Text and Photography by Jill Heinerth

Excerpt from ADM issue 13, 2003

here were no contrails in the sky. The hum from the neighboring highway was conspicuously absent. There were no refuse heaps in the landscape or endless loops of world news whining away on a television. We were veritable specks in the landscape, pressed between the whiteness of the ice and menacing sea. Completely separated from the technological buzz of the modern world, we found ourselves living the adventures of the great polar explorers Ernest Shackelton and Robert Falcon Scott.

After enduring several weeks of seasickness, lack of sleep and poor nourishment, I developed a new appreciation for the brave pioneers that sailed the Southern Ocean in wooden ships. Each day was filled with the terror of the roughest waters in the world - the Roaring Forties surrendered to the Furious Fifties and culminated with the Screaming Sixties. Thirty-foot waves hailed down on our 100-foot boat, leaving my mind wandering to apparitions from the Perfect Storm. My muscles were sore from trying to hold myself in my tiny bunk. My legs were bruised from moving around the ship.

But, as with most things in life, perseverance justifies the reward. Antarctica is a magical place. In the seemingly endless Austral Summer, there is no time to sleep. The skies and seas are a continual parade of life and color. The environment changes by the minute as the sun tracks around the horizon. To sleep is to miss a transient moment when you might see a seal lounging on the ice or a skua swooping down on a penguin chick or an iceberg that looks like a modern art sculpture.

Immersed in this hostile yet stunning world, I realized that even in the simplicity of the Antarctic environment, we could only survive under totally artificial means. In every aspect of our travels we needed technology to ensure a synthetic environment to keep us warm and safe. We were much more connected to the world I had left behind than to the physical existence of Shackelton. Dressed in dry suits, heaters and rebreathers, we looked like androids in the wilderness.

Everything in Antarctica relates to the wilderness of water. In hundreds of textures and forms, water distinguishes the environment as different than any other place on the planet. Rare moisture in the atmosphere crystallizes in the sky and creates magical multicolored clouds. Wispy vapors fall as snow on the continent and rise to ice sheets that are so immense, they crush our globe into a pear shaped earth.

Snow builds up on ice sheets, and ice sheets flow forth as glaciers. Rivers of ice make a tedious march back to the sea. On the continental fringe, the glaciers pile up to form towering bluffs over the ocean. These ice shelves are filled with monumental cracks and menacing crevasses. They create a barrier for life. A few birds fly over the hindrance and some creatures swim below it, but no species with the exception of man attempts to live on it. And never in history had there been an attempt to swim inside of this terrain. But to explore caves in Antarctica is to strip exploration to its most elemental form. Studying the ice becomes a game of strategy with Mother Nature and sometimes, a simple matter of survival.
Above Photo: It took the expedition team 12 days to reach the Ross Sea from their departure Port of Lyttleton, New Zealand. While most of the team were getting sick in their bunks, Wes Skiles managed to capture this image of the seas that peaked at 60 feet.
As ice sheets forge into the sea, huge cracks enlarge and the hinges to the continent weaken. Almost 350 km3 calve from the frozen continent each year. Once free from their parent, icebergs begin a new maritime existence. They drift north and get carried in the circumpolar current. Most bergs travel at a rate of around 12 km per day and take years to dissolve back into the sea. As bergs age, they gain character. Cracks are broadened by the scouring winds and sea caves grow from the carving surge. Stress builds within the massive fronts and currents try to wrench the bulk apart.

For almost two months, we stared in awe at the magnificent parade of individual bergs and floes that passed and scraped along our boat. We landed on bergs, walked on them, set up tents on their shelves, ran boats through them and dived on the ice walls that dropped endlessly to the depths of the sea. We collected marine life samples and examined the racing currents that streamed in their wakes. But, it was at Cape Hallett where my husband Paul and I jumped into the crackling blue water to explore the inside of a grounded iceberg.

We cautiously entered a collapsed area to find a gaping fissure that extended out of sight. It reminded me of Stargate Cave in Andros with its sheer white walls that drop interminably in a narrow crack. We swam into the fracture a good distance and drifted down to the sea floor. As we hit 130 feet we discovered a secret and dazzling world of colorful tunicates, sea stars and curious creatures. Brilliant reds cast a glow on the underside of the ice just a few feet over our heads. The allure of the teeming life entranced us to swim beneath the great berg and explore the expansive cave environment.

We slipped silently through the underbelly of the berg with our rebreathers, hearing only the occasional fire of the solenoid valve. We found tiny columns and ridges that glued the berg in its current position. The forces of great currents carved conduits and passageways through the berg and brought life-giving nutrients to the plentiful life. Large scallops textured the walls like dimples on a giant golf ball. We were in some sort of thermo-karst; caves created in a blink of geological time with bold yet transient features.

Above Photo: The dive team of Jill and Paul Heinerth and Wes Skiles used Cis-Lunar rebreathers for all of their ice dives in Antarctica. The added warmth and ability to deliver extremely high gas volumes during heavy physical exertion added to the safety margin for the team. Submersion times of three hours in 28°F (-1.6°C) water were achieved with relative comfort.

We had penetrated a full quarter of the berg when we called the dive. I sensed a faint moaning reverberate around me. Not recognizing the sound, I carefully inspected my rebreather displays. Finding nothing awry, we turned to swim back to the waiting Zodiac.

As Paul and I hovered at our decompression stop, I noticed the terrain had changed. The entrance looked significantly different than when we began our dive. I looked up to our waiting boat and saw Wes Skiles and first-mate Matt Jolly giving each other "high-fives." On the surface I learned that they had been frantic. During our dive, a deep and frightening groan issued forth from the berg. A large piece of ice in the opening calved and rolled sending them on an eight-foot swell up and a sixteen-foot headlong crash back down again. They were happy to see us alive.Skiles later recalled, "I thought you and Paul had died. Matt and I were in the Zodiac up inside the crevasse on the surface when suddenly we heard a blood curdling noise and our little Zodiac was lifted up in the air and dropped down in the crevasse as large pieces of ice fell around us. We had experienced a calving…what would be equivalent to a small earthquake on land, and you and Paul were down inside of that iceberg when that happened. Our first and most immediate thought was that certainly you could not have survived that event and the very thing that I watched you go down in had closed up completely. To me, from my point of view, there was no way you could have come out of there."

The following day Paul and I opted to explore the same fissure but swam under the larger and seemingly more stable half of the berg. Again we discovered wondrous life and magical vistas. Decompression obligation and current prevented us from an easy return to our starting point, so we swam the length of the berg and surfaced on the far side. Lucky for us, Wes was on watch and spotted our tiny heads bobbing on the distant horizon. Exhausted but jubilant, we shared stories and our tape with the crew.

On the third day, Wes joined us for a HiDef Film shoot of Ice Island Cave #4. I heard him yelp with excitement at the beauty that he finally experienced first hand.

He later recalled, "Nothing could have prepared me for the immensity of the crevasse. It was like a huge fault inside of a cave system and you have this crystalline white blue ice and this amazing deep abyss of azure water that you are peering into. Looking up you see light coming down through giant blocks of ice and you are falling and gliding deeper and deeper into this canvas of beauty that escapes definition."

The current was escalating at a horrifying rate during the dive. When we called the dive, it was because of the torrent of water that bore down on us. Getting out of the cave became a frightening fight for our lives. There was nothing that enabled a handhold. We needed to get off the floor but the walls were slick ice. We could only inch forward at 130 feet, and every time we rose off the floor we would get sucked back into the giant. Decompression was mounting.

Tiny thumb sized ice-fish burrows were the only source of respite. They were just large enough to insert a single digit and pause briefly before fighting forward again. I moved up, finger by finger, evicting the resident fish out of their dens, sending them into the siphoning

First Mate Matt Jolley assists Jill Heinerth aboard.
Photo: Porter Turnbull
The sea floor beneath the icebergs was littered with life, including hundreds of mating pairs of these strange looking isopods, Glyptonotus Antarcticus.
Above: Paul Heinerth emerges exhausted after the gruelling dive that almost trapped Skiles and the Heinerths within an ice cave.

Below: The Heinerths descend into the entry fissure that dropped to the sea floor where they discovered a garden of
life in tunnels below a grounded iceberg.