If I had to describe Jill Heinerth in three words, they would be: intelligent, fearless, and happy. There’s an unmistakable lift in her voice when speaking about her journey from small business owner to award-winning underwater explorer and filmmaker. And a casual ease, too—as if she hadn’t been inducted into the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame, or doesn’t share an award with Jacque Cousteau, or wasn’t named a “Living Legend” by Sport Diver Magazine. Every day is a different adventure as Heinerth writes, teaches, and films for brands such as National Geographic and The Travel Channel at the most dangerous dive sites on earth. With three films and 11 books under her belt, Heinerth shares how she took her passions underwater—and how she’s still having such a damn good time doing it.
Levo: We’re creating a story not just to spotlight your incredible achievements, but also to give advice to our readers who feel trapped in their 9-to-5, cubicle-jockey jobs. Could you tell us how you got to earn the title of underwater filmmaker?
Jill Heinerth: Well, I actually had a cubicle job—I created it for myself! I used to own a small advertising company in Toronto. It was really successful and I loved the creative part of my job, but I hated a few aspects of it: being inside, being forced to commute, and being tied to everybody else’s schedule. I really wanted some freedom from that.
I looked hard at my life, and at the time, scuba was just a hobby for me. I’d teach on evenings and weekends, and I looked forward to getting out of the office for that. I said to myself, why am I spending my days looking forward to this when I could fill my days with this?
I think a lot of us have that set-up in our lives—our daily grind and the side-hustle that makes us truly happy. How did you make your side-hustle your full-time focus?
JH: I sold the business and moved to the Cayman Islands for a couple of years to improve myself as an instructor and photographer. I knew I wanted to combine my diving and creative background, but there was no traditional job for that, so I had to create my own and be entrepreneurial—I had to find my own way to do my passion full-time. I began taking on my own diving clients, and pitching projects to companies like the Travel Channel and National Geographic.
It took a couple of years to get the guts to divest myself from my life and my habits—they all seemed so important to me at the time. I was making great money, had a great life, and everyone’s opinion was that I was throwing that all away. But I realized I was way more interested in a lifestyle than money and stuff.
That must have been a giant leap—leaving a successful, traditional business you grew to create your own passion-driven journey. What encouraged you to make that leap?
JH: My family was kind of horrified, and my business partner was pretty horrified, too! To my business partner, I posed it as I could either take a leave of absence or I could sell the business—however you want to do this, we’ll do this, but I am going. Even though there weren’t a ton of people on my side, it was something I needed to do and to try, to be truly happy and fulfilled.
Does being an entrepreneur and essentially creating your own career track get stressful at times?
JH: Absolutely. Sometimes I don’t know where the next paycheck is coming from, but I’m confident that I have a lot of different skills to keep this hybrid job and keep me underwater. As an entrepreneur, you’re stressed when you’re too busy, and stressed when you’re not busy enough! The wisdom is finding the balance, and trusting that good stuff will follow your talent and ambition.
I don’t want to be foolish and ask what a typical day is like…
JH: Exactly—every day is different! I don’t feel like it’s work, necessarily; it’s stuff I love to do. I’m doing my own web and graphic design, I’m a writer and shooter for magazines, I film for other organizations. I write textbooks, I dive and teach—for example, today I was teaching a high-level technical diving student how to use an underwater support system. Basically, I looked at the underwater world and said, what can I do to stay in it?
You are clearly an uber-freelancer with a ton of drive and organization. How do you stay motivated?
JH: When you are your own business, it’s easy to work for yourself—you’ve got bills to pay! You have to say yes to everything, and weed things out as they don’t happen. One of the hardest things for me in scheduling; if I want to take time off, I may be unable to take a gig for, say, National Geographic. In some cases, I schedule things a year in advance, as I get students from around the world planning their travels to work with me. But I’m doing what I love, so even on my “day off,” I’ll still go diving!
Even though you essentially created your own jobs, it does seem like diving, as with many adventure sports, is a male-dominated arena.
JH: Yes—as a diver and a filmmaker, both are extremely male dominated areas, especially because I’m involved in the highly technical aspects of both. It’s been tough to get gigs at times because traditionally, people just don’t look for or think of women capable of filming in a cave. At times, I feel like I had to work really, really hard to be noticed, basically jumping up and down and waving my arms to get an opportunity.
What helped you push through those extra efforts?
JH: One thing my husband told me is that it’s always important to ask for the gig—people work hard and expect to be noticed, but you have to go up to people in charge and say, I really want this opportunity, and I can do this. You have to be assertive in that way; that has served me well.
It was so tough for me to get the guts to leave Toronto and leave my business, but the first day I got down to the Cayman Islands, I looked back on the last two years and said, “My god—why was that so hard? I’m finally in the right place!” If you don’t have the courage to speak up and be assertive, sometimes you just have to make that leap of faith. I’ve had so many rejections of opportunities, ideas, manuscripts, you name it, but I have the confidence that what I’m doing is good. If you have that, it’ll come together, it really will.
Are there any downsides to not working in an office environment? Do you miss it, ever?
JH: What I do is risky—I’m not just risking my life and occupation, but it’s perceived as a financial risk. I don’t have a retirement nest egg; I don’t have a pension waiting for me. Yet, I look at some of the people I grew up with, and they’re torturing themselves to reach retirement. They’re unhappy! I’d rather live now and have a physically and psychologically healthy life. I’m not focused on being 65 and stopping work, because I love what I do; I can write until I’m 95. There’s lots I can do that’s fulfilling and valuable to me.
Has there ever been a time where you felt your life was in danger?
JH: Cave diving is perceived as one of the most dangerous sports, and some expeditionary settings can be challenging, even politically—I once took an assignment on the Arabian border during Arab Spring. My mom once asked, “Aren’t you afraid of dying?” I said, not really, I’m so much more afraid of not living fully. I could get run over walking to the dive site tomorrow. If I do everything with integrity, passion, and care, that’s a whole lot better than running around scared of everything.
Photos: Jill Heinerth; Nic Alvarado; Wes Skiles / Courtesy of the U.S. Deep Caving Team