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Professional diver Jill Heinerth
Professional diver Jill Heinerth probes an iceberg, which likely originated from the Greenland ice sheet, near Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo courtesy of Jill Heinerth

Coastal Job: Iceberg Explorer

Jill Heinerth dives into the heart of icebergs at the planet’s poles.

Authored by

As told to Theodora Sutcliffe

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

For over 30 years, professional diver Jill Heinerth has explored some of the world’s most challenging environments, from sea ice and icebergs to deep cave systems. She is the author of the memoir Into the Planet.

My business cards simply say “explorer,” but I’m a writer, filmmaker, consultant, citizen scientist, and trainer, too. I’ll do just about whatever it takes to stay underwater.

When I was a toddler, I crawled off a dock and nearly drowned. My mother found me floating face down. She was screaming. But me? I remember seeing beautiful ripples in the water refracted as rainbows on the sand. I always wanted to go back.

I’ve done well over 7,500 dives. That equates to years spent working underwater.

Diving inside an iceberg is like going to another planet—one that has been sculpted by the hand of the sea. The colors inside are incredible. And the layers of ice are like a time machine—you might see silt from a dust storm or an ancient volcanic eruption. In Antarctica, we had literally thousands of spider-like amphipods the size of my hand raining down on us in mating pairs. That’s horror show material for a lot of people, but for me it was amazing.

When I prepare to dive in icy conditions, I remind myself that it’s often warmer in the water than it is outside. In the Arctic, the air temperature might be -20 °C, while the water hovers at freezing. It feels like an ice cream headache after jumping in, but getting out and changing is sometimes harder. When you unzip your drysuit, a cloud of steam pours out.

If you’re going to iceberg dive, you have to pick one that seems relatively stable. As they melt, they change shape. They roll, tumble, crack, break. They fizz like champagne as trapped air bubbles out. They bob on the waves, making it harder to maintain a constant depth. When an iceberg pounds on the seafloor, its thud echoes through your entire body.

My scariest diving experience happened while inside an iceberg in Antarctica. The current reversed course, nearly preventing my team and me from getting out. A one-hour dive turned into a three-hour fight for our lives. But you can’t let emotions take over. You have to stay focused on the next step. Eventually, we found tiny indentations formed by burrowing fish in the ice and used them to claw our way out.

I’m not sure I would dive with polar bears again, which I did once for a film project. I needed shots of a bear swimming overhead, but my subject, unsurprisingly, came full bore toward me—when a bear does that, it’s because it wants to eat you. I dove down 14 meters to get away. The bear quit after three meters.

If I’m going to take these kinds of risks in my life, I want them to be worth it. So everything I do now focuses on water issues and climate change. It’s terrifying going to the Arctic, seeing the magnitude of change, and hearing stories of melting glaciers from Inuit guides. It’s become harder and harder to find and document wildlife. The fridge door of the planet is wide open, and nobody’s shutting it.

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