Talk about a polar bear dip! Peninsula researcher plans to snorkel in Arctic waters
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Submersible pilot and engineer Erika Bergman, center, describes the workings of a homemade remotely operated vehicle to students Xavier Conway, 13, left, and Porter Funston, 13, both of Sequim, during an orientation session on building ROVs on Saturday at the Feiro Marine Life Center in Port Angeles. Photo by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — For Erika Bergman, the ocean is far more than just a flat surface reaching toward the horizon.

“It’s inner space, it’s untouched, unexplored inner space,” Bergman said in an interview.

That’s part of the reason why the 26-year-old Port Angeles resident, who also happens to be a research submarine pilot and engineer, jumped at the chance to embark on an expedition to the Arctic in the summer of 2016.

A 10-person research team dubbed Team Sedna will brave frigid water temperatures, polar bears and possible encounters with the mysterious Greenland shark to snorkel — that’s right, snorkel — 1,864 miles through freezing Arctic waters.

The goal: conduct research on the impacts of global climate change on Arctic sea ice and educate young people and adults alike about how climate change is affecting the Arctic ecosystem.

“It’s extreme long distance, it’s extremely dangerous and it’s extremely expensive,” Bergman said.

Members of the team will make the journey in about 2 months from Pond Inlet in Nunavut, Canada, west to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories in cold-water wet suits using smaller, motor-propelled swimming aides, Bergman explained.

Tailed by a 116-foot research vessel and two smaller Zodiac-style inflatable craft, team members will take turns and spend no more than an hour at a time snorkeling, Bergman said, so no one team member will spend too long in the frigid waters.

“The water is freezing at best, and below freezing in many cases,” Bergman said.

To prepare for this, Bergman and Team Sedna, led and organized by Calgary-based geophysicist and geologist Susan Eaton, will travel to the western coast of Greenland this July for two-week trial run to test equipment, the team’s physical endurance and do some preliminary research.

A key research component of both trips will be the use of underwater remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, to collect information on water temperature, salt content and other data.

Bergman said she plans to enlist the help of North-Olympic-Peninsula-area students to help build two ROVs she’ll take with her this summer to Greenland and use during the 2016 expedition.

Bergman was at the Feiro Marine Life Center in Port Angeles on Saturday introducing two middle school students from Sequim to what ROVs can do.

Once built, Bergman said the ROVs will be used in Inuit and Inuvialuit communities to show students there how the technology can be used to explore their own coastlines.

“These ROVs are just so accessible, the idea is to show people how capable they are of doing their own research and exploring the ocean on their own,” Bergman said.

“The end goal of [teaching] these kids would be to lead them into building their own ROVs,” she added.

Bergman said the Team Sedna expedition’s focus on education and outreach particularly spoke to her since she has spent the last four years as a submarine pilot promoting this type of work.

Through Seattle-based submersible company Ocean Gate and various educational nonprofits, Bergman has explored underwater worlds off the coasts of California, Miami and Honduras in small research submarines, diving as deep as 2,100 feet below the surface on some trips.

“The human experience of diving deep down into the ocean, there’s nothing like that,” Bergman said.

“I think that is the most striking things about submarines, is feeling the movement of water around you and hearing what’s outside the submarine.”

Through her work as a National Geographic Young Explorer, Bergman has filmed a number of live-streaming Internet video conferences based in submarines that were beamed to classrooms across the country.

Bergman said she grew, up like many children, with dreams of becoming an astronaut and exploring what was beyond the bounds of Earth.

She said never imagined she’d become a submarine pilot, but realized once she did that her dreams of exploring did indeed come true.

“This was a dream come true, but in a different direction,” Bergman said.

Bergman said her overarching goal is to make submarines and underwater exploration more accessible, so young people grow up wanting to be submarine pilots just as generations have dreamed of becoming astronauts.

“It didn’t exist for me, but I’m going to make it exist for the next generation,” Bergman said.

A 2010 graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in chemical oceanography, Bergman worked during college as an engineer on the tall ship Lady Washington and on a historical steam ferry boat based in south Lake Union in Seattle.

Bergman said she was offered a job piloting submarines with Ocean Gate just seven days after she graduated because of her engineering background.

Once she got her hands on a sub, she never looked back.

“I just handcuffed myself to it and I said, ‘That’s it, this is what I’m doing,’ ” Bergman said.

Through her continued outreach work, whether in the frigid climes of the Arctic or the warm waters off Central America, Bergman said she wants to inspire an army of young and inquisitive minds to be future stewards of the world’s oceans.

“They’re out there, we just have to give them a chance to get interested in it and realize they can have a real big impact on their world through ocean science and ocean exploration,” Bergman said.

“And that’s what going to give our resilient ocean a chance to thrive.”

For more information on Bergman and to learn how to help build her ROVs, contact her at erikabergman@gmail.com or visit her website at www.deepbluefrombelow.com.

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: March 22. 2014 6:12PM
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