'On an Israeli Army Submarine, Life Is Good. You Sleep Well, You Eat Well.'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: The engineer in charge of Haifa University's submarines explains what can be found 3,000 meters underwater

Ben Herzberg
Tomer Appelbaum

Ben Herzberg, 39, from Pardes Hannah; arriving from London

Hello, where are you coming from?

London. I went for a few days, to a bat mitzvah party for my cousin’s daughter – a great excuse to go.

What do you usually do?

I work as an engineer at the University of Haifa; I’m in charge of the university’s submarines.

What? The university has submarines?

A few years ago, it decided to take oceanic research seriously. They found a donor and bought two robotic subs.

Which aren’t manned.

Correct. It’s a bit pretentious to bring people down 3,000 meters, and that also makes the whole thing expensive. I understand why most science is done by unmanned vessels.

What can they do?

One is autonomous. It looks like a big yellow torpedo, is 5.5 meters long and when you send it down, you just hope that it will return. The second one, on the other hand, is connected by cable and has a robotic arm. It’s an awkward-looking cube with 11 propellers, and we have a controller and joystick. Everything that happens at that depth is almost unknown, so every find is significant.

Three thousand meters is very deep, isn’t it?

Near Greece there are places that are 5,000 meters deep and more, but 3,000 meters covers most of the Mediterranean. In particular, in all of Israel’s territorial waters. There’s one area we don’t know so well, and that was one reason for getting funding.

Have you already started the work?

All the voyages we’ve done were for testing and training, but now we’re operational. We did one scientific expedition last year, and in the winter we’ll do another one with the autonomous vessel, going west toward Cyprus. There’s a scientist from Ben-Gurion University who’s interested in it. There’s a colony of corals opposite Palmahim [beach, south of Tel Aviv], at a depth of 700 meters. We went down with the robot with the arm. The information we’re collecting allows us to approximate what the conditions were in the sea when the reef was formed. It used to be that, to get coral you had to work with netting and this was destructive to the ecosystem. Now you can use pincers to take samples.

What’s your connection to the sea?

I was in a naval officers course, but toward the end, the idea of a missile boat didn’t especially appeal to me, and they wouldn’t have taken me on the patrol boats because I don’t have the right personality, so I was left with submarines. I put in a request and got it.

What’s it like being cooped up in a vessel that disappears for long periods under the sea?

On the sub, apart from the training, life is good. You sleep well, you eat well, you have your own bed. The problem in training is that you don’t sleep. But the cooks are good, the guys are terrific, there are no arguments.

What kind of people are submariners?

Quiet, serious and polite. The interesting thing, by the way, is that I was initially turned off by water. My father took me out on a yacht with friends and I threw up. When I was drafted, I told the army, “If I’m not a pilot, then whatever you need. Just not the navy.” But in the end I was the only person who was let go in the middle of the course, left the navy and then returned. That usually doesn’t work.

How did it happen?

If the course, if commanders think you’re not mature, they stick you on patrol boats for four months so you’ll grow up. But I was suspended for eight months. I was sent to artillery and ate dirt.

Why for eight months?

Because I’m a bit of a geek. Maybe they weren’t impressed by my command capabilities.

Annoying. So, what are the names of the robots?

We haven’t chosen names yet. I wanted to call one of them “Abyss,” but people said it didn’t sound so good.

It is a bit morbid.

Yeah. If you have some names to suggest, talk to me.

Michal and Shlomi Masliah.
Tomer Appelbaum

Michal Masliah, 48, and Shlomi Masliah, 58, from Tel Aviv; flying to Morocco

Hello, friends, where are you off to?

Michal: To Morocco.

Terrific. What’s the purpose of your trip?

Michal: I’m a jeweler, and I’m going there to do business.

So you’re a businesswoman!

Michal: Turns out that they like my jewelry in Morocco. We started to talk with a few stores in hotels and casinos.

What kind of jewelry do you make?

Michal: Woven, integrating embroidery and beading – something different.

How did the Morocco connection happen?

Michal: People contacted us. I’m in a networking group for small businesses, and we were put in touch with a business promoter, who is traveling with us.

How do you feel about it?

Michal: I’m very excited. All my jewelry is here.

What about you, Shlomi, what do you do?

Shlomi: The craziest thing of all: I’m with the Electric Corporation.

You don’t look the type.

Shlomi: Yes, I’m not typecast for it. I supervise contractors who build electromechanical systems. On a daily basis, apart from the rooster [points to his hairdo], I’m in charge of everything. The bracelets, the rings.

Do you come to serious meetings looking like that?

Shlomi: I attend meetings with the CEO and I am willing to go to them without this on my head, even though we’re Facebook friends and he sees how I am. That’s life. I’ve been there a long time.

Long enough on the job so that you’re allowed to be who you are. How did you and Michal meet?

Shlomi: We met… in what year?

Michal: 1994.

Shlomi: Through mutual friends. Michal didn’t want to date me for a few years, because I accompany groups on trips abroad.

Michal: What, am I nuts? To go looking for trouble? And he was calling every Saturday.

How did things change?

Shlomi: Friends pulled a fast one on us. They arranged a meeting with the two of us, and then they didn’t show. But we stayed. And now we have two daughters, 20 and 16.

Are they as cool as their parents?

Michal: The older one is covered with tattoos. She has 14 or 15 already. She calls me from Amsterdam: “Mom, I got a tattoo.” I tell her, “Send a picture.” She sends it and I tell her, “Shame on you, you did such a small one in Amsterdam. You went all the way there for that?!”

Awesome! You’re also tattooed, Shlomi.

Shlomi: For years I didn’t want them. I was on the table a few times and then I didn’t feel like it. I started three years ago.

What made you change your mind?

Shlomi: It happened because five years ago, both of us were heavier. Michal weighed 140 kilos [308 pounds] and I was 145 [320 pounds]. I had two operations and Michal had one.

Michal: I shed 62 kilos.

Shlomi: And I lost 90 kilos in the two operations.

Wow. How did you make the decision?

Michal: I was injecting insulin and I didn’t want to go through life doing that. Today I’m healthy, and that’s actually how I started my business, Mika Jewelry Designs. When I was fat I used to say, “Who’s going to look at me and at my jewelry?”

Did the operation give you self-confidence?

Michal: It opened things up for me socially. I go out more, am hardly at home at all. I’m the same person inside, but I wasn’t me on the outside. Now I am.

How did the girls take it?

Michal: The older one took it hard. From a couch-potato mom, she suddenly has a busy mother who goes out and uses an appointment book to schedule a meeting. At first she said, “I don’t know you anymore, who are you?” But these days we go out together, drink wine, wear the same clothes. She lives in my closet most of the time.