Jill Heinerth is a professional underwater filmmaker and photographer whose job involves exploring the mysteries of the ocean and giving the rest of us a glimpse into the previously unknown. Read the full text of Jill's interview below to learn more about her job.
What is your title?
I am a professional underwater filmmaker and photographer.
Where do you work?
I own an independent production company that specializes in highly technical underwater environments.
Do you travel often? To where?
I am fortunate to have many opportunities to travel through my work. I have journeyed to Antarctica to be the first to swim inside iceberg caves. I have explored lava tubes inside the Monte Corona Volcano in Lanzarote and dived in caves from Russia to Australia to Central America.
What are the educational requirements for your job?
I have a rather interesting educational background. I earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communications Design at York University and combined more than 20 years of diving experience and educational programs to create a hybrid career. I am dedicated to engaging in continuing education opportunities as they present themselves. These days, it is critical to stay on the cutting edge of technology in my underwater pursuits as well as in image making. If I start to slide behind the curve, then somebody else may slip into the void. Staying ahead of the curve keeps me busy!
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
There is quite a wide range of compensation for the type of work that I do. My career includes technical diving instruction, underwater photography, underwater filmmaking, writing, publishing books, and consulting as a specialist in the technical aspects of diving. That means there are very different scales of compensation. Books provide royalty checks. Films may pay out on distribution or be engaged as work for hire. Consulting work may be paid by the project or by the hour. I have earned as much as $325 per hour for some jobs or $400 - $800 per day for others.
How many hours do you work per week?
My work and passion overlap significantly. My edit suite is upstairs in my home and my technical diving equipment fills the garage. The overlap means that my work hours are long. I probably work 70-80 hours per week, but I can drop everything and go for a swim in the middle of the day or take my kayak out on a beautiful river. I can write a script on my boat in Canada or take an afternoon to grab some stock photos of a local underwater cave.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
In the past couple of years I have written and published three books, completed an independent documentary, appeared in a commercial and documentary series for Honda, spoken in six different countries, visited with school children, traveled to international conferences, written briefs for lawyers, consulted on training programs for major diving agencies, instructed new cave divers, maintained a rebreather blog, explored thousands of feet of underwater cave passages never seen by man, and provided photojournalism for magazines around the world.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
Being the first person to explore caves inside of Antarctic icebergs was a highlight in my career. We traveled across the Southern Ocean for 12 days to reach the Ross Sea. We intercepted the largest moving object on the planet, the B-15 iceberg. It was an early look at global climate change and a journey I will remember for all of my life.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
When you run an independent company, there is always worry about where your next contract will come from, but the rewards far outweigh the challenges. I can answer my email in my pajamas, call my own shots, and choose to take some time off when needed. Being able to explore places never seen by humanity is the ultimate reward.
How does your work benefit the public?
My greatest passion is to educate people about how they are connected to their water resources. I have a particular interest in freshwater. Without clean freshwater, humanity and our oceans both suffer. I hope that my documentary films and speaking engagements stimulate water literacy that helps people understand where their drinking water comes from, how they pollute it, and how they may protect it for future generations and the health of our world’s oceans. I also hope that my work as an explorer and diving educator fosters good role model behaviors and practices that create a safer environment for future divers.
What else could someone with your background do?
When you have a thirst for learning, nothing is impossible. If you work hard, take educational opportunities seriously, and focus on personal improvement, you can do anything you set your mind to.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
As a child, I watched the later Apollo Missions and was stimulated by their journeys of true exploration. At the time, our family used to watch Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea Adventures on television on Sunday evenings. We weren’t allowed to watch much TV in those days, so I had a whole week to look forward to seeing the next adventure of the Cousteau team. I also spent a lot of time with my nose in old issues of National Geographic Magazine. The underwater images really captivated my attention.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
I had some really terrific teachers early in life. I was eager to learn and asked for opportunities to take on extra work. They took the time to mentor me and nurture my thirst for information. I also joined the Girl Guides of Canada and had many wonderful women mentors that taught me that it was okay for girls to take on adventurous roles and uncommon pursuits.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
There are times when I wish I had gone to graduate school and gained further credentials that might have opened more doorways for me; however, that would have left me extremely focused in my studies and work. As a filmmaker, I get to engage in many different areas of science. Using research and my vivid imagination, I get to explore many different disciplines in life.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
Being a woman in a male-dominated area of expertise has sometimes presented challenges for entry. I’ve often been the only woman on a project or the only woman trying to seek a position in a male-dominated world. Sometimes I have been overlooked for that reason alone. I’ve often had to be creative in marketing my skills and convincing various entities that I can do the job as well as a man in the same role.
What are your hobbies?
I’m pretty much an outdoor girl. I love to hike and kayak. My garden is a refuge and is an experimental laboratory in organics, aquaponics, and xeriscaping. My favorite pastime is getting up at dawn and cycling to my local spring where a robust swim against the current of the Santa Fe River starts my day on the right track.
Interests in Elementary School:
In grade five I gave a Science Fair project about mysterious disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. My young mind postulated that gases from inside the Earth burped from the sea floor causing boats to sink and disappear and planes to fall out of the sky. I was quite certain there were scientific reasons for many of the world’s mysteries. My teacher Mrs. Michael never forgot that project and wrote to me well into her eighties.
Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:
I credit Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World and the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom television programs for interesting me in wildlife and the oceans. On Sunday evenings we were permitted to sit in the living room while eating our dinner in front of the TV. It was the only time and that made it very special. After the programs were over, we’d often talk about what we had seen. I was always encouraged to look for a location on a globe we had in the basement or peruse the encyclopedia set for answers to burning questions. Learning and inquiry were a great focus in our household.
First Marine Science Class:
I am completely self-taught in marine sciences, never having had a formal class at any point in my career. I grew up in the middle of Canada, far from the ocean. I was a rabid reader and the library in my home is testament to my thirst for knowledge about our watery world.
Honors, Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communications Design from York University
First Career-related Job:
I had a small graphic design/advertising company in Toronto, Canada, while teaching open water scuba classes in the evenings and on weekends in the Great Lakes port of Tobermory, Ontario.
Employment Journey/Career Transitions:
After several years of terrific success in advertising and graphic design, I found myself longing for more time underwater. I sold the business and moved to the Cayman Islands to work in a small diving lodge where I handled marketing as well as dive instruction and day-to-day operations of the resort. More than 1,000 dives later with a new level of excellence in my underwater photography, I moved to Florida to focus on cave diving.
In Florida I began to work with documentary filmmaker Wes Skiles. He mentored me and encouraged me to open my own production company. Wes contracted me to write and produce independent films as well as produce television and Hollywood projects that kept us very busy for more than a decade before his death last year. In recent years I was bringing in many of my own projects and began independently creating films, books, and new media projects with my husband Robert McClellan.
I have been honored with many awards for my films and photography over the years. I am a Member of the Explorers Club, an Inaugural Inductee into the Women Divers Hall of Fame, a Fellow of the National Speleological Society, and have been recognized for my work in Conservation and Education by several organizations.