In early September 2010, 17 year-old Rebecca Ziegler and her parents were on tenterhooks, waiting to hear if Rebecca had been chosen as one of 8 lucky high school students from California to have been selected as a ‘citizen scientists’ to accompany Scott Cassell in a submarine to the ocean bottom around Catalina Island. This unique opportunity is a part of the Undersea Voyager Project, a non-profit organization established to circumnavigate and study 27,000 miles of the Earth’s oceans, at depths between 100 and 1,000 feet using human occupied submarines.
The opportunity to dive with Scott was an incredible opportunity in itself. Scott is an accomplished marine explorer, whose underwater videography has been featured on MTV, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and the History Channel. This trip with Rebecca was planned to investigate marine life down to 900 feet deep around the island of Catalina in the submarine “Antipodes” – a submersible with two acrylic domes. 1
According to Mr. Cassell’s website, for 45 days beginning September 1, Cassell was to pilot the Antipodes to various dive spots around Catalina Island, taking with him researchers, scientists, and even those who were not scientists who want to experience the thrill of deep water exploration. 2
Then, in late September, Rebecca and her family got the word: Rebecca had been chosen, along with a select group of marine biologist, scientists and ‘citizen scientists’ to be a ‘Mission Specialist’ on the Antipodes, conducting experiments and learning to pilot ROV’s (Remotely Operated Vehicles) underwater. Rebecca and her mom were ecstatic.
Shortly afterwards, however, the hammer blow fell: Rebecca was notified by Oceangate, Mr. Cassell’s company, that due to flooded battery compartments in the submersible and other mechanical issues, Rebecca and the team would not be able to make the dive after all.
Although Rebecca and her parents were devastated, Rebecca decided that the rest of the Undersea Voyager Project program was still an experience of a lifetime, and she would proceed to the island of Catalina and learn what she could, even without the trip below the surface in the submarine.
[Note: this interviewed had been scheduled before Rebecca was notified she would not be able to make the dive, but we decided to proceed with it anyway, since Rebecca is such a fascinating young lady and her story can be an inspiration to others thinking of making the ocean a career.]
Q: You’re a certified Rescue Diver, right? How long have you been diving? How were you selected for the Undersea Voyage Project?
A: Yep, I just got certified as a Rescue Diver in July. I have been diving for about 3 years. I did a couple resort dive courses a few years prior [to that]. I was chosen to participate in the Undersea Voyager Project by submitting a proposal-style essay about what I would research if given the chance on Catalina. I wrote about the disphotic/ “twilight zone”. This is the area in the water column where all light fades.
Q: It must have been a thrill meeting noted marine explorer Scott Cassell–what is he like? Were you intimidated at first?
A: Oh boy, was he intimidating! At a first glance he looks like this tough guy, but then he starts talking about the ocean and squids (he loves squids) and you see his eyes light up and a smile breaks out. Then the whole intimidation faction is gone! Scott was totally awesome the whole week I was there. He is such a great guy, and I am so lucky that I got the opportunity to meet him.
Q: While you must have been disappointed at not being able to go down in the sub, you obviously had a great time doing all the other science related activities. What was your favorite?
A: How can I pick a favorite? My favorite thing I did would have to be “flying” the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle)! It was so much fun! What was really cool was that the controller was a PS2 remote that was just programmed for ROV use, so it was basically like playing an underwater video game.
Q: What was the hardest?
A: Honestly, the hardest thing to do was read the 36 page manual on the submersible. It was just straight operation and guideline reading. Not the most thrilling stuff, but it is telling you how to operate the life sustaining vehicle you are in, so it’s important!
Q: How has your experience with Undersea Voyager Project affected your plans for the future? Do you still plan on making the ocean part of your future? If so, how?
A: I most definitely want to keep the ocean in my future. It’s impossible to see my life without a marine influence. Where I may go with the marine part of my life is still being determined. At first I wanted to go into marine biology, but as I come towards the end of high school, I am starting to realize that my passion may not lie so much in the biology portion as the exploration. I am even looking into the possibilities of marine archeology or underwater filming/documentaries.
Q: What would be your advice to other young people your age who want to make the ocean part of their career?
A: Just go for it. If you are truly passionate about the ocean it won’t matter if you have a mansion and luxury vehicle (‘cause to tell you the truth, scientists/researchers are not the highest paid individuals in this line of work).
The ocean needs help to be protected, and so do all the creatures that reside in it. Research all the possibilities, there are so many fields of work that have to do with the ocean! Make connections and contacts any way possible, in this line of work it’s all about networking. If you are serious about making the ocean a part of your future, you can make it happen.
Story by Michael Bear, California Diver Science Diving Editor
Photos courtesy of Rebecca and Dawn Ziegler