Getting into the Biz:
Advice and Lessons Learned
As I collected the stories of over 40-some subsea folks, I was always curious about how they got into such an unusual profession. I often asked what lessons they learned, what they felt was vital to staying alive and succeeding in this business, and finally, what advice they would give young people.
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Jim “A.R.” McFarlane
“A.R.” notes he was lucky enough to start working in the subsea industry when on-the-job experience was as important as having a degree. But he adds that today getting some education certification is crucial. His early experience in his father’s business at International Submarine Engineering (ISE), followed by the oil and gas industry on oil rigs around the globe, and in military mine-counter measures all served as vital stepping stones to becoming chief pilot of Ventana, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s ROV for eight years before becoming an MBARI director.
He also saw first-hand, how crucial logging and cataloging data was to ocean research—for ROVs, AUVs and more recently, with underwater cabled observatories all providing masses of information. He ticks off the types of data collected by oceanographic research—there’s videos, as well as sensors measuring water’s conductivity, temperature and density, and there’s navigation data for the surface vessel and the ROV or for the AUV. And then you need to be able to tag events, to get everything stamped with time and location coordinates. “There is not going to be a time when we stop collecting data. In fact, the industry will need more and more people who know how to write and read code.”
Erika Bergman is in her early 30s but has flown more than six different submersibles, was named a National Geographic Explorer and has produced programs for The Discovery Channel. But she prefaced this work with academic credentials, taking a B.S. degree at the University of Washington in chemistry and oceanography. While studying, she also gained experience working on the engines of two vintage ships—the Virginia V and the Lady Washington and then became chief pilot, operations manager and pilot instructor for Aquatica.
Erika works closely with Crosland “Cros” Seville, senior technician and chief boat pilot, and Bodhi Wade, a pilot-in-training and media coordinator. Erika and Cros are both certified pilots for Stingray 500 and can handle all the surface support as well, so on any given dive day they rotate jobs. “Piloting submersibles is great, but the joke is that we’re just the bus drivers,” Erika laughs. “But it’s a biology or geology lesson every time you take a scientist underwater.”
While Erika’s background is academic, Cros initially gained experience in construction and working outside with his hands. He also did a commercial diving course in Kelowna with Diving Dynamics, and then completed a welding engineering technology program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary. In between, he worked as a boat captain and dive instructor in the Grand Cayman Islands. “My commercial diving background, a passion for the water, the technical training and always being very mechanical growing up was kind of the perfect combination for what I’m doing now.”
Then in 2019, Aquatica unexpectedly closed its doors—a shock for everyone on the team. With 10 years of experience and wide connections in the subsea world, plus a willingness to do international work, Erika was soon back at work as a sub pilot in Florida and the Bahamas. And Cros has the depth of his technical experience to draw on for future work. As Erika acknowledges, “Working in the underwater world requires a lot of different skills. So does surviving in this business. You have to combine a lot of factors and skills to stay afloat; it’s all part of the interesting challenge of this work.”
Alison Proctor is the first to admit that she’s spent a lot of time in school! In fact, in 2014 she earned a PhD for her work on autonomous and remotely piloted underwater vehicles. But those years and degrees paid off when it came time to look for a job. Her top two options were MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) in California or Ocean Floor Geophysics, based in Victoria. She opted to work for a commercial company and is most pleased with her choice. “Ocean Floor Geophysics is a really incredible company to work for. It’s filled with PhD level people and others who may not have that degree but have equivalent experience and wisdom. It’s very research oriented and they take on interesting projects so you get to exercise your brain.”
She explains that working at sea is just not the same as working at home or going in to the office. “In fact, when you’re on a ship you might as well be on the moon because all you have is what’s around you and your wits to get through whatever problem comes up. In addition, the ocean is trying to get in your way whenever possible. There’s never a dull moment.”
Alison Proctor loves her job, but now there’s an additional challenge, balancing family life with time at sea. She and her partner have a young toddler son, Winston, “but we both acknowledge that we are each working hard whether it’s at home or at sea. Fortunately, most of the places I go off to have good VSAT coverage. My son Winston figured out pretty quickly that the video me and the 3D me were the same person.”
Jean-Marc Laframboise doesn’t mince words. “These days you pretty much have to get some sort of schooling to work in this business. But I don’t care if you get straight A’s, what you need most is to be practical. How does something work? How do you use these things? Today, adults and kids don’t know how to use their hands. Hardly anybody has ever changed a tire by themselves. If they’ve got a flat tire, they just call BCAA. That means we get engineers who can design an ROV, but they don’t know the importance of making it easily accessible to be repaired in the field or underwater—that’s because they’ve never had to do that themselves.”
His dad had a workshop in the basement where Jean-Marc would take things apart and then put them back together. He notes that now kids grow up focused on video games and have no sense of how to use tools. “When we interview people for jobs, I find that only one of five might have any practical skill. They’re smart enough to pass courses, to get a diploma, but what you use working at a place like ISE is only a fraction of what you learned in any classroom.” There’s a big difference, he explains, between a kid who’s been the manager of an ROV project and one who’s actually built the thrusters. Practical experience is crucial.