In the quest to reach new ocean depths, National Geographic grantee and ocean explorer Michael Lombardi has developed a portable underwater habitat that allows scientists essentially to camp out underwater for unprecedented lengths of time.
Birthplace: Providence, Rhode Island
Current City: Providence, Rhode Island
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Growing up, I always dreamed of spending a lifetime studying the ocean. As a kid, I spent a fair amount of time fishing, at the beach, and at local lakes and ponds, which sparked a deeper curiosity about what lies beneath. Of course, it's never easy to fully understand the full scope of opportunities to pursue at a young age, so at some point I decided that pursuing a college degree in marine biology made the most sense.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I was first trained in scuba in high school, as it seemed obvious at the time that this would be a valuable tool as a budding marine biologist. Admittedly, I struggled, as breathing underwater was just not natural for me. Recognizing this, I began a personal journey to continually challenge myself in the field. I started diving professionally at age 17 as an inshore commercial diver, which was intermixed with my training as a scientific diver throughout college. I wanted to better understand how we can perform under stress, soon realizing that the "science of diving" in many ways was still at its infancy. As I made a conscious effort to invest in continued training and expand my inventory of equipment (tools for the job), this created more and more opportunity, leaving me diving full-time after college. In the decade-plus since then, I've been involved in literally hundreds of field projects as a diver and dive supervisor with work in the private sector, in academia, and exploration projects. The niche I have since discovered has come from integrating the composure and problem-solving skills from thousands of hours underwater while commercial diving, with the systematic and methodical mind of a diving scientist. This perspective, coupled with an intricate mix of technology, allows me to pursue a number of challenging underwater projects.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to exploration?
My inspiration comes from the moment of discovery. To be in a place for the first time, and quite possibly the first person to ever physically be in such a place, is overwhelming. The personal value I've placed on this experience is humbling, as I often feel that the culmination of hard work, determination, and extensive help and support from mentors along the way that put me in this place has entrusted me with the duty of being an ambassador for our blue planet. It's one thing to visit an unknown place, even to go there and conduct a task. It's another to bring home new knowledge and share it with the community. That is the true driver of exploration, and what keeps our curiosities evolving to search for an improved quality of life here on Earth.
My current priority research on methods for human exploration to the lower limits (150msw/500fsw) of mesophotic coral ecosystems embraces this perspective of exploration, and provides a model environment to continue the pursuit. As I've descended along the deep vertical reefs, staring into the black void of the abyss, my mind races with questions. What are the limits of this frontier? What discoveries lie at our fingertips? Are there resources here that we need to protect? Is this inhabitable space? What can I do, among and within this vastly overlooked region of ocean space, to make a difference? How can I bring this alien environment that is right here in our backyard, to the masses? These are the questions that challenge, motivate, and inspire my ongoing pursuit.
What's a normal day like for you?
A normal day is a different day. While there is a systematic process behind each foray underwater, each journey is remarkably unique. A normal day generally defies normalcy.
Do you have a hero?
My heroes are my grandparents. They survived the depression, raising a family, and making huge personal sacrifices to ensure their family survived and were afforded greater opportunities than they had. My grandfather's words echo continually: "No one can take away your education." Whether it be formal schooling, extra-professional training, or directed self-study, those words hold entirely true. One should always be a student of their own work.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
Of the thousands and thousands of hours I've spent underwater while in the field, the single experience that I dream about absolutely every day is making those deep descents along the wall in the Bahamas. I truly believe that it is the gateway to a significant body of knowledge and seeing it, or rather experiencing it-every time-is my favorite experience.
While profoundly exciting and inspirational, the challenges that come with its accessibility bring me back to those early days where I struggled with putting my head underwater for the first time. Diving in 300, 400, and even 500 feet of water on surface-to-surface excursions is hugely dependent on equipment. The surface is not an option in the event of a problem. Calculating contingency plans and establishing safe operating procedures are the true challenge. I have had life-support equipment fail, at no fault of my own, just pure mechanics, which has really driven home that we are visitors in this unexplored ocean space and have to respect and value this environment.
What are your other passions?
I enjoy writing, fine art, and examining their crossroads with science and nature. There is a long bridge that needs to be built between the sciences and the community and I believe that visual and literary arts are a sound medium for its construction.
What do you do in your free time?
I'm not entirely sure what free time is, but during the off moments of exploration and the legwork to get back into the field, I do my best to live a healthy lifestyle-eat well, exercise, spend time with family, and rest.
If you could have people do one thing to help save the oceans, what would it be?
If I could have people do one thing to help better our understanding of deep reef exploration and human accessibility to these areas it would be to consider the perspective that Earth is much more than a two-dimensional terrestrial sphere. It is so easy to walk the streets of your hometown and say, This is my world. In reality, there are vast frontiers right here on Earth that have yet to be explored, let alone thoroughly understood. With the population soaring, and the resulting pressures wreaking havoc on all of our planet's systems and processes, we need to consider that it may be our fateful destiny as a species to evolve a more intricate symbiosis with the rest of the planet-the blue part. Exploring our limits today will make taking incremental steps for the masses within our more immediate horizons.