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In search of a monster iceberg

A Hudson couple go on a two-month expedition to the Antarctica, diving in icy waters and looking for Godzilla.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


HUDSON -- January found Jill and Paul Heinerth preparing their wills, appointing power of attorney for their business and drafting letters to their loved ones that said everything they'd always meant to.

An opportunity had emerged for the couple to do what they had thirsted their whole careers for: explore a place on earth that no other human had ever seen.

"To do that, that's what makes us whole," said Jill, 36.

It had been nine months since one of the largest icebergs in history had broken off the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. At 4,000 square miles the berg dubbed "Godzilla" was the size of Jamaica. It had split in two and was moving west at 8 miles per day.

The Heinerths, who own Scuba West Inc., a diving shop and training center in Hudson, had been on expeditions before. They'd explored underwater caves all over the world, from Mexico to the Cayman Islands and Wakulla Springs. Both Jill and Paul, 48, had gained international recognition for their pioneering diving work.

National Geographic magazine, the New England Aquarium and the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute were among the sponsors of the two-month expedition to Godzilla. It was a first-ever chance to see what lives in the belly of an iceberg. It was a chance to see how whales, seals, birds, jellyfish and other marine life are affected when icebergs break.

Icebergs create a protective environment for marine life. The current flows through the icebergs and brings nutrients to the creatures underneath. The Ice Island expedition offered a precious chance that emerges rarely for marine scientists: to explore, study and bring back images of those life forms and a part of the universe that no human eyes had ever seen before.

But there were other chances, too.

There was a chance they'd never reach Godzilla. There was a chance their 110-foot ship could get overwhelmed by the seas where 30 to 40-foot waves were considered normal. There was the chance that ice would crush their boat, or that it would get stuck in packed ice, and the crew would have to wait until the next season to get out.

High winds, rough seas

After teary goodbyes Jan. 12 at Tampa International Airport, the couple made the 36-hour journey to Wellington, New Zealand, via Chicago, Los Angeles and Auckland, New Zealand. In Wellington, they boarded the Braveheart, the 110-foot vessel that would be their home for the next few months. From there they sailed to Lyttleton, the same place where Sir Ernest Shackleton had embarked on his ill-fated quest to the South Pole, nearly a century before. The 12-day journey to Antarctica was ushered in by a storm full of 70-mph winds and the discovery that e-mail and cell phones the crew was planning to rely on wouldn't work. The ship's 18-person crew would have to traverse the Southern Ocean, some of the world's roughest seas -- latitudes known to seafarers as the "furious 50s" and the "screaming 60s" -- with only a single-band radio for a lifeline. Halfway to Antarctica, gusts sent the Braveheart into 50-degree rolls -- and Paul into the cabin seasick for days at a time.

By the end of January, the crew had pulled up to an iceberg and were ready to start diving to gather film and data. They used state-of-the-art diving technology called rebreathers that allowed divers to move quietly through the waters without creating bubbles that might frighten away marine life. It also allowed them to stay at unrestricted depths for 12 hours at a time. Traditional air tanks only give divers 30 to 45 minutes under water on average at 60-foot depths.

The divers aboard the Braveheart were down for two to three hours at a time. And by the time the crew loaded up cinema lights, cameras and backup equipment, they were plunging into the 28-degree water with 300 pounds of equipment on each of their backs, so much that they had to be hoisted back on to the boat on platforms. They wore "dry suits" to weather the cold.

That was all to be expected. They were prepared and they were equipped.

But they weren't prepared for what they found living inside of water pockets in the icebergs. Starfish, crabs, feather-dusters and a variety of other strange-looking bugs filled the icebergs with yellows, oranges and reds. The divers found transparent ice fish, which have a natural antifreeze for blood, burrowing themselves in thumb-sized holes in the icebergs.

They also found sheer iceberg walls that dropped straight down into the blueness and had the dimpled texture of a golf ball. "I had visions of what the icebergs might be like," Jill said. "But I didn't expect to see such beautiful things."

But the packed ice kept the Braveheart moving slowly through the frozen seas, sometimes at 1 to 2 miles per day. The ice conditions were so thick that the vessel never made it to Godzilla. A successful helicopter filming was launched from the boat, and some of the crew members gathered data and film footage for publication and research.

Even better, the Braveheart made it back to the mainland, safe and sound.

The Heinerths returned to Florida on March 16, disappointed somewhat that they didn't make it to Godzilla, but grateful for what they found living in other icebergs.

"What we found out there, it could keep scientists busy for years," Jill said.

The fruits of the Braveheart expedition will be featured in an upcoming issue of National Geographic, a film on the A&E network and in a short IMAX feature for the New England Aquarium.

-- Jennifer Goldblatt can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is goldblatt@sptimes.com.

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