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From the Arctic to Antarctica, Erika Bergman pilots submarines to the seafloor

Imagine if, before you could learn to drive, you first had to be able to take a car apart and completely reassemble it. That’s what Erika Bergman had to do with a submersible craft before she could pilot one.

“Driving it is really pretty straightforward,” she told Digital Trends. “It just takes lots and lots of practice.” It’s not like driving a car, where the surface stays while the vehicle moves. “The road is moving around you, in up and down and forward and reverse,” adds Bergman.

She’s been piloting submersible vehicles for a decade. As a National Geographic Explorer, Bergman has livestreamed from subs into classrooms. She’s piloted researchers, filmmakers, and tourists all over the world. “As a submarine pilot, I’m really just the bus driver,” she says.

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In the sub

To get a mini-sub into the Great Blue Hole in Belize requires hitching a ride with a much bigger boat. Ship time can cost $15,000 a day — “without breaking a sweat,” said Bergman — so researchers and camera crews will often look for sponsors. Sometimes that means one seat in her remotely operated vehicle (ROV) goes to a philanthropist. “They want to see what their money goes to,” she said. ‘They don’t want to just write a check anymore.”

Erika Bergman/Facebook

If you want to ride with Bergman, in addition to hiring her, you’ll have to go through some safety training. “We do, usually, what’s called mission-specialist training,” she said, adding that it’s more interactive than what happens on an airplane. “Instead of just watching the flight attendant put on the life jacket, you have to put on your own life jacket,” she said.

You also have to learn the controls, in case the pilot is indisposed and you need to get back to the surface. In general, though, she said mini-submarines are very safe, and there are lots of fallback mechanisms for getting the ROV above water again. The biggest threat is becoming entangled in a giant, wayward fishing net. In the worst case, the vehicle has life support for three days, so someone can come down and rescue you. It would be a very unpleasant three days, though. There is no bathroom or kitchen.

The biggest threat is becoming entangled in a giant, wayward fishing net.

When Bergman isn’t piloting researchers or Richard Branson, she’s running her business, Global Engineering & Exploration Counselors (GEECs). “Our biggest program is called Girls Underwater Robot Camp,” she said. Using an OpenROV kit, the girls build a submersible. “We teach them engineering, we teach them a little bit of design,” said Bergman. They learn everything from soldering to filmmaking as they troubleshoot the robot and document their experiences.

Where are my ladies at?

Bergman said it started accidentally. When she was building the Phantom ROV in 2013, she put a call out on the public radio station in Port Angeles, Washington, asking for girls to help her assemble it. “All these girls showed up, and that was the first girl underwater robot camp,” she said. Bergman took the Phantom with her to the Arctic. Since then, she’s worked with about 500 girls all over the world. Her next programs will be in Kenya and Singapore.

Erika Bergman/Facebook

Since the early days of the camp, the first participants have entered college, with many choosing to enter engineering programs. That’s all according to plan, Bergman half-jokes. She’s used to being the only woman on her expeditions. “I just kind of had this sense of like, where are my ladies at, you know?” she said.

Soon, she’ll have a talent pool of young women she helped train who will become her colleagues and employees. She’d love to expand the program, as well. “I want to see what the future looks like with all these female marine-robotics and submarine pilot chicks in the world,” she said.

For her next big adventure, Bergman will be going the deepest she’s ever gone: 7,000 feet. She’ll be piloting the Pieces VI, a 1970s-era sub that’s been completely refurbished. She’s most excited to see yeti crabs. The colorless crustaceans have hair on their undersides that sway with the currents, “like a weird, Antarctic rave of yeti crabs,” Bergman said.

She compares going to the seafloor to visiting a new city for the first time and gazing up at the architecture. You might imagine a person in each window of a skyscraper. The looming rock formations are even denser with life. “There’s just billions and billions and billions of living organisms all over the seafloor,” she said. “I think the scale of it is what I try and help people see.”

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Jenny McGrath
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Jenny McGrath is a senior writer at Digital Trends covering the intersection of tech and the arts and the environment. Before…
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