2013 National Geographic Young Explorer Erika Bergman is a submarine pilot and a lover of all things aquatic. Her work takes her across the globe to improve our understanding of ocean ecosystems.
After tinkering with farm equipment while growing up, studying chemical oceanography in college, and working on a historic steamship in the Puget Sound region of the northwestern United States, Erika has managed to weave her various interests into one profession. Her current work with submarines combines three of the things she loves the most: the ocean, mechanics, and community outreach.
“I’m in my happy place right now because I’m right at this junction where I’m doing really technical work—very hands-on, submarine technician work where I’m building and fabricating stuff—and combining that with education outreach and this whole storytelling side of things.”
Despite what may seem like a clear path, Erika stumbled on her interest in submarines by “being in the right place at the right time.” During her time at the University of Washington, she was lucky enough to be in the lab when the owners of the submarine Antipodes came through for a show-and-tell.
Most Exciting Part of Your Work
Despite being a seasoned diver and submarine pilot, exploring what lies below the ocean’s surface will never get old for Erika.
“Every single dive—it doesn’t matter if you’ve been to the spot 100 times—is completely different. There are so many things that we don’t know about the ocean. Every single time you dive you see something new and exciting.
“It makes really abstract concepts—like an ocean current—into something really tangible that you can feel and be a part of. It’s not just using you eyes, it’s using all of your senses.”
Most Demanding Part of Your Work
Safety is priority number one for submarine pilots, who have to be extremely precise to navigate the vessel and keep it in pristine mechanical condition.
“Diving in submarines is really high-intensity and high-stakes. Like I said, no dive is ever the same: You’re always facing different currents, situations, and environments, and you have to use all of your brain all the time to always be making the best decisions.”
To ensure the safety of those on board, the submarine crew has to be a “perfectly oiled machine.” Typically, there are three to five people in the crew of a manned submarine, each with a different specialty to contribute.
How Do You Define Geography?
“When I think about geography, I picture three-dimensional natural boundaries. For me, geography is up, down, side-to-side. I remember being taught geography in school and it was very static and two-dimensional. I memorized every single country in the world and wrote it down on a map, 30 minutes later forgot it all, and half of those countries are different now. When they’re teaching it to you, they say, ‘Here’s the line, it doesn’t move, and it’s two-dimensional,’ but I realized that two dimensions don’t cut it.”
Erika’s experience diving in the Gulf Stream helped her recognize the intricate connections her work has to geography. While the Gulf Stream is typically portrayed on maps as an “ocean conveyor belt,” Erika says it’s really “more like a roller coaster,” going up and down from the ocean surface to the seafloor.
“The first time I dove [in] the Gulf Stream and I looked round, I was just surrounded by this massive wall. I like to describe it as a mural being painted in Caribbean camouflage. All these water bodies were mixing right on the boundary layer and the water was undulating so that it looked like heat coming off of a hot tarmac—it had that mirage effect. I realized that there was a really dynamic geographic boundary that’s three-dimensional and beautiful.”
Navigational tools on the submarine use geospatial technologies like the global positioning system (GPS). In combination with acoustic tracking and sonar, these systems allow the crew to pilot the submarine to small targets on the ocean floor.
So, You Want to ne a . . . Deep-Sea Submersible Pilot
Understanding how submarines work means being familiar with a wide variety of technologies.
“Be open to learning new things. You need a basic grasp of electronics, hydraulics, and pneumatics, but you don’t have to be an expert in any one of them. Just be willing to learn something new and get very hands on.”
Tinkering with everyday objects can also be a great way to get started with the basics.
“Don’t be afraid to take something apart, see how it works, and try and put it back together.”
Erika is hoping to make citizen science an even bigger part of her upcoming expeditions by incorporating video chats and Google Hangouts that will allow students to ask questions of the crew. While current technologies don’t allow manned submersibles to communicate with the people above the surface the same way a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) would, Erika is optimistic the technology will soon be available. Already she has reached out to classrooms and invited students to come up with research questions, making her “team of people that much bigger.”
In the meantime, there are plenty of opportunities for citizen science and learning about mechanics. Erika highlights MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) ROV competitions, which allow students as young as third-graders to build underwater robots and compete with them for prizes.