. So goes the oceans, so goes humanity. The Earth will make it through the crisis of climate change, but humans will not if we do not protect our oceans.

In your opinion, what are some of the most powerful tools at our disposal that we can apply to the mission to save coral reefs?

Education and outreach are critical. When people can visit and enjoy the ocean and its inhabitants, they want to protect it. Restoration efforts are increasingly important activities that give us a chance to find robust species that can tolerate great change.

What do you think are some of the easiest ways that the average person can join the mission to save coral reefs from extinction?

We can all take small steps to improve our environmental impact on the world, but we also have to vote with our wallets. We have to understand that everything we use and everything we dispose can soak into the ground and reach the ocean through groundwater, rivers, and estuaries. The ocean begins beneath our feet. If you live in Kansas, your choices and actions will still affect the world’s oceans. We are 70 percent water. The Earth is 70 percent water, and we are all intertwined in this dance called life.

Do you think there is hope for our coral reefs? Why?

I have to keep hoping. I have to remain positive. I spend a lot of time in classrooms, and the kids of today are exciting. They are engaged and ready to take on enormous challenges that we have left for them.

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