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Under Thin Ice: Q&A with Jill Heinerth

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March 24, 2020

In lieu of the Embassy of Canada’s planned screening as part of the D.C. Environmental Film Festival, Under Thin Ice is currently available to watch for free as part of an online festival from March 17-31, 2020. The film chronicles an extraordinary expedition undertaken by Canadian extreme divers and cinematographers Jill Heinerth and Mario Cyr to investigate how Arctic wildlife is adjusting to the climate crisis. The film brings viewers into a majestic underwater world threatened by disappearing ice.

Jill Heinerth is a veteran of over thirty years of filming, photography and exploration on projects in submerged caves around the world with National Geographic, NOAA, various educational institutions and television networks worldwide. She is the inaugural Explorer in Residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, recipient of Canada’s prestigious Polar Medal and the diving world’s highest award from the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences, the NOGI.

Heinerth took the time to answer some questions about her experiences and observations documenting rapid changes in the Arctic.

Q: How did you get into this line of work? I have to imagine “swimming with polar bears” is not on everyone’s list of possible careers. What challenges did you face and how would you encourage other aspiring scientists, especially young girls, to continue in this field?

A: It is a bit of a long story. As a child I wanted to be an explorer. As a child of the sixties, to me, that looked like an astronaut. With no Canadian space program and no women astronauts, I was encouraged to find something else to set my sights upon. I have always been adventurous and curious, loving to learn new things and eager to collaborate with others to “do the impossible.” After saving my money for nearly ten years, I finally took a scuba class and recognized that I had found “my element.”

My first career in life was to work as a graphic designer and then to own an advertising company. I was a part-time scuba instructor as a hobby and decided to turn my life on its head. I vowed to find a way to be creative underwater rather than at a drafting table. The thirty years since that revelation have led to a hybrid career of diving, writing, filmmaking, shooting photos, and collaborating with engineers and scientists in work all over the world

Q: As you mention in the film, Lancaster Sound is now Canada’s largest marine conservation area. Why are programs like Parks Canada’s National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) designation so important for rich ecosystems in the Arctic and how do such designations support the conservation of the region?

A: The Arctic is changing faster than any other place on earth. As it warms, there are challenges for the wildlife, the indigenous population and also for the engine that drives global climate. We have to protect these places from further harm so we can set aside the natural environment without despoiling it. If we could agree on a protection treaty such as MAPS (Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary), that is similar to the Antarctic Treaty, it would benefit the global population. Resource exploitation in the North is also a big worry. There is no infrastructure ready to deal with an oil spill or mining remediation.

Q: Under Thin Ice explicitly features interactions with the people of the North, as well as nature and landscapes. Why was that an important aspect to you and the producers?

A: To me, the people, wildlife and landscape of the North are one living, breathing entity. They are interconnected in ways we can barely understand. Speaking with Inuit elders, I am struck by their grace and resilience. In a way, you could say that they bear the brunt of pollution and climate change issues that are primarily driven by factors that began far from their homes and yet they face the most immediate consequences of those actions. Somehow, they stand prepared to adapt. The traditional knowledge of our Inuit forebearers is immeasurable. They have much to teach us about living respectfully and sustainably in difficult conditions.

Q: Based on your time working with Inuit communities, what would you say are the some of the challenges and changes the communities have had to make, both to respond to climate change and to continue to meet their economic needs? Why are indigenous-led nature conservation programs and conversations so important?

A: The indigenous people that I have worked with are challenged by the loss of sea ice. The sea ice is “the land” to them. Sea ice connects communities and families, it offers a place to hunt and find their traditional food and it brings together their family unit as they work together on hunting and traditional practices. As they look to the future, they see a more marine-based existence. Snowmobiles will be replaced with boats, but what will they eat? The caribou moratorium presented a challenge that made them feel physically and spiritually weak. What will happen if they cannot get enough seal or beluga or other traditional foods? The costs of imported foods are astronomical and what is sent to the north is not very healthy.

Indigenous-led nature and conservation programs help other people learn about their traditional ways. I might be mostly vegetarian when I am home, but I understand that their diet is made from what is available to them and what makes them healthy and happy. I know some people are horrified as they imagine someone killing a seal for food, but they will feel differently once they have been immersed in the Inuit experience. They will see a people that respects the balance of nature and understands that protecting that food web is essential for survival.

Speaking with leaders of norther communities and seeing the challenges they face first hand will help grow a more empathetic and informed public. We all need to imagine what our lives would be like with no source of clean drinking water or coffee that costs $41 per can.

Q: Were there other surprising connections you made between the Arctic communities and climate change work ongoing throughout Canada and the world?

A: I think the biggest revelation that I had was about how the timing of migrations is being upset as the water warms. With the humpbacks and bowheads arriving in the Arctic at the same time (they used to be staggered by a couple of weeks), we wonder if they will overeat and deplete the food stocks without time for renewal. That is just one example of the fact that we know very little about how this is all going to pan out. Will a warming Arctic adapt to the rapid warming and acidification of the oceans? It is doubtful, but we still do not know how it will change year to year and what species will go first.

Q: The film covers a number of significant and interconnected impacts to wildlife. It also details the problem of algae growing on the ice. Have you witnessed a other impacts to vegetation in the Arctic?

A: I have watched a greening of the slopes in the north. Traveling up the coast of Labrador, I see greenery growing higher up the sunny side of the mountains that used to be barren. Year to year, it is apparent. I worry about the Arctic terraforming itself before the wildlife can adapt. It is the rapidity that scares me most.

Q: While some featured species exist only in the Arctic, the far north is home to many migratory species. In Under Thin Ice, you highlight the effects faced by Arctic-breeding migratory birds – that starving polar bears have destroyed 80% of certain bird colonies. But many threats faced by these migratory bird colonies come from outside the Arctic. Do you have thoughts on key areas for international collaboration to protect migratory species?

A: Wow. That is a big question that I don’t think I am academically prepared to answer. As an explorer/filmmaker/journalist, there are a lot of things that I see and document in the hope that other scientists/collaborators will have the answers. I have seen the polar bears raiding bird nests. I have also seen the challenges of finding particular species of animals and birds that used to be easy to track down.

We stand at a turning point in history. There are a lot of big problems in our midst — climate change, water resource protection, infectious disease and the carrying capacity of our planet. We have very short deadlines to solve many of these enormous problems. We no longer have the luxury of using the traditional academic model for scientific discovery, research and publication. I still support peer-reviewed science, but we need an army of citizen science/collaborators to help gather the evidence, brainstorm and make common sense steps toward a better future. There can be no delay. I hope that my part in this, will be to continue to gather data, images and tell stories that ignite science and action.

Watch full film HERE

Password for 2020 Online Festival Viewing: Galafilm