2,100 Feet and Holding: Inside the Mind of a Submarine Pilot

National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee Erika Bergman is sharing the thrill of diving in a submersible with classrooms and onlookers all over the world. With external and internal cameras mounted on her sub, viewers will experience a new vantage point as Erika pilots through the deep coral reefs of Curacao and Honduras. Follow her expedition and post your comments right here on Explorers Journal or tweet your questions at @erika_bergman


There’s nothing between me and complete corporeal implosion but a 3 inch thick dome of plexiglass.

I am at two thousand, one hundred feet below the surface of the ocean inside the submersible Idabel, exploring the deep reefs of Roatan, Honduras. My mind is focused on the job. What are the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels? With this amperage draw, how long will our batteries last? What will we find at this depth near the reef? Who put the Lord of the Rings soundtrack on the playlist…?

My heart pumps with exhilaration as I do a quick mental calculation of the external pressure. At this depth, the pressure of the surrounding water is 70 times higher than atmospheric. That’s over 1,000 pounds per square inch of water pressing in from all directions; it’s like having a fully grown bull balanced on one hoof on every single square inch of our small protective sphere. Inside the sphere however, we are pleasantly stable at one atmosphere, the same pressure as sea level. The same exact air in fact, from when we closed the hatch at sea level. I hope everyone put on clean socks today. 

The narrow conning tower hatch of Idabel is the only way in or out. Time to get cozy. Photo by Stanley Submarines

I’m not frightened of diving deep in a submersible like this one. For the same reason I’m not frightened of walking into a parking garage with thousands of pounds of steel and concrete above my head, because I know that this is what it was built to withstand. Submersibles are even overbuilt, designed and tested to 125 percent of their standard operating depth. 

I step down through the conning tower happy in the knowledge that for the next several hours, I’ll be visiting my favorite place in the world, only slightly disappointed that I can’t climb out and swim around down there.

There’s no rush on our descent, we’ve planned to spend over four hours diving deep in the ocean. As we move slowly deeper, a barrage of pale organic detritus from the world above rushes towards our faces like stars rushing by, and out of the stellar landscape emerge the alien life forms that populate inner space.

95% water and nearly invisible, a comb jelly’s most extraordinary feature are the eight rows of cilia which propel them through the water. The tiny cilia scatter light as they move and produce a stunning rainbow effect down the entire length of the comb jelly’s body.

Almost invisible, a comb jelly's most extraordinary features are the eight rows of cilia along their bodies. These tiny cilia scatter light as they move, producing a rainbow effect scrolling along their bodies.
A two foot comb jelly emerges from the deep.  Photo by Erika Bergman

A Jeweled Squid has an asymmetrical pair of eyes. Seen here is the smaller, opaque blue eye which watches below for predators, the opposite is yellow and bulging, looking upwards for prey.

A Jeweled Squid has a pair of mismatched eyes. Seen here is the smaller, opaque blue eye which watches below for predators, the opposite is yellow and bulging, looking upwards for prey.
Jeweled Squid, also known as a cock-eyed squid for it’s mismatched eyes. Photo by Erika Bergman
Vibrant orange Brisigand Starfish contrast brightly with the black rocks they perch on. Photo by Erika Bergman
Vibrant orange Brisigand Starfish contrast brightly with the black rocks they perch on. Photo by Erika Bergman

A dive is never long enough. 

Have a question about underwater exploration? Ask away on twitter at @erika_bergman.

Read Erika’s Entire Blog Series

As a submarine pilot and National Geographic Explorer Erika Bergman is a passionate storyteller. She studied chemical oceanography at the University of Washington while working as a diesel engineer aboard the tall ship S/V Lady Washington and a steam ship engineer aboard the S/S Virginia V. Since then she has worked as a submersible pilot for exploration, research and filmmaking. Erika is an editor of OpenExplorer.com, a site dedicated to supporting and curating a new era of connected, citizen exploration. She is also the Founder of GEECs - Global Engineering & Exploration Counselors; providing a network of thrilling engineering camps to girls around the world. Photo - Heather Perry.
  • Aña Rodda

    How long do you have to wait till you see the next creature?

  • Parikshit Chitnis

    Is it possible to get the DNA information of these creatures and their numbers? Was there a pattern of appearance wrt temperature and depth? Thank you

  • mita chatterjee

    Must be a thrilling experience to encounter the denizens of the sea.Go ahead and experience it to the fullest and do keep us informed.All the best.

  • abdulqadeer

    how does you experience the life features and the external features of the marine

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