Port Angeles engineer snorkels across Arctic as part of 10-woman team
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Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
Erika Bergman, left, explains the perils of operating remotely operated vehicles in the Arctic to Porter Funston and Xavier Conway, both 13 and of Sequim, outside William Shore Memorial Pool in Port Angeles on Thursday. The youngsters assisted Bergman in construction of two ROVs used on the excursion.
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An ROV is deployed with a group of young people on a pier in Nain, Labrador.
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Jill Heinerth/www.sednaepic.com
Diver propulsion vehicles made it possible to cover more distance and safely navigate between quickly moving ice flows in Klaushaven, Greenland.
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Jeffrey Gallant/www.sednaepic.com
The 10 women of Team Sedna after snorkeling across the Arctic Circle in Davis Straight.
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Emily Dowding-Smith/www.sednaepic.com
Eight-year-old Charmane overcomes her shyness and pilots a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, in Nain, Labrador, with confidence after learning it was built by girls just like her.
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Erika Bergman/www.sednaepic.com
Dione Kohlmeister looks in on the mobile touch tank aquariums set up on the local pier in Nain, Labrador.

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES — To say Erika Bergman had a busy July would be an understatement.

The 26-year-old Port Angeles resident was part of 10-woman team of researchers, scientists and explorers that snorkeled through frigid waters July 23 across the Arctic Circle.

“It's the first time that 10 women have jumped into the water and snorkeled across the Arctic Circle, that's for sure,” said Bergman said, who returned to Port Angeles early Thursday morning.

“Who in their right mind would do that?”

This ultimate of polar bear plunges topped off a slew of relay snorkeling trips for the team, dubbed Team Sedna, in the ice-clogged waters off northern Canada and Greenland between July 15 and 27.

In water 1 hour each

Bergman estimated that Team Sedna logged between 30 and 40 miles of cold-water snorkeling using small motor-propelled swimming aides, with each woman never spending more than an hour in the water at one time.

Decked out in self-heating, multilayered wetsuits that were more akin to astronaut-wear than swimwear, the team navigated through chunks of sea ice ranging from small to massive that Bergman described as “swift-moving concrete.”

The goal: put equipment, procedures and stamina to the test for a planned 2-month adventure in 2016 that will see Team Sedna snorkel 1,864 miles across Arctic waters to research the impacts of climate change on North Pole sea ice.

“We learned a lot of gigantic lessons doing something no one has ever attempted before,” said Bergman, who is also a research submarine pilot and engineer.

'Biggest lesson'

“The biggest lesson I think [I learned] is that there are 10 really incredible women with a lot of enthusiasm to raise awareness of climate change and to action to mitigate it and kind of create a global culture of conservation.”

But casting themselves into 33-degree water was just one piece of the adventure.

The other goal of the expedition was to teach children and adults alike in communities in far northwest Canada about how climate change can affect their backyard ecosystems, and that's where a piece of Port Angeles-built technology came in.

Bergman and the team spent July 12-14 in Nain, a town of about 1,200 people in one of the northernmost reaches of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Here, the team set up mobile aquariums filled with local sea life and demonstrated how to operate a small underwater remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, built by students in Port Angeles.

ROV built in PA

Children of the mostly Inuit town flocked to the docks to see what was going on, Bergman said, though some, especially girls, were initially hesitant about getting behind the ROV's controls.

That all changed once they learned that hands no older than their own had put the remote-controlled submersible together.

“They were so impressed that that ROV had been built by girls just like them from the other side of the world that they were confident enough to step in as pilots,” Bergman said.

Bergman had worked with mostly eighth-grade girls from Port Angeles and Sequim to build the ROVs over the course of about two months.


Two were built in Port Angeles, Bergman said, though only the most reliable, dubbed Phantom, was brought on the journey.

Work building the ROVs was done on weekends in the main classroom at the Feiro Marine Life Center in Port Angeles.

About a dozen students came and went, but a core group — Porter Funston of Sequim and Faith Chamberlin and Emily Bundy, both of Port Angeles — showed up to every work session at Feiro and every test at Lake Crescent to see the project through to the end, Bergman said.

The trio dived head-first into all aspects of building the ROVs, Bergman said, including piecing together the plastic bodies, soldering wires and programming the computer chips used to control the small vehicles.

Could build on their own

“They're pretty much capable of building one of these ROVs on their own now,” Bergman said.

She said the Nain children's reaction to the ROV and the connection forged between them and her Port Angeles students through the small submersible was better than she could have hoped for.

“It was everything that I dreamed of, and then some,” Bergman said.

Phantom used in Arctic

The ROV Phantom even got the chance to explore Arctic waters, Bergman said, when she deployed it while Team Sedna was near the Arctic Circle.

“I made a point of getting out there and diving an ROV underneath a glacier,” Bergman said.

Bergman said Peter was particularly taken aback by where Phantom had been when Bergman brought it to a separate ROV class at the Feiro center Thursday.

“She was like, 'I can't believe that something I built went to the Arctic,'” Bergman said.


For the snorkeling portion of the trip, the team was based off the 118-foot vessel research vessel Cape Race, Bergman said, with each member tailed at all times by a small Zodiac-style inflatable craft during snorkeling runs.

The weather gods seemed to cooperate with the team, Bergman said, adding that a low-pressure system and generally calm winds seemed to follow them for the course of their journey.

“I actually wanted some blustery weather kind of experience, but it was just really calm,” Bergman said.

“It was like being in the eye of the storm.”

Bergman said team members ate and slept when they could, though shuteye proved challenging at times with nearly 24 hours of daylight being the norm in the Arctic during the summer.

But the team took it in stride.

“You're on an expedition, you're going to be awake a lot,” Bergman said.

Looking back at the trip, Bergman said she feels it was successful both in serving as proof of a concept for the longer adventure in 2016 and as a way to connect students, both in her hometown and on the other side of the world, to the world of science and technology.

“My personal vision was what can we do to ensure that the next generation has the tools to combat that or to deal with issues that are cropping up because of climate change,” Bergman said.

To learn more about Team Sedna, this summer's journey and the planned 2016 expedition, visit www.sednaepic.com.


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

Last modified: August 02. 2014 10:54PM
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