Geeking out with the Tech Wizards of National Geographic

By Natali Fusillo, National Geographic Live

There is a shark in the Pacific Ocean that may be National Geographic’s fiercest photographer. How is this possible? Crittercam: A camera mounted on wild animals in their natural habitats to give us a rare view of their day-to-day interactions. Crittercam and many other inventions were all hatched at headquarters from the clever minds of National Geographic’s Remote Imaging Engineers.

Engineers Eric Berkenpas and Mike Shepard prove it’s cool to be a geek. As kids, both were fascinated with erector sets and leftover electronic supplies. Mike recalls that he often “took more things apart than [he] put back together.” Eric and Mike’s hobby blossomed into a full-time career at National Geographic. Eric relishes the fact that their position allows them to “see each project through from start to finish; from prototype in the lab to functioning tool in the field.” Mike adds that they “always get to do something different since each project comes with its own set of challenges.”

One big challenge is actually getting Crittercam onto a dorsal fin of a wild shark. While making his first attempt to secure the camera, Mike actually fell on top of the 18-foot great white shark:

How does one video in the deepest and darkest parts of the ocean? Try the “Dropcam,” an a small portable, underwater camera. “Every time we drop it down, it makes a discovery,” says Eric. Mike continues, “It’s cool because it’s really simple, doesn’t require any big cables, and doesn’t really make any noise that could scare animals away.” During an expedition to the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, they used Dropcam to record the deepest known existence of xenophyophores, giant single-celled organisms:

Traveling on assignment with the world’s greatest explorers can be a lot of fun, but arriving at a remote location with smashed equipment in your checked luggage is not so much fun. Eric and Mike must not only invent state-of-the-art gadgets, but they are also tasked with making sure each piece is lightweight and can travel easily. “We try to be cheap, and end up being environmentally friendly as well,” Eric explains.

So what do these tech wizards do when they’re not geeking-out? Eric turns baking into a domestic science project, and Mike catches up on episodes of Battlestar Galactica. That is, only when they can tear themselves away from their wizardry.

On Saturday, March 24 at National Geographic’s Washington, DC Headquarters, Engineers Eric Berkenpas and Mike Sherpard will demonstrate many of National Geographic’s innovative tools that help capture images from high in the sky to deep in the ocean. Join us for Gadgets, Gizmos, and Gee Whiz!

Changing Planet