• Illustration: Robert Carter/Canadian Geographic

Jill Heinerth was featured in the July/August issue of Canadian Geographic and is The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s inaugural explorer-in-residence. Here, the renowned cave diver shares memories of her favourite place in Canada: Port Hardy, B.C.

Port Hardy is located on the northeastern end of Vancouver Island.

Sometimes the fondest memories are built on the most extreme adventures. Port Hardy, B.C. is magic. It’s a wild, primordial part of the world that is teeming with life - all of it giant sized. In other parts of the world you see an octopus the size of your fist and you’re impressed; In the Pacific Northwest you see a giant octopus that’s bigger than you.

It’s also where I lost my first set of dive gear. I was a young diver, around 25 years old, and was crossing the perilous hecate strait from Port Hardy to Queen Charlotte Island. As night encroached a storm hit, despite the all-clear that weather forecasters had given us before setting out.

We were taking waves over the boat, and it knocked off our navigation gear. Our first mate was slammed against a rail and broke some ribs. Most people were seasick, but I was still awake. I saw that the skiff we were towing, the skiff that held all our dive gear, was completely swamped and was tearing the back deck of the boat apart. It was acting like a sea anchor.

I went running to the captain, and said “We’re going to lose the back deck.” He grabs his knife and cuts the two-inch line.

Still, the experience yielded many laughs, and, really, just fuelled my desire to explore more than anything. I realized there was so much of the world, so much of Canada, left to experience.

Whenever I’ve visited there’s always been this incredible balance between topside beauty and underwater beauty. Huge beautiful spruce trees all around, with whales breaching by the boat all day long. And then the day is done and you’re having a BBQ on the back of the boat and northern lights start to light up the sky. It’s pretty special, and all leads to me never wanting to sleep.

- as told to Sabrina Doyle