Jill Heinreth: A Canadian life where blue is anything but

Jill Heinreth: A Canadian life where blue is anything but
By Stephen Weir

It's like going next door to borrow a cuppa sugar and coming back with filet mignon. It is not what you wanted, but who is going to complain. Whenever Jill Heinreth speaks at a Niagara Falls wreck diving symposium, you can pretty well count on her talking about anything other than Great Lake shipwrecks - but, that is okay, the audiences adore her!
Earlier this year she was the headline speaker at the 16th annual Niagara Divers' Association Shipwreck Festival in Welland, Ontario. While people like wreck hunter Dave Trotter and Georgann and Mike Wachter showed film from their latest fresh water discovies, Jill got up on stage and talked about why divers die using rebreathers! A few years before at the same wreck-heavy conference Jill wowed the audiences with stories and pictures of her dives in Mexican caves and Antarctic iceberg fissures!
The audience in Welland, Ontario love her. She has spoken twice and post conference surveys show divers want her back in a big way! She can't stay on topic worth a damn but come break-time they are lined up to buy her books, her DVDs and get her autograph. She is Ontario's hometown diving girl. Awe shucks and all that, but, she is the real deal, she has worked on Hollywood underwater movies, dove inside uncharted mile long caves, set underwater records, risked death to explore ice fissures at the bottom of the globe and, unfortunately has learned lots about rebreather dive fatalities.
“I have worked as an expert witness and have also been called on by Coroners’ offices to examine rebreathers after a fatality has occurred,” explained the 45-year old diver. “My life's resume is my expertise. I have no official training specifically in court testimony or legal affairs (but I am called to testify). I just tell them what I see.”
That massive dive resume is the long successful story of a Canadian who learned to dive in the Great Lakes. Raised in Mississauga, Ontario (it was called Clarkson back then) she took her first scuba lesson in nearby Toronto at the Diving Store in west end Toronto (or “Rexdale” in those days).
The Diving Store operated one of the province’s first charter boats in Georgian Bay – the Aquanaut Diver – and students got to take their Open Water tests in the wreck filled waters around Tobermory. “ A week after the open water class was completed, I jumped straight into advanced classes. I was hooked.”
After graduating with an honours arts degree from York University, Heinreth supported her diving habit by launching herself into the advertising industry. Owning her own agency gave her the freedom to go and get wet when and where she felt the need.
As a diver trained in the sometimes-harsh conditions of the Great Lakes, she found her skills were in demand by dive shops around the world. Her advertising career was wound down and she headed south. Heinreth put in 3-years at the Cayman Lodge, teaching basic scuba, shepherding groups along the world famous Babylon Wall off Grand Cayman’s east end and instructing in the relatively new art of underwater photography.
Working underwater almost daily didn’t stifle the Canadian’s desire to learn. She took almost every SCUBA certification offered. She also earned Cave Diving, and Closed Circuit Rebreather instructor credentials. It was an easy step from underwater photography in the Caymans to underwater filming anywhere dangerous.
Since those Cayman days she has become an award-winning filmmaker. She produced, and appeared in Water's Journey, an American PBS documentary series that takes viewers on travels through the world's greatest water systems. Hollywood directors call on her to produce difficult underwater scenes and international magazines and websites look to her to document extreme environments with high technology.
“ I used to say there is nothing more dangerous in diving than to be in a cave on a rebreather,” Jill Heinreth told Diver Magazine “until I worked on a Hollywood horror movie shot in Romania. Now that is scary.”
The movie was The Cave, a not-very successful 2005 release that has bloodthirsty creatures stalking a team of divers who are trapped in an underwater cave. Most of the film was made underwater in a Romanian film tank studio; Heinreth was the production’s technical advisor and underwater coordinator.
“ An underwater movie studio in Romania can be built for a million and a half, but do it here and it is $200 million,” said Heinreth. “It was an incredibly elaborate studio, but “safe”??? We had to be on our game.”
Other movies followed. Underwater scenes in The Real Nightmare on Elm Street, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Surviving the Worst (Alligator Attack, Shark Attack) needed Heinreth’s sure touch.
While the Blood and Bubble movies can now only be found by diving into the delete bin at Blockbuster, the work did pay the bills and paved the way to her working on a number of award winning film and photography assignments.
Jill Heinreth has written, produced, and appeared in Water's Journey, the American PBS TV documentary series that takes viewers on travels through the world's greatest water systems. Earlier this year National Geographic aired NOVA Extreme Cave Diving, which follows a scientific expedition into watery caves in the Bahama Banks.
Her many dive-filming accomplishments are best highlighted by an Antarctic cave diving expedition inside the largest iceberg known to man, (National Geographic - Ice Island). She also made significant contributions to the United States Deep Caving Team’s Wakulla 2 project, using paradigm-changing technology to map a Florida underwater cave system in three dimensions. It was at Wakulla that she established a women's diving world record.
“Its a strange record ... it was the "longest deep cave penetration" by a woman,” she explained. “It was on a rebreather on a mission that spanned almost 22 hours and included 5 hours of actual bottom time at 300 feet prior to decompression. I was also the first person to dive in iceberg caves in Antarctica, likely in the world.”
“I have several exciting projects on the go now. I am shooting "We Are Water" a documentary about our relationship with water. I am also working on preparations for two film projects - one that will take me to one of the hottest places on the planet and one to the Arctic. It should be quite a year ahead!”
I am heading to Australia in the spring and that will fall in the same time frame as Niagara Shipwreck 2011, so I probably won’t be able to make this time. I will be back in Toronto, next summer for 6-8 weeks though.”
Heinreth won’t teach divers how to dive in the Arctic, but she still does find time to teach specialized programs including cave diving, side mount diving and rebreathers for small groups of up to three people. “However, I am usually booked about six months in advance.”
Heinreth doesn’t have far to travel to class. She and her husband Robert McClellan live in High Springs, Florida. “I ride my bike over to Ginnie Springs (popular Florida freshwater cave) and swim at the springs and in the Santa Fe River. It's a beautiful way to celebrate the dawn! ”

Cutlines: Pictures taken By Stephen Weir at the annual Niagara Divers Association Shipwreck Convention, held in Welland, Ontario.


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