Australian diver, oceanographer and award-winning underwater photographer PT Hirschfield has incurable recurrent endometrial cancer. But it hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her passion underwater. She was a recent guest on the Blunt Report podcast where we discussed her cancer, as well as what keeps her enamored with the underwater world.
“I actually vomited for my first 60 dives,” Hirschfield said when explaining how she had little attraction to diving in the first place. Her first dive simply came about as a romantic idea for a couple to do on the Great Barrier Reef. Ironically, her future passion became a solo pursuit when her husband became incapacitated with seasickness.
Almost 1,000 dives later, this genesis moment must seem like a lifetime ago. Her diving career now encompasses thousands of photographs and videos,. Her work has been featured by the likes of BBC’s “Blue Planet,” National Geographic and the Dodo. She also won the Australasian Underwater Photographer of the Year award in 2018.
Struggling with health issues
While these accolades alone put her into a category that includes some of the world’s most prestigious oceanographers, Hirschfield has faced devastating health issues that make her relationship with the ocean even more meaningful. In 2014, after several reoccurring diagnoses and lengthy treatments, medical staff declared that she had an inoperable, grapefruit-sized tumor and that any further treatment would only buy her time. Yet, through the many surgeries, Hirschfield used her love for the ocean to keep her spirits high. The light at the end of the tunnel, for her, was getting back underwater.
Making the most of her time
Though many would crumble in the face of this diagnosis, Hirschfield took the opposite track. “You do start to process the whole issue of mortality at a very intimate level,” she said, adding that the fact she will eventually pass away makes her no different to anyone else, except that she doesn’t have the luxury of denial. Not only does Hirschfield draw on the ocean as a source of power and motivation, she also reflects on the constant struggles between life and death that a diver witnesses on a day-to-day basis.
From the very top of the predatory apex to the deepest of the bottom dwellers, the ocean is a testament to the fact that death is just as much a part of life as life itself. She has found peace in the raw and untamed power of the natural world, accepting it for all that it is; both beautiful and fierce.
Now, through numerous conservation projects, photography and with the use of her voice, Hirschfield has dedicated her existence to giving back to the ocean that has given her so much. As she says on her blog: “As far as I know, everyone is going to die sometime (I just don’t have the luxury of denial). So, we may as well all make the most out of the days we have rather than lament the ones we don’t, right?”