Into The Deep: James Cameron Goes All The Way
March 26, 2012

Into The Deep: James Cameron Goes All The Way

Lawrence LeBlond for

Famed “Titanic” director James Cameron made history on March 25, 2012 when he became the first person to make a solo dive to the deepest point on Earth aboard the Deepsea Challenger submersible.

The “vertical torpedo” dive, which took Cameron to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (35,756 feet down) in the Pacific Ocean, took roughly 2 hours and 36 minutes, where he was all alone in a deep, dark, cold alien world, much like Ed Harris´s character in the movie The Abyss, (also directed by James Cameron). In that movie, Bud Brigman (Harris) made a one-way plunge to the bottom of a deep sea trench to disarm a nuclear warhead, only to be rescued by aliens hiding out in the most desolate reaches below.

Cameron, 57, has long been interested in the world´s ocean depths. He has made 76 submersible dives in his lifetime, including 33 to the wreckage of the Titanic luxury liner resting on the seafloor in the northern Atlantic. He first headed to the watery grave of the infamous ocean liner for his 1997 film Titanic, an Academy Award winner for Best Picture.

Continuing to show his interest in the deep sea, Cameron has also directed a number of documentaries about lost ships including the German battleship Bismarck and a 3D tour of the Titanic.

Then on Wednesday March 7, 2012, the self-proclaimed “King of the World” director squeezed into his 43-inch-wide single man Deepsea Challenger and took a five-mile journey to the bottom of the New Britain Trench off Papua New Guinea. That dive was made to ready him for the next goal: reaching the deepest point on Earth, which he accomplished in spectacular fashion.

At noon (10 p.m. ET) on March 25, Cameron´s sub broke the surface of the western Pacific, carrying the National Geographic explorer and filmmaker back from the Mariana Trench´s Challenger Deep.

The timing of the ascent was “perfect,“ Kevin Hand, a NASA astrobiologist and National Geographic emerging explorer, told Ker Than of National Geographic News. “Jim came up in what must have been the best weather conditions we´ve seen, and it looks like there´s a squall on the horizon,” he said.

Before surfacing about 300 miles southwest of Guam, Cameron spent hours at Challenger Deep´s desert-like seafloor collecting data, samples and video. His dive and the footage, will be part of a 3D film that is currently in the works.

Cameron´s Deepsea Challenger carried multiple 3-D cameras, an eight-foot LED tower for illumination, a sediment sampler, a robotic claw, and a “slurp gun” for capturing small undersea creatures via suction. The expedition was a joint scientific venture involving the filmmaker, the NGS, and watch-maker Rolex.

The nearly 7-mile journey to the Mariana Trench has only ever been attempted once before, in 1960, when two men piloted a Swiss-designed bathyscaphe, dubbed “Trieste” to the bottom of Challenge Deep. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and the late Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard carried only a few instruments with them, and, according to the National Geographic Society (NGS), they saw little else besides the mud they stirred up when they hit bottom.

Walsh said he was pleased to hear that Cameron had reached the Challenger Deep safely. “That was a grand moment, to welcome him to the club,” Walsh told the Associated Press (AP) in a phone interview from the sub-support ship.

“There are only three of us in it, and one of them -- late Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard -- is dead. Now it´s just Jim and myself,” he added.

Expedition physician Joe MacInnis said the successful descent and ascent is “the ultimate test of a man and his machine.”

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a longtime friend of Cameron, was on hand for the landmark event. He posted live updates via Twitter from aboard his yacht, the Octopus, which provided backup support for the mission. A team using Allen´s personal helicopter was also the first to spot Cameron´s craft when it breached the ocean surface.

While 12-ton Deepsea Challenger´s trip down took more 2-and-a-half hours, similar to the length of a Cameron epic feature film, the ascent back to the surface took a “faster-than-expected” 70 minutes.

There was no immediate word on Cameron´s physical condition after the dive, but the expedition crew said he planned a video interview for later in the day. A medical team was present when he emerged from the sub, the expedition team said.

MacInnis told National Geographic News before the dive that recent test dives had gone well and that he expected Cameron would be just fine. “Jim is going to be a little bit stiff and sore from the cramped position, but he´s in really good shape for his age, so I don´t expect any problems at all,” he said.

Because Cameron had prepared extensively for this mission, he should be in good physical condition, added Walter Sipes, an aeronautics psychologist at NASA´s Johnson Space Center.

As well as a 3D film Cameron is working on, the video, audio, and images from the journey will also provide science with valuable data.

“There is scientific value in getting stereo images because ... you can determine the scale and distance of objects from stereo pairs that you can't from 2-D images,” Cameron told National Geographic News before the dive.

But “it´s not just the video. The sub´s lighting of deepwater scenes -- mainly by an 8-foot tower of LEDs -- is so, so beautiful,” said Doug Bartlett, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California.

“It´s unlike anything that you´ll have seen from other subs or other remotely operated vehicles,” said Bartlett, chief scientist for the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE project.

“This journey is the culmination of more than seven years of planning,” said Cameron. “Most importantly, though, is the significance of pushing the boundaries of where humans can go, what they can see and how they can interpret it.”

The scale of the Mariana Trench can be mind-boggling -- it is 120 times larger than the Grand Canyon and more than a mile deeper than Mount Everest is tall.

“It´s really the first time that human eyes have had an opportunity to gaze upon what is a very alien landscape,” said Terry Garcia, the NGS´s executive VP for mission programs, via phone from Scotland.

A big risk of diving so deep is extreme water pressure. At nearly 7 miles below the surface, the pressure is the equivalent of three SUV´s sitting on your toe.

In an interview with the Associated Press after his 5.1-mile test dive near Papua New Guinea earlier this month, Cameron said that the pressure “is in the back of your mind.” The submarine would implode in an instant if it leaked, he said.

And even though he was seemingly nervous before the dive, he wasn´t scared or nervous at all while underwater, he said. “When you are actually on the dive you have to trust the engineering was done right,” he added.

Lisa Levin, biological oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said that the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE project has the potential for generating as much deep-ocean science interest as any new species Cameron might have discovered while there.

“I consider Cameron to be doing for the trenches what Jacques Cousteau did for the ocean many decades ago,” said Levin, who is part of the team but did not participate in the actual expedition to the Challenger Deep.

She added that because budgets for undersea research is continuously shrinking, scientists need “public support to be able to continue exploration and research of the deep ocean.”

For his own part, Cameron seems sure that Deepsea Challenger will be exploring the depths for a long time to come. In fact, he is so confident in his submersible, he started pondering sequels of it even before his latest dive.

He said a second phase craft might see the addition of a thin fiber-optic tether, which “would allow science observers at the surface to see the images in real time,” said Cameron. “And phase three might be taking this vehicle and creating a second-generation vehicle.”

Expedition chief Bartlett said the Mariana Trench dive could represent a turning point in how we approach ocean science “¦ I absolutely think that what you´re seeing is the start of a program, not just one grand expedition.”

Full results of Cameron´s Deepsea Challenger dive and the project itself are to be published in a future edition of National Geographic magazine.

You can see more by visiting the project´s homepage at: