When someone says the word “ocean,” most of us envision a beach: warm sand littered with broken shells and cigarette butts and a rainbow of blues fading in and out. For Erika Bergman, the word conjures exploration—more precisely, to explore the 95 percent of the ocean floor that has yet to be studied. The word also describes her happy place.
Before the first sigh of dawn, Bergman is already at work. A deep-sea submersible pilot hired by clients to advise on expeditions and pilot their submarines, Bergman and a team of navigators are dropped into the ocean usually from a large ship and go deep into the water for up to five hours. “Even though the thrusters and your passengers are making plenty of noise, it feels silent. As you descend deeper, the lights of the submarine begin to attract hunters. Small squid and fish use the lights to find plankton to feed, and eventually the small flashes of their bodies in the light attract larger shadows—the larger hunters, which stay distant,” Bergman says. “You slow your descent until you are hovering inches over the sea floor. Covered in tube worms, flatfish, snails, water bottles and beer cans, you know you have arrived on the foundation of our planet’s ecosystem.”
Bergman’s appreciation for the rare opportunity that diving in submarines affords is strong, and because of that, she feels it is her duty to sing the glories of the underwater world. “I don’t feel I have the right to keep the experience of the deep ocean to myself,” Bergman says. “So I tell stories … [about everything from] big, sweeping dramatic moments as massive schools of squid part to reveal a shipwreck to the tediously slow and methodical hours spent navigating in a blanket of black water.” She also hopes to inspire a new movement of girls to join nontraditional careers in engineering and exploration. “I lead by example, orchestrating unique high-intensity projects—like a National Geographic Young Explorer series of live educational video chats from inside submarines.”
In 2014 Bergman co-founded Global Engineering & Exploration Counselors (GEECs), a program creating a generation of girls collaborating, teaching and inspiring each other to be confident engineers, explorers and mentors that has so far held a dozen camps ranging from co-ed groups of graduate students at the University of Miami to all-girls programs at aquariums and robotics headquarters in California, Florida and the Arctic. “Many of the girls in our program have been lightly exposed to engineering concepts, and it’s the scale of their interest that shocks them. They may have known that they like soldering but it’s not until camp that they realized how much they like programming, making mechanical drawings and validating each other’s measurements with perfectly calibrated vernier calipers,” Bergman says. The program also provides lessons in storytelling, grant writing and cinematography. “To be a scientist or engineer now and to have clients, customers and investors believe in your pitch, you must be able to take them along with you through story.”
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