Jill Heinerth: What can we learn from our planet's hidden waterways? Underneath the surface, there lies a vast network of natural and manmade waterways. Cave diver Jill Heinerth shares her adventures through our planet's plumbing and the ways it secretly connects us.

Jill Heinerth: What can we learn from our planet's hidden waterways?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, What Lies Beneath.


ZOMORODI: Starting with someone who spends a lot of her time beneath the Earth's surface in underwater caves.

JILL HEINERTH: You know, most people hear the word cave diver, and they picture me, like, jumping off of a cliff into the ocean (laughter). It's like, no, that's not it at all. I'm actually swimming through water-filled passages beneath your feet.

ZOMORODI: This is cave diver Jill Heinerth.

HEINERTH: The best way for me to describe it is to think of the planet as a body, and I am swimming through the veins of Mother Earth. I've been cave diving all over the planet in underwater caves in, you know, Florida, the Bahamas, underneath the Ural Mountains in Siberia, inside lava tubes in volcanoes and even inside icebergs.

ZOMORODI: Jill has hundreds of stories to tell about magical adventures she's had deep underground, but often these dives are pretty dangerous, like the one she took in January 2011 in northern Florida.

HEINERTH: I was guiding a scientist into a very small underwater cave, and it was for the purpose of sampling some algal materials that might closely resemble life we would find in outer space.

ZOMORODI: The dive was going as expected until it was time to exit the cave, which was really more like a narrow passageway. That's when Jill's diving partner got wedged in the rocks.

HEINERTH: And in the moment she got stuck, her gear became entangled in our safety line, and she became wedged in this space that was about as big as sliding underneath your bed, like literally shoulders pinned to the ceiling and chest scraping along the floor. And as she became entangled and unable to swim forward, she panicked. And in that panic, just a couple of errant fin kicks stirred up everything to the point where I was literally, like, suspended in chocolate milk. I couldn't see anything. And I had one hand on the guideline and one hand on her, and she was moving to my left. And I'm stretching out my arms more and more and more until the guideline is being stressed in my right hand and she's in my left and I feel it getting tighter and tighter and tighter, like a piano wire. And then suddenly, ping. The line separates, and I have the bitter end of a guideline in my hand and my diving partner in my other hand. And I'm thinking, oh, boy, we're in trouble now.

ZOMORODI: The guideline is basically a rope leading back to the mouth of the cave.

HEINERTH: Yeah. If you don't have the guideline, the cave is just full of traps. You know, it's not marked by anything other than your guideline. And so you would have to re-explore in complete blackness to find your way out.

ZOMORODI: So Jill started to think through all she needed to do to save them.

HEINERTH: I needed to calm down my partner.

ZOMORODI: She needed to get them unstuck.

HEINERTH: I needed to patch the guideline and then work our way out of the cave.

ZOMORODI: Her thoughts were racing.

HEINERTH: You know, oh, my gosh, I have to get out of this cave. Two women can't die in an underwater cave. That would be international news. And then you think crazy things like, oh, my gosh, I have to get home. My husband doesn't know how to do the taxes.


HEINERTH: But the important thing is just to take that deep breath and center yourself and just make the best next step towards survival and then keep doing it until you get home safe.

ZOMORODI: But how deep were you into the cave, like, from the mouth of it?

HEINERTH: So we were over a thousand feet back in the cave. And we had to come through several small, restrictive spaces in zero visibility. And that could take you a long time. Now, I had to patch the guideline, and that needed two hands, and that's when I lost track of my partner.

ZOMORODI: Where did she go? I mean, where was there to go if you're all tight and packed in like that?

HEINERTH: Well, that's the thing. When you can't see, you don't know. And in the end, it took me an extra 73 minutes to get out of the cave. As I worked out of the cave searching for her all the way out, I stopped and checked side passages. And then finally, when I got to the doorway of the cave, there she was in the entrance. And that was the most beautiful sight I've ever seen. You know, I would have quit cave diving. I just know that would have been my last dive if she hadn't made it out, and there she was. Her mask was full of tears because she was certain that I was dead. You know, she had already called out an emergency, and people were racing to the scene, probably expecting to recover my body from the cave, not to do a rescue. There are not very many rescues in underwater caves.


ZOMORODI: Oh, Jill, that story is terrifying, and it makes me wonder, what compels you to keep diving even after experiences like those?

HEINERTH: Well, in the discussions that I had with my husband, Robert, after that dive, it forced us both to reflect on why I do this (laughter), why I go into these places. And I believe we all have a calling, and this is mine. It's to try to illuminate complex issues about how we are connected to our water environment. It's about sharing climate change information through my adventures because, really, everything we do on the surface of the Earth gets returned to us to drink. Anything that happens on the surface of the Earth can soak into the ground and end up in places that I swim through. So I can see the results of humanity's interactions with things on top of the earth that they might not feel are really connected with their water systems. But I can assure you, I see the connections. I swim through them.

ZOMORODI: From waterways tunneling below us to ecosystems that only exist deep in the soil, we rarely give much thought to what's happening beneath the earth's surface. But there are some amazing mysteries and opportunities waiting to be discovered if we're brave enough to go down and take a look. So today on the show, stories and ideas about What Lies Beneath, and how appreciating underground worlds could change how we live aboveground. For Jill Heinerth, diving into caves can feel like time travel.

HEINERTH: Exploring these voids in the planet is so important because these are like museums of natural history. I mean, we can work with scientists and unravel interesting information about earth's past climate. You know, we can learn about ancient civilizations that have used these as portals to another world. And these are also places where there is life.

ZOMORODI: Here's Jill Heinerth on the TED stage.


HEINERTH: It turns out that caves are repositories of amazing lifeforms, species that we never knew existed before. Many of these lifeforms live in unusual ways. They have no pigment and no eyes in many cases. And these animals are also extremely long-lived. In fact, animals swimming in these caves today are identical in the fossil record that predates the extinction of the dinosaurs. So imagine that these are like little swimming dinosaurs. What can they teach us about evolution and survival? I also get to work with paleontologists and archaeologists in places like Mexico, in the Bahamas and even in Cuba, looking at cultural remains and also human remains in caves. And they tell us a lot about some of the earliest inhabitants of these regions.

ZOMORODI: So, Jill, when you're looking for a new place to dive, how do you know where to go? Like, is there - I don't know - a secret map for cave divers that has, like, X's in the jungle in Mexico? Or, like, or do you ever think, like, do you have a hint? Like, you're like, I think there's going to be a cave here. And do you ever stumble upon one?

HEINERTH: I mean, we still use some pretty crude research methods in order to find places where we might find caves. I mean, I do everything from looking at old archival maps and comparing them to current maps. I look at writings. Like, I've read back as far as some of Alexander the Great's accounts of traveling through the western desert of Egypt.


HEINERTH: But we also look at Google Maps and look for sinkholes. And, you know, different cave divers will cooperate with others in exploration as well. So we'll sort of tag team exploration efforts and share our results with each other as we explore something new.


HEINERTH: My very favorite project of all was over 15 years ago, when I was a part of a team that made the very first accurate, three-dimensional map of a subterranean surface. This device was actually creating a three-dimensional model as we drove it. We also used ultra-low-frequency radio to broadcast back to the surface our exact position within the cave. So I swam under houses and businesses and bowling alleys and golf courses and even under a Sonny's BBQ restaurant. Our water planet is not just rivers, lakes and oceans, but it's this vast network of ground water that knits us all together. It's a shared resource from which we all drink.

ZOMORODI: We don't really talk much about what's going on beneath the ground other than, well, sewer systems or, in Florida, they're starting to understand when it rains and the water doesn't go anywhere because there's so little drainage. That sort of permeability between what's above and what's beneath, do you think of them as being separate worlds or do you really see them as interconnected in some ways?

HEINERTH: No. I see the whole planet as interconnected. I mean, I've traveled through the plumbing of the planet. I've traveled even through the manmade plumbing of the planet, exploring urban caves in storm water systems. In fact, I went on one journey where we paddled up the Wekiva River, this incredibly beautiful natural resource in Florida, to find the source of the Wekiva. Well, the source of the Wekiva Is a Best Buy parking lot.


HEINERTH: Yeah. We literally traveled through the storm sewer systems and climbed a ladder and popped up in a Best Buy parking lot. And it's like, wow, you know, this incredible natural environment full of beautiful wildlife and birds and fish is being served by, you know, the water that's running off this parking lot, collecting, you know, heavy metals off the brakes of cars and everything else. And when you're walking through that stormwater conduit, you're seeing the greasy, horrible stuff that will end up in that river. So I'm literally in the sustenance, the water that fuels the industries that we rely on. So it's this incredible journey where I get to go inside and see the health of the planet and wonders of places that nobody else has ever taken pictures of before.

ZOMORODI: That's Jill Heinerth. Her book is called "Into The Planet: My Life As A Cave Diver." You can see her full talk at TED.com. On the show today, What Lies Beneath. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We'll be right back.

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