By: Joseph Heinerth
They met when my mother went in to get an air fill…So yes, I’ve been around water and scuba diving since birth. I’ve hung out with some of the greatest scuba legends, among them Bill Stone, Sheck Exley, Wes Skiles. I think I may have thrown up on Sheck when he was holding me as a baby, a fact I can’t corroborate without asking my dad, but I don’t like to talk about Mr. Exley with him. When Sheck died, I was 10. I remember walking into my dads office and it was one of the few times I can remember my father crying. Sheck was the first in the world to log over 1,000 cave dives (at the age of 23): in over 29 years of cave diving, he made over 4,000. He is one of the few divers to survive a 400 Ft dive on compressed air. During his diving career, he set numerous depth and cave penetration records. To my knowledge most of these records have not been broken. So its safe to say I’ve been blessed to know these people.
As for myself, I could hold my breath and swim underwater before I could walk, my first breath off a regulator was in the Gulf of Mexico at age 5…or maybe 6, I don’t remember. I do remember the world seemed so much larger, more beautiful. Since that day I was hooked! I shot my first fish maybe 2 years later, give or take. My father, along with Bill Stone, were expedition leaders in the Wakulla project. If anyone isn’t familiar with Wakulla Springs, look it up, its very interesting. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” was filmed there and I believe it’s the largest connected underwater cave system in the USA. Please understand that I’m writing this without looking up these “facts” because I want to give you a first hand account of what I remember, not just Wikipedia regurgitation.
My parents divorced when I was just a few years old, but they have done the most incredible, selfless act – they never, NEVER had anything on their minds besides unconditional love for me..they both remarried and the two new couples and myself would all hang out, go on vacations together. It’s truly amazing.
Ok, enough about that, fast forward- 1995 – Akumal, Mexico. We were staying at Villas De Rosa, a beautiful cave diving paradise. If anyone has the opportunity to go there, please do. This is where my life changed. At age 11, thats when I made my first cavern dive, that same week I made my first cave dive, and later in the week my first cave diving traverse. I’m sure everyone reading this probably knows what a traverse is, but if not, its when you enter one cave and surface at another. Thats the beauty of Mexico cave diving, it’s not deep at all -maybe 30 Ft so you can potentially stay underwater for hours. So thats what I did, hauling a set of double steel 100’s through the Mexican jungles is no fun, but the rewards of those dives I can’t even put into words. I felt scared, excited, I remember my first time leaving the peaceful sunlight of the cavern into the actual cave, where the only comforting light is battery powered and man made. I almost felt like I didn’t belong there, after all, until the 60’s it wasn’t humanly possible to do so. I felt for the first time that sacred, ancient connection to earth. I understood why ancient cultures worshipped more than one god, I knew I was in a place on earth where less than 0.001% of mankind had ever been. The fear of knowing that if something goes wrong down there, you cant just surface, if your light dies, you are in complete blackness. I remember turning off my light briefly and silently, peacefully breathing, hearing my heartbeat and experiencing the blackest of black, so few have traveled here, much less at 11 years old. I was so proud, probably a little cocky too, but I felt like I earned it…at that time I was the youngest person to cave dive. Yes, it was “unofficial” but at no time was I ever in any danger, no more than other cave divers. Thus began my life long love affair with cave diving. I like open water, but after being blessed with diving in the Mayan Riviera, lets just say my expectations have since been a little…. higher? Although a good wreck dive is still amazing, the caves have my heart. My family has repeatedly returned to the same dive spots in Mexico…at least every 3 years, give or take.
When I turned 16 National Geographic hired my dad and step-mom to be part of a research team to go to Antarctica. Apparently a huge piece of ice had broken off the Ross ice shelf and at the time, it was the largest moving object on earth. My father has some amazing footage of this, not to mention Nat-Geo had filmed the entire excursion, entitled ”Ice Island; a journey above below and within the ice”. Check that out that out too..an awesome documentary. It was interesting for me to receive my fathers will, apparently this was not going to be a secure and exactly “safe” journey for them. My father asked me what he should do, if he should go or not. He would miss my 16th birthday, and this bothered him. I think he may feel like he missed a big part of my adolescent life because of such expeditions and endless dive trips. I hope to one day make this very clear to him that I have never been so proud of another human being. I do not regret anything and I don’t want him to. I’m so very proud of him and all his accomplishments. So they went and fulfilled their duties with Nat-Geo and returned safely. One of my favorite birthday presents ever was probably the phone call I received from my dad in the middle of the ocean on his way to the most unexplored continent on Earth. Wow, ten years gone…*sigh* well anyway, throughout my teenage years my mos t memorable dives were probably on the Nekton Pilot, a wonderful live-a-board pontoon boat diving operation with a great crew and good food…oh ya the diving was AMAZING too. My last voyage on the Nekton Pilot was a few years ago, my father and I had scooters and we were flying through these huge tunnels of coral and rock, racing and just having the time of our lives, every once in a while a gargled “WOO HOO” would be heard, either from my dad or myself. So much of this I wish I would have documented either by film or video. I know there are a few videos of me diving but I have to find them among the hundreds of pieces of dive gear my father has at his house. Sadly, the Nekton Pilot is no longer operating anymore.