high springs

Jill Heinerth: Underwater Explorer and Water Activist

Jill Heinerth

When she was 2 years old, Jill Heinerth fell off a dock into the freezing cold water of Lake Ontario.

In the midst of drowning, Heinerth said the only thing she remembers is floating face down, content and unafraid.

“It was peaceful down there,” she said. “I saw the rainbow ripples on the sand below and just didn’t want to get out.”

Ever since that moment, Heinerth, now 47, said she sees life as a continuing effort to get back in the water.

As a professional cave diver and independent filmmaker living in High Springs, Heinerth has explored about 100 underwater caves all over the world. She has made movies for National Geographic, befriended a cave diving pioneer and guided “Titanic” director James Cameron on his first cave dive.

Growing up in Ontario, Heinerth’s parents never let her take diving lessons. She didn’t learn to dive until she enrolled in a scuba class in college. The teacher took the class on a dive trip to a lake in Ontario.

The water was 37 degrees and murky. She couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her. But within hours, she stumbled upon four tugboat wrecks in the depths of the lake.

That was it. Heinerth was hooked.

“The noise of the world completely stops when your down there,” she said. “It is very freeing. I just knew it was where I belonged.”

After she finished college, Heinerth opened an advertising agency in Ontario. Life in an office, however, didn’t suit her.

At 26, she sold her business and most of her belongings, packed a suitcase and moved to the Cayman Islands where she worked in marketing for a hotel and taught diving.

It was during those two-and-a-half years in the Cayman Islands that Heinerth began making trips to High Springs, Fla., a small town in North Florida painted with exotic, fresh-water springs, to explore its numerous underwater caves. The town was an international mecca for cave diving.

In 1996, she left the Cayman Islands and moved to a city a few hours south of High Springs.

“People don’t realize it, but the springs here are like the eighth wonder of the world,” she said. “I’ve explored a lot of caves, but these springs are the most unique on the planet.”

Heinerth now lives in High Springs with her husband Robert and their peacock, Indigo. She dives in Ginnie Springs across from her house almost every day.

It’s not that she’s looking for something in particular when she plunges into the deep, Heinerth said. She craves the experience, and if she comes across a boat wreck hidden in the sand or finds herself swimming alongside a killer whale, it’s an added bonus.

As her love of diving developed, so did her passion to raise awareness about water and the issues associated with it.

When she relocated to Florida, she opened Heinerth Productions, a film production company that she still runs today. This way, the diving was still constant, but she could now capture what she saw and share it with the world.

A brush with death — and taxes

In 1996, Heinerth was working on a film about the caves of Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee. It was on that project that she met Wes Skiles, a cave diving pioneer known around the world for his underwater photography.

The two decided to work together and explore underwater caves in an iceberg that had calved off Antarctica in 2003.

Skiles, a daring diver and Heinerth, an eager explorer pitched the idea to National Geographic on a whim and got the funding.

It took them a month of diving in the minus-two-degree water before they found any caves.

At one point, while she was exploring the caves beneath the iceberg, the current unexpectedly changed. The rope that divers use as a lifeline from the caves to the surface broke. Heinerth couldn’t see more than five feet in front of her.

Her ear piece went silent. She lost contact with her team.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Heinerth said. “I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Crap, Robert doesn’t know how to do the taxes. I’ve got to get out of here.’”

But she calmed herself and made it out. It was one of her scariest brushes with death, but she went back down the next day.

Exposing the world of water

Heinerth’s proudest piece of work was a documentary series she and Skiles shot in the mid-2000s called “Water’s Journey.”

The two divers who shared a passion for film making wanted to spread awareness about where tap water came from and the importance of conserving water. They followed the course a drop of water takes through the environment, traveling through storm water and sewer systems and exploring the entire extent of the Everglades watershed.

Tragedy struck in 2010 when Skiles died while diving off Boynton Beach in Florida. Although she misses her friend and mentor, Heinerth hasn’t let Skiles’ death keep her from combing underwater caves.

She went on to work with Hollywood director James Cameron on his 2011 film, “Sanctum.” The film is dedicated to Skiles.

Because she had made dozens of films and worked frequently with National Geographic, Heinerth made a name for herself in the diving world.

Cameron contacted her to help train the actors and direct underwater scenes in “Sanctum,” a film about cave divers who explore one of the world’s most treacherous and least accessible caves.

Under Heinerth’s guidance, Cameron went on his first-ever cave dive in Ginnie Springs.

In her home, Heinerth has pictures of her and the Academy Award-winning director eating pizza while they float in the aquamarine water.

Next May, Heinerth will head on the road to present and promote her newest film, “We Are Water,” to educate viewers about where water comes from and to teach people how to protect and nurture our connection with the finite resource.

Heinerth and her husband, Robert, will bike more than 5,000 miles from Vancouver to the southernmost point of the St. Johns River, stopping in cities to present the film. The tour is an effort to engage viewers in taking action to conserve water.

“I see ‘We are Water’ as the journey of the rest of my life,” Heinerth said. “I’m going to continue to carry this message in every way that I possibly can.”

Swimming in Green

Visitors to Ginnie Springs looking out at the Santa Fe River. There is visible algae in the background, though the spring's waters were clear.

On a Tuesday afternoon, Ginnie Springs near the city of High Springs, Fla., is filled with divers, swimmers and people relaxing in the water. For a weekday, there are more people than you’d expect.

Every year, millions of people visit Florida’s springs and rivers, bringing their money with them. An annual report compiled by the Florida Park Service estimates that the 15 most popular of Florida’s state parks bring in combined revenue of over $12 million. In addition, visitors to places such as Ginnie Springs, a private spring, and Ichetucknee State Park have a sizable economic impact on the nearby towns.

In many parts of Florida, natural beauty is an economic asset. At least one person thinks that might change.

Trouble in paradise

Roland Loog, director of Visit Gainesville, said that the waters of the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers, as well as all the connecting springs, have deteriorated over the last 12 years.

“The water was crystal clear,” said Loog, when describing his childhood experiences with the Ichetucknee River. “Today, the water definitely has a greenish hue.”

He said that the Suwannee, the Santa Fe, and all the connected bodies of water have suffered. Algae blooms, decreased water levels, and weaker water pressure are among the problems he listed.

Loog said the town of High Springs has “economic woes” directly related to declining conditions in the springs and the Santa Fe River.

Marc Bryan, of the Cave Country Dive Shop in High Springs, disagrees with Loog.

“Where else are people going to go? We still have the most beautiful springs,” said Bryan. “It’s not like they’re going to say the High Springs area is terrible and go to Tampa.”

Bryan said High Springs is suffering due to the poor economy nation-wide, not because of worsening conditions in the nearby springs and river.

He doesn’t deny that he is concerned about algae, but he is reluctant to believe there is a long-term problem with decreasing water levels.

“It’s a timing thing,” he said. “We could have this conversation three weeks from now and things could be different.”

During the the six months the dive shop has been open, one employee estimated about 500 customers have come through.

“Have you ever, ever heard one person say that business is bad because of algae or the water level is down?” Bryan asked Marissa Lasso, another employee at the dive shop. “No,” she replied.

Gently down the stream

Jim Woods, CEO of the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost in High Springs, said that problems with the springs and the river are something he is “extremely concerned” about. Although his business hasn’t seen a decrease in customers, he worries that lower water levels will make canoeing too difficult for his patrons.

Woods said the canoe outpost has had about 5,000 to 7,000 customers over his last business year. An average year, he said, customers number 3,000 to 5,000.

Even though people are still renting his canoes, Woods said that the state of the water has made his cost of business go up.

“We’ve had to adjust,” he said.

Woods’ bookkeeper, Ross Ambrose, said that the water levels have forced the canoe outpost to change where it can put its clients in the water.

“We used to put people in the water right here,” he said. “Now we have to drive them to the next bridge. There’s a cost to our clients.”

In addition, Ambrose mentioned other issues, such as problems navigating canoes in low water and algae making it difficult for divers to see underwater.

Ambrose said he doesn’t think lower water levels, increased algae and more pollutants in the water are temporary problems. Lax regulations and more water use in Jacksonville are to blame, he said.

Ambrose said it is entirely possible that High Springs could eventually end up like White Springs, in Hamilton County, Fla., where phosphate mining disrupted the water flow of the nearby springs. The nearby waters ultimately vanished, causing economic devastation for the town which once featured eloquent destination hotels.

Ecotourism’s secondary business

Aside from canoe rental shops and similar places, other businesses in High Springs rely on tourist cash.

Lucie Regensdorf, owner of the Grady House, a bed and breakfast in High Springs, estimates that 90 percent of her customers are people coming to see the river and springs.

“Ecotourism is huge here,” she said. “Most people come here for the river.”

Her business had about 1,600 customers in 2011. Her best year was 2008, when she had 1,800 customers, she said.

Regensdorf beleives that if the springs and rivers were not in good condition, people would stop coming to High Springs.

“It would hurt my business and a lot of other businesses in town,” she said. “People who think that rivers are important are going to try and protect them, and hopefully they can prevail and get the city commissions and county commissions to do the right things.”

Dan Mijajlovic, owner of the Springs Diner in High Springs, said that during the summer, he gets around 6,000 customers a month. He estimated that nearly half of those patrons are tourists.

Differing viewpoints

Opinions by local business owners on the state of the Santa Fe River and local springs have varied. Loog and Ambrose expressed a pessimistic view, while people like Regensdorf and Bryan said things are good.

A senior employee with Ginnie Springs, who did not wish to be identified, said there is no problem with the water conditions in the area. Ben Harris, former park manager for the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, agrees.

“The water is better than it’s ever been,” he said. Harris said he believes that the springs and rivers all throughout North Florida have been improving.

“The state has made a concerted effort to make sure there is no pollution,” he said.
Harris said lower water levels are caused by a recent drought and fluctuate with the weather.

The big picture

High Springs is just one place that has capitalized on water tourism. There are many other similar towns that benefit from Florida’s scenic rivers and springs.

In its 2011 annual report on the economic impact of springs in the state, the Florida Park Service looked at the direct economic impact of Florida’s springs from 2009 to 2010. It gathered this information by studying how much money tourists spent in nearby areas while visiting the springs.

Blue Springs, near DeLand, Fla., brought nearly $20 million into  surrounding areas.

Ichetucknee Springs, northwest of Fort White, Fla., attracted over $7 million dollars into its local economy.

According to the report, the top 15 most popular springs in Florida had a combined economic impact of $114 million that fiscal year.

Happy campers

Jeff Reeves, a diver originally from Michigan, has no complaints about the water at Ginnie Springs. He has been cave diving in Florida since 1991 but only moved to the state five years ago.

‘The diving brought me here,” he said.

He suits up near a spring known as The Devil’s Eye. Reeves said the water looked just as good as it always has.

“This is one of my favorite spots.”