For those tormented with that perpetual itch for things remote and seemingly out of reach, the ocean provides the ultimate test of endurance. Fronting this incredible exploration movement is the discipline of technical diving, allowing those who are up to the challenge to descend deeper, journey longer, and visit places few have ever been.

From being stuck inside an iceberg to discovering ancient human remains deep in caves, Jill Heinerth holds a career of accolades and challenges that have labelled her as one of the greatest explorers of our time. UW360 caught up with her to discuss her journey as a tek diver, and what it takes to become one:

A shameless Selfie in closed circuit rebreather during decompression

A shameless selfie wearing a closed-circuit rebreather during decompression

How long have you been a tek diver?
The term “tek diving” took hold in the early 1990s when Michael Menduno was trying to describe the outliers and explorers in his magazine AquaCORPS. I suppose my real tek focus was spawned at that time.

What initial steps did you take to become one?
Frankly, I did not know we were doing anything different or was not even aware that we were some sort of subgroup of divers. In general, I was training, collaborating with others and exploring.

And any initial challenges?
The biggest hurdle was that as a young woman, I was sometimes pulled aside and told that I must be in the wrong place! Women were not always welcomed into the extreme circles and at times I was told that I was “going too fast” or was “too big for my britches”.

"Women were not always welcomed into the extreme circles and I was told that I was 'going too fast' or was 'too big for my britches.'" Jill completing the deepest manned dives ever conducted in Bermuda during an NOAA Project

Jill completing the deepest manned dives ever conducted in Bermuda during an NOAA Project: “Women were not always welcomed into the extreme circles and I was told that I was ‘going too fast’ or was ‘too big for my britches’.”

What made you want to become a tek diver?
I never aspired to be a tek diver. I aspired to explore places nobody had been before and solve problems that nobody had considered. The technical aspect of my diving was the problem-solving part… What will I need to help me achieve a specific goal? How can I do this safely?

Driving a Digital Wall Mapper in 1997. © US Deep Caving Team

Jill driving a Digital Wall Mapper in 1997 © US Deep Caving Team

What is the most exciting experience you have had underwater?
Perhaps diving inside an Antarctic iceberg and delving downward through tunnels to discover an ecosystem of life thriving in the ripping current. That was really special.

Have you ever encountered any “extreme dangers” when diving?
Certainly. I face danger on a daily basis. However, I like to think of myself as risk averse. I’m not in it for the adrenaline. I’m in it for discovery and getting home safe at the end of the day. I have been stuck inside an iceberg pinned down by current, trapped on the wrong side of a buddy wedged in a cave, I have removed the bodies of dead divers from caves and dealt with myriad equipment failures in terrible places, from an exploded battery in my rebreather at 300 feet to driving a diver propulsion vehicle that is stuck on full speed in a delicate cave.

The best site you have dived?
I truly love the Pacific Northwest of Canada on the north end of Vancouver Island. Pure magic.

The most amazing find in a cave?
We have found many human remains in caves in Mexico but one stands out as bizarre since it was perhaps 3,000 feet from an entrance. Presumably this ancient person walked into the cave over 13,000 years ago according to scientists… an early cave explorer perhaps!?

Jill diving near her home at Devil's Ear Cave © Mark Long

Jill diving near her home at Devil’s Ear Cave, Florida, USA © Mark Long

What does a tek dive offer that a typical recreational dive does not?
A recreational diver can surface at any time without delay. A technical diver has a far greater range of depth and penetration into caves, wrecks or other overhead spaces. Of course, the tek diver needs a lot more gear redundancy and training to deal with the fact that they have a ceiling over their head, either real or decompression-related.

As an underwater photographer and filmmaker, what are the challenges of underwater photography with tek diving?
There is a ton of gear to deal with on a technical dive. Add a camera system and lights and you are well burdened. You must also stay extremely vigilant regarding monitoring your life support. Shooting is a focused activity that is extremely task loading.

"There is a ton of gear to deal with on a technical dive. Add a camera system and lights and you are well burdened." Jill preparing camera gear

Jill preparing camera gear: “There is a ton of gear to deal with on a technical dive. Add a camera system and lights and you are well burdened.”

… and the rewards?
I get to bring home shots and sequences of things and places that nobody has ever seen. It is challenging, but the rewards are incredible.

Aside from photography, what diving equipment do you use?
I specialise in using closed-circuit rebreathers. For over 20 years now, this has been my gear of choice for deep and lengthy excursions.

What does it take to become a tek diver?
The first step to becoming a tek diver is to develop the right attitude toward diving and training. Be Patient. The process takes time and tenacity. Dedicate yourself to disciplined diving and good safety protocols and be happy to sit out a few dives when everything is not quite right.

Becoming a tek diver requires a ton of diving and repetition. It is imperative to own all of your own technical diving equipment so that it fits properly and is well maintained. That means the second step is to save some money to slowly acquire proper gear such as a double tank set, side-mount gear or closed-circuit breather.

Finally, make a training plan beginning with fundamental techniques of good buoyancy and skills wearing technical diving gear to decompression procedures and a slow progression to techniques needed for deeper dives and perhaps mixed gas use.

The process will take years of repetitive diving and practice and a slow progression through training.

What drives you to continue to explore these unchartered places?

There is still so much to see. I don’t think my wish list will ever be fulfilled!



 

How to become a tek diver

If you want to break out of your NDLs and take your diving to the next level, there are a number of ways you can make your foray into the world of tek diving – it all depends on where you want to go with your underwater exploration, and how you want to get there. Here are some of the entry-level courses that will let you start extending your bottom time by making planned decompression stops:

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GUE TECHNICAL DIVER LEVEL 1 

What it lets you do: 
• Become familiar with the use of different breathing and decompression mixtures
• Expand on the essential skills required for safe technical diving

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IANTD ADVANCED NITROX DIVER

What it lets you do:
• Qualifies you to dive to 42 metres and do decompression stops required dives up to 15 minutes
• Further develop diving skills and provide a greater understanding of the EANx concept of diving (the programme employs EANx mixes up to 1.5 PO2)

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PADI TEC 40 DIVER

What it lets you do
• Gain experience and begin building the skills you need to continue your tek diver training
• Qualifies you to make limited decompression dives to 40 metres

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SSI EXTENDED RANGE NITROX

What it lets you do:
• Dive to 40 metres using nitrox and 15 minutes of accelerated decompression using one stage decompression gas (oxygen)
• Continue to SSI XR Extended Range and XR Limited Trimix courses

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TDI DECOMPRESSION PROCEDURES DIVER

What it lets you do:
• Conduct decompression diving activities without direct supervision provided the diving activities and environment approximate those of training
• Enrol in TDI Advanced Nitrox, TDI Extended Range, TDI Advanced Wreck, TDI Trimix courses


 

To find out more about Jill and her work, click HERE.