Michael Lombardi
Marine Biology
  Contract Diver and Undersea Specialist

B.S., Marine Biology, University of New Hampshire

What is your current job and what does it entail?
I am self-employed as a contract diver and undersea specialist. A typical day on the job varies from surveying pristine coral reefs, salvaging sunken vessels in the cold and dark north Atlantic, deploying oceanographic instruments beneath the Antarctic ice, rebuilding critical infrastructure such as hurricane barriers and shipping piers, or re-routing sewers (no, it's not all fun and games!). I have become particularly interested in ocean exploration -- the discoveries that can be made, the technologies that make these possible -- and communicating this work to the greater community. With such interests, I have shifted some energies to the grassroots not-for-profit organization I started called Ocean Opportunity (www.oceanopportunity.com), which allows me to pursue my exploration-specific interests more directly. Much of this work has been spun off from my tenure as Diving Safety Officer at NOAA's Caribbean Marine Research Center. Since starting Ocean Opportunity, I wear lots of hats, and every day presents new challenges. Every moment that I am able, I am carrying out my ocean exploration interests on deep Mesophotic coral reefs, with depths nearing 500 feet of sea water. This effort encompasses both scientific and technological challenges in human exploration.

What was the key factor in your career decision?
I have pursued a somewhat unconventional career path in freelancing. Throughout college, I pursued three parallel professions: scientific diving via the program at the University of New Hampshire, marine science as my major, and commercial diving during every free moment that I had. During school, I built a tremendous professional network, traveled extensively, and built a unique set of skills that qualified me to do what I do. Having a strong education and science background, coupled with professional diving skills has presented a number of unique contract opportunities. The one pivotally inspirational moment in my career was in 2002, when I was hired to coordinate what was the first mixed-gas diving program hosted through NOAA's Caribbean Marine Research Center. Our team conducted several deep scientific dives, some in excess of 300 feet (more than five times the depth of more conventional scuba). In just eight minutes, a time restricted by the limited technologies at that time, our team discovered more than a dozen new marine species, several of which were later found to produce chemicals of interest in combating human diseases, including cancer. The opportunities in exploration became immediately obvious, so Ocean Opportunity was born in 2003.

What do like most about your career?
I have been able to travel around the world and meet great people. I continue to develop my own organization and I have the freedom to pursue my creative interests, while tying together several unique skills. For my more routine contract diving work, problem solving is the most fulfilling aspect. Helping people overcome various challenges to accomplish undersea projects has been quite rewarding.

What do you like least about your career?
Both hard and soft money is scarce given today's economy. There is an industry-wide paradigm shift towards using undersea robotics for many tasks. In some cases, this is reducing the amount of work that is available for divers. The highly skilled professional divers and diving scientists out there are having some difficulty in convincing those organizations that their skills are needed and necessary to accomplish various tasks, and that those services come at a premium price. This has created a fiercely competitive professional diving community. There is hope, however. As exploration-specific projects and unique applications of more technical type diving intervention for commercial projects start gaining momentum, there is a demonstrated need for divers who are trained in niche skill sets.

What do you do to relax?
On the off chance that I'm not working 18 hours a day, I kick back on the couch and take a breather.

Who are your heroes/heroines?
I look up to everyone who has strayed from the norm to pursue their dreams. Taking that leap of faith alone is the mark of success. Follow your dreams.

What advice would you give a high school student who expressed an interest in pursuing a career in your field?
Be prepared for a long and hard road. Bang on everyone's door, ask questions, get involved in everything that it makes sense to. If considering going the self-employed route, be a jack of all trades to pay the bills, but develop your specialty area of interest and market, market, market yourself.

Are career opportunities in your field increasing or decreasing and why?
As a professional scientific diver, I think there is an emerging market despite the competition with robotics, but it is several years away from breaking open. In terms of non-profit sector exploration type projects, with 97% of the ocean unexplored there are lifetimes of opportunity out there.

What will you be doing 10 years from today?
I hope to be doing exactly what I'm doing now, though with some new found sustenance such that I can focus on the fieldwork more intently without the constant struggle to find funding for very niche work.

Salary:$80,000 - $100,000


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