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TEDYouth 2015

Jill Heinerth: The mysterious world of underwater caves

November 14, 2015

Cave diver Jill Heinerth explores the hidden underground waterways coursing through our planet. Working with biologists, climatologists and archaeologists, Heinerth unravels the mysteries of the life-forms that inhabit some of the earth's most remote places and helps researchers unlock the history of climate change. In this short talk, take a dive below the waves and explore the wonders of inner space.

Jill Heinerth - Cave diver
Jill Heinerth explores underwater caves deep inside the earth. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm an underwater explorer,
00:13
more specifically a cave diver.
00:17
I wanted to be an astronaut
when I was a little kid,
00:21
but growing up in Canada as a young girl,
that wasn't really available to me.
00:23
But as it turns out,
we know a lot more about space
00:29
than we do about the underground waterways
coursing through our planet,
00:33
the very lifeblood of Mother Earth.
00:37
So I decided to do something
that was even more remarkable.
00:41
Instead of exploring outer space,
00:44
I wanted to explore
the wonders of inner space.
00:47
Now, a lot of people will tell you
00:51
that cave diving is perhaps
one of the most dangerous endeavors.
00:53
I mean, imagine yourself
here in this room,
00:58
if you were suddenly
plunged into blackness,
01:01
with your only job to find the exit,
01:04
sometimes swimming
through these large spaces,
01:06
and at other times
crawling beneath the seats,
01:09
following a thin guideline,
01:12
just waiting for the life support
to provide your very next breath.
01:14
Well, that's my workplace.
01:19
But what I want to teach you today
01:22
is that our world
is not one big solid rock.
01:24
It's a whole lot more like a sponge.
01:28
I can swim through a lot of the pores
in our earth's sponge,
01:31
but where I can't,
01:35
other life-forms and other materials
can make that journey without me.
01:37
And my voice is the one
that's going to teach you
01:42
about the inside of Mother Earth.
01:45
There was no guidebook available to me
01:50
when I decided to be the first person
to cave dive inside Antarctic icebergs.
01:53
In 2000, this was the largest
moving object on the planet.
01:59
It calved off the Ross Ice Shelf,
02:03
and we went down there
to explore ice edge ecology
02:06
and search for life-forms beneath the ice.
02:08
We use a technology called rebreathers.
02:12
It's an awful lot like the same technology
that is used for space walks.
02:15
This technology enables us to go deeper
02:19
than we could've imagined
even 10 years ago.
02:22
We use exotic gases,
02:24
and we can make missions
even up to 20 hours long underwater.
02:27
I work with biologists.
02:32
It turns out that caves
are repositories of amazing life-forms,
02:35
species that we never knew existed before.
02:39
Many of these life-forms
live in unusual ways.
02:43
They have no pigment
and no eyes in many cases,
02:46
and these animals
are also extremely long-lived.
02:50
In fact, animals swimming
in these caves today
02:55
are identical in the fossil record
02:58
that predates the extinction
of the dinosaurs.
03:01
So imagine that: these are
like little swimming dinosaurs.
03:04
What can they teach us
about evolution and survival?
03:08
When we look at an animal
like this remipede swimming in the jar,
03:12
he has giant fangs with venom.
03:16
He can actually attack something
40 times his size and kill it.
03:19
If he were the size of a cat,
03:24
he'd be the most dangerous
thing on our planet.
03:25
And these animals live
in remarkably beautiful places,
03:29
and in some cases,
caves like this, that are very young,
03:33
yet the animals are ancient.
03:37
How did they get there?
03:39
I also work with physicists,
03:41
and they're interested oftentimes
in global climate change.
03:43
They can take rocks within the caves,
03:47
and they can slice them
and look at the layers within with rocks,
03:49
much like the rings of a tree,
03:52
and they can count back in history
03:54
and learn about the climate on our planet
at very different times.
03:56
The red that you see in this photograph
04:00
is actually dust from the Sahara Desert.
04:03
So it's been picked up by wind,
blown across the Atlantic Ocean.
04:06
It's rained down in this case
on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas.
04:10
It soaks in through the ground
04:15
and deposits itself
in the rocks within these caves.
04:16
And when we look back in the layers
of these rocks, we can find times
04:20
when the climate
was very, very dry on earth,
04:24
and we can go back
many hundreds of thousands of years.
04:27
Paleoclimatologists are also interested
04:32
in where the sea level stands were
at other times on earth.
04:34
Here in Bermuda, my team and I embarked
04:37
on the deepest manned dives
ever conducted in the region,
04:40
and we were looking for places
04:43
where the sea level
used to lap up against the shoreline,
04:44
many hundreds of feet
below current levels.
04:48
I also get to work with paleontologists
and archaeologists.
04:52
In places like Mexico,
in the Bahamas, and even in Cuba,
04:56
we're looking at cultural remains
and also human remains in caves,
05:00
and they tell us a lot
05:05
about some of the earliest
inhabitants of these regions.
05:06
But my very favorite project of all
was over 15 years ago,
05:10
when I was a part of the team
that made the very first
05:14
accurate, three-dimensional map
of a subterranean surface.
05:16
This device that I'm
driving through the cave
05:19
was actually creating
a three-dimensional model as we drove it.
05:22
We also used ultra low frequency radio
05:26
to broadcast back to the surface
our exact position within the cave.
05:28
So I swam under houses and businesses
and bowling alleys and golf courses,
05:34
and even under a Sonny's BBQ Restaurant,
05:38
Pretty remarkable, and what that taught me
05:42
was that everything we do
on the surface of our earth
05:45
will be returned to us to drink.
05:47
Our water planet is not just
rivers, lakes and oceans,
05:50
but it's this vast network of groundwater
that knits us all together.
05:55
It's a shared resource
from which we all drink.
05:59
And when we can understand
our human connections with our groundwater
06:03
and all of our water resources
on this planet,
06:08
then we'll be working on the problem
06:10
that's probably the most important
issue of this century.
06:12
So I never got to be that astronaut
that I always wanted to be,
06:16
but this mapping device,
designed by Dr. Bill Stone, will be.
06:20
It's actually morphed.
06:23
It's now a self-swimming autonomous robot,
06:25
artificially intelligent,
06:28
and its ultimate goal
is to go to Jupiter's moon Europa
06:30
and explore oceans beneath
the frozen surface of that body.
06:33
And that's pretty amazing.
06:39
(Applause)
06:41

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Jill Heinerth - Cave diver
Jill Heinerth explores underwater caves deep inside the earth.

Why you should listen

More people have walked on the moon than have been to some of the places that Jill's exploration has taken her right here on the earth. From the most dangerous technical dives deep inside underwater caves, to searching for never-before-seen ecosystems inside giant Antarctic icebergs, to the lawless desert border area between Egypt and Libya while a civil war raged around her, Jill's curiosity and passion about our watery planet is the driving force in her life.

Jill’s accolades include induction into the Explorer's Club and the inaugural class of the Women Diver's Hall of Fame. She received the Wyland ICON Award, an honor she shares with several of her underwater heroes including Jacques Cousteau, Robert Ballard and Dr. Sylvia Earle. She was named a "Living Legend" by Sport Diver Magazine and selected as Scuba Diving Magazine's "Sea Hero of the Year 2012."

In recognition of her lifetime achievement, Jill was awarded the inaugural Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration. Established by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013, the medal recognizes singular achievements and the pursuit of excellence by an outstanding Canadian explorer.

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