Life in Salt: National Geographic Young Explorer Erika “Bilgey” Bergman Tells Us How She Became a Submarine Pilot

by Owen James Burke

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(Photo: Deep Blue from Below)

“It’s not about this ‘eliteness’ of being an explorer anymore. I think that’s on its way out. What I’m really interested in is finding ways to make everyone feel like an explorer—even in their backyard.”

In 2010, Erika Bergman graduated with a degree in Chemical Oceanography from the University of Washington on a Friday, planning to begin work as a technical diver for her university’s Oceanography department. The following Monday, she started training as a submarine pilot for OceanGate, Inc.

Now 26 years old, there’s been no lapse in her schedule since–not that someone with her energy would allow for it. When she’s not working, she’s focusing on finding new ways to engage younger generations in marine exploration by walking out onto docks–submersible ROV under arm–and handing the controls to children who have not the slightest clue what they’re doing. This month, she’s on a two-week snorkeling expedition through the Arctic. We sat down to talk before she took off.


(Photo: Arctic Erika)


Scut: So what are you doing with all those robot parts on your desk?

EB: I just finished building them with a whole bunch of girls here in Port Angeles. I built one with girls, and one a little farther south in Berkley, California. I’m taking them up to the Arctic with me on Tuesday—basically I’m running a girls’ robotics and engineering workshop as my piece of this big expedition—called Team Sedna, with ten women.


Comprised of 10 women, Team Sedna will begin in Pond Inlet and swim 3,000 kilometers (over 1,000 miles) within 100 days (Image: Diver Mag)

The idea is that we’ll snorkel relay across the Northwest Passage, but that doesn’t actually happen until 2016. Before undertaking our three-month big relay, we’re doing this two-week relay up the coast of Labrador to Greenland. It’s still a full-on expedition—I’m running my robotics camp in these little Inuit towns for girls.

Very cool.

EB: I’ll be teaching them how to solder, how to do some basic coding and programming, but mostly just giving them the controls to the robot and saying “Alright, here you go! Let’s go explore.”

That’s great. What kind of gear are you using for that? 7mm wetsuits?

EB: No, I wear a 7-11mm wetsuit here in Washington, so we’re wearing drysuits. They have heated vests inside. It’s a funny little black vest with a battery pack in it, and the gloves are heated too. We’re also using a 10mm hood.


EB: We look like Oompa Loompas. It’s going to be awesome.

Have you ever gone swimming or diving in a drysuit before?

EB: No, I never have. I’ve never even been in a drysuit before. I’m doing my drysuit training on Saturday and Sunday, and then I leave for the Arctic on Tuesday. These ones are made a bit differently and bigger so that we’ll be able to move slightly more freely, but I highly doubt that we’ll be able to move freely at all.

I always feel like the Michelin Man in mine.

ErikafilmingCurasubbyBarry Brown

(Photo: Barry Brown)

So can you tell us how you became sub pilot? You have a background with farming equipment, studying chemical oceanography, and marine diesel mechanics. You say you were in the right place at the right time when the owners of the sub The Antipodes came to the University of Washington when you were studying there?

EB: I think I was coming downstairs for dry ice, if I’m not mistaken, and there was a test tank pool in the basement of the university, and they had the sub there for display. I just walked in; they had a couple of VideoRay ROVs in the pool and the submarine sitting there. I said, “This is cool, my name is Erika.”

I said a little bit about myself, just in conversation, and both cofounders Stockton [Rush] and Guillermo [Stohnlein] looked at each other and said to me, “Do you want to be a submarine pilot?” I said, “I’m graduating next week, when do I start?” And they said, “Monday.” So it was literally two days after my graduation ceremony that I went in to my first day at OceanGate.

The first thing we did was completely tear apart the submarine, which was really fun. They have a special survey, which happens every three years—a huge maintenance project. I had a technical background, but I had never really done anything with high-tolerance hydraulics or very in-depth electronics. It was a great learning experience.

There were two other pilots at the time, and we kind of produced ground school for ourselves. As we were taking apart the submarine, it was hands-on training for us—reading manuals and submarine bibles like Busby (Manned Submersibles), talking to people, and getting this thing ready to stay certified and up with its insurance classification.

It was perfect timing. They were looking for pilots, actually of a certain stature—I’m pretty short. On all the old boats I used to work on, they called me “Bilgey,” because I’m small enough to fit into the engine rooms in all the sneaky little places. I don’t have the brute strength that most engineers have, but I have technique.

Well, no time wasted. So much for the backpacking trip through Europe!

EB: Exactly. I had been an exchange student when I was sixteen, so I was already done with that and ready to be a submarine pilot.

What were you planning to do had you not been offered the job with OceanGate upon graduation?

EB: After college I was offered a couple jobs but was not set in any one direction. I most likely would have gone to work for my Physical Oceanography advisor at the University of Washington as a technical diver maintaining and repairing scientific equipment on buoys. The plan was to simultaneously keep working as a steamship fireman and get enough sea time for my Coast Guard Engineering license.

It doesn’t sound like you had any shortage of ideas or options there.


(Photo: OceanGate, Inc.)

So you’re heavily involved in community outreach and education with citizen science and Team Sedna. What have you been focusing on lately, other than Sedna?

EB: What I’ve found from being a submarine pilot, what I loved the most was the media people who came on board—I loved the filmmaking. I say this a lot, but it’s really the truth—when you’re inside the submarine, you’re not just looking out with your eyes. You’ve got access to all of the different senses of your body. You’re hearing things and you’re feeling things, and you’ve got proprioception (the unconscious awareness of one’s own movement and spacial orientation). You’re even experiencing through smell.

I started telling stories from underwater to students; it was so engaging and they were so into it. That was actually the most fun part. I used the media we collected in the sub and then told stories about what shrimp sound like, and what it’s like to be a geologist and move along with the currents that are forming the landscape that you’re predicting. Since that time, I’ve been focusing on the ways that I can get a thousand explorers out into the world.

One of the things I’ve been working on is this thing called Open Explorer. I’m basically taking every ounce of expedition planning and science knowledge that I have, because I’ve done a lot of expedition planning over the past five years, and I’m spewing it out onto the Internet. I want expedition planning to be open. I think people are intimidated to go on little expeditions. They see a National Geographic photograph and think, “Oh, I could never do that. I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes of that.” But it’s really simple: “How many apples does it take to feed us on Thursday? What are the tide charts? How do we connect with people? Who’s going to go buy the bananas and the radios?” It’s really simple stuff, but it’s just not public right now. I think it’s still a closed world.

So my biggest focus right now is Open Explorer, but it’s still in Beta. I’m just trying to find a way to put everything I know about the art of expedition out onto an open-source platform.

Well, that’s brilliant, and I appreciate you saying that. I think you’re right—it’s definitely paramount to the progression of exploration. The more people out there the better.

EB: When I teach these engineer camps—these little girls’ underwater robotics workshops—all of a sudden their faces just light up. And I’m not only teaching them engineering, I’m also teaching them exploration and expedition skills that they might need to go out and do their own project with. They don’t have to wait until college. There’s no need to wait until their senior project in high school. They’re capable of doing it right now. Let’s just go down to the beach and do it!

Team Sedna has been part of that, testing different ways to reach these girls and convince them to get ready for it—no need to wait, you’re ready to go, girl!

Wonderful. We need more girls in the field. So you grew up on Puget Sound and in Hawaii. What were some of your first or most memorable experiences with the sea?

EB: I went windsurfing a bunch as a little kid, but the first time that the wind actually picked up the sail and started tearing me across the water—I remember hooting, hollering and laughing—then realizing how fast I was going and jumping off that board. I threw it away from myself because I realized the power of what I was controlling. At the first moments, I thought, “Yes!” But then I thought, “Oh my god!” It’s been that story ever since.

Every time I get in a new boat or a new sub, or do anything new, I think, “Wow, this is so cool!” And then I realize the sheer power of nature and the machines we use to harness it, and my mind is blown. That one always stands out to me. I just love the water.

There are really embarrassing things, too, like the movie Water World. Water World was a pretty big part of my childhood. I still think having gills would be the coolest thing in the entire world. I love having access to submarines, and I like scuba diving, but man, when you take your mask off and your regulator out, and you’re just in the water—it’s a magical connection there.


(Photo: Barry Brown)

Have you had any frightening experiences in the water you’d care to share?

EB: Well, not truly frightening, no. But there are moments in the sub—your first moments in the sub when you’re still getting used to the sounds. I think these freak out other people more than they’ve freaked out me, but there are times when you’re sitting under the hatch and all of a sudden water starts dripping on your shoulder, and your heart starts pounding. You get a hiccup in your breath, and you think the sub is leaking. The submarine pilot’s job is to put that condensation on their finger and taste it. If it’s freshwater, you know that its just condensation and it’s mostly just everybody’s sweat—and you’re grossed out because you just put it in your mouth.

There are always little moments like that in the sub. I don’t think I have had terrible moments—even when I’m getting tumbled around in the surf underwater on a surfboard, I go into a sort of Zen state where I think, “Well, if I’m going to go, at least I’m going in the right place for me: underwater.”

I’m much more terrified of cars and car crashes than any other thing.

How about an ocean book that you’d like to recommend. Do you have a favorite, or one that you’d like to mention?

EB: There’s a book called No Time on Our Side. It’s about two guys in a submarine at 1,500 feet for three days. It’s the story of their survival in the submarine. I don’t think that it will scare anyone away from submarines, but the way that their mentality changed when they realized how dependent they were on oxygen—they just had to lie in the submarine, and even thinking was consuming oxygen. They were under the sea for three days, and they were actually rescued. There was a huge rescue expedition, and the book itself is an interesting place to put yourself, mentally.

Do you have any gear you’d recommend – stuff you rely on personally or professionally?

EB: Those little SealLine cases—just big enough for the iPhone—and the iPhone app Cameo. They make a little double rubber zipper case, and I took my iPhone down to 55 feet in it. Now, with the iPhone, sure we have these big fancy cameras, but the iPhone is so much easier for expedition. You can take such dynamic photos with it. It’s really simple. It’s small, it’s cheap, and it’s a way to share what you’re doing underwater without having to be a big, fancy DSLR-toting elite explorer. That being said, I definitely want a DSLR. But at this time, I recommend the SealLine case—I think it’s cool underwater gear. That and an Atomic snorkel.

And the drysuits for Team Sedna were made and donated by Santi, which is a Polish drysuit manufacturer. The suit is really cool, it’s their brand-new line called Ladies First which is a drysuit designed for women with the zipper on the opposite side. It works better for our short torsos. As a small female in a typically male-dominated field, it’s really fun to find gear that’s comfortable and suited to my frame. This Ladies First drysuit is very cool.


(Photo: Arctic Erika)

So what do you do when you’re not diving, writing, traveling, or working?

EB: Usually when I’m not out exploring the world, I’m just having a backyard adventure. Well, when I’m working on my family’s farm, I scoop a lot of cattle manure. I also find kids and go out and do marine things with them, like right now with these robots. I was bored yesterday and I decided that I wanted to create an expedition, so I went out to the local Lake Crescent, took a robot, and I felt like the pied piper. I wasn’t even on to the dock, and these kids asked, “What’s that?” I said, “I brought a robot, do you want to fly it?” And they said, “Yeah.”

I walked down the dock, and for an hour, we were flying it. I blame the parents, because the kids left to go get ice cream. I think the kids would have skipped the ice cream, but the parents needed ice cream. They were so into the robot and the exploration, just playing around.

I know you’re starting out with Sedna right now, but what’s on the broad horizon for you?

EB: I don’t know if I’m exactly ready to phrase it, but I want to create a series of girls’ underwater robot camps—expanding what I’ve developed for Team Sedna and focusing on girls and engineering. Engineering like a girl! Sharing life under the sea, whether it’s through submarines or through robots.

Beautiful. Well please keep us updated, and stay warm up north!



(Photo: OceanGate, Inc)

Erika Bergman is currently somewhere between Labrador, Canada and Greenland on a two-week expedition with team Sedna, preparing for their 2016 relay swim across the Northwest Passage. She’s brought two of her OpenROVs with her, and along the way she’ll be stopping off in Inuit towns to hand off the controls to women and girls while exploring the undersides of glaciers. She’s proud of what she’s done with her first 26 years on this planet and, frankly, so are we.


(Image: Diver Mag)

Visit OpenROV to find out more about open-source underwater robots for exploration and education, and follow her on Twitter: @Erika_Bergman

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