Voyage to the bottom of the sea


Canadian film director James Cameron is a serious player in exploring the new frontier of the the deepest point of the Pacific Ocean, and the race is on to join the few people who have made it to the bottom of the Mariana trench

EXPLORING STRANGE, alien frontiers is nothing new to James Cameron – from Aliens to Avatar, he has made billions creating adventures in exotic environments for eager cinema audiences. But last weekend, Cameron went on an adventure all of his own when he brought his cameras to the Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the Mariana Trench, an astonishing 11km below the surface of the Pacific ocean, 300 miles off the coast of Guam.

It might have seemed like the most incongruous piece of billionaire daredevilry in quite a while, but the truth is Cameron has a long-held fascination with the deep blue sea – he made 33 visits to the wreck of the Titanic while researching his 1997 blockbuster on the ill-fated ship, and even more appropriately brought audiences to the very bottom of the ocean floor with The Abyss, his 1989 subaquatic epic that was largely filmed under water.

That film imagined a race of luminescent “non-terrestrial intelligences” encountering oil rig workers on the sea floor. Cameron is a life-long fan of oceanic explorer Jacques Cousteau, and the idea came to the Canadian director when he was a teenager. Of course, it’s one thing to dream about what lies beneath, it’s another thing altogether to turn those dreams into a reality.

“What he’s done is amazing,” says Patrick Collins, a marine scientist at the Ryan Institute in NUI Galway. “You have to remember that Cameron is very well recognised in the deep-sea community for the development of deep-sea sampling equipment and HD cameras, he’s the one who has led the field in these areas.”

Far from being an enthusiastic amateur, then, Cameron is seen as a genuine pioneer. “He’s a serious player – he’s got the enthusiasm, he’s got the know-how, and he’s got vast amounts of money.”

Cameron has used that fortune, and seven years, to co-design and build the Deepsea Challenger, an innovative 11-tonne, 7.3m-high submersible that operates like a vertical torpedo, dropping like an arrow through the water. All his experiences making deep-sea documentaries such as Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss, and, of course, his frequent visits to the wreck of Titanic, were only training for this journey, however – more people have walked on the Moon than have ever visited the Mariana Trench.

It’s about as difficult a place to reach as exists on the planet, and rarely has anyone experienced the sort of isolation Cameron endured as he spent three hours moving his sub around on the ocean floor. At a depth of nearly 11,000m, he was further from the surface of the sea than most aircraft flying in the skies above it.

“It’s a long way down,” Cameron said after emerging from his cramped capsule. Referring to the depths of famous wrecks, he said, “When you go past Titanic, then you go past Bismarck, then you go past where the Mir can go, you’re only half-way or two-thirds of the way there. It’s crazy.”

Only two men have made the journey before: Jacques Piccard, a Swiss engineer, and Don Walsh, a US submarine navy officer. The latter made the perilous voyage in January, 1960, in the “bathyscaphe” (deep boat) Trieste, a submersible designed by Piccard.

The Trieste more closely resembled a traditional submarine, and was considerably larger than Cameron’s vessel, and it took nearly five hours to descend the 10,916m, versus just two hours, 36 minutes for the Deepsea Challenger.

As they passed through the Hadal zone at a depth of about 9,000m, shrouded in darkness, Piccard and Walsh were rocked by a loud bang – an outer window had cracked.

The risk at that depth was immense, as the water pressure is equivalent to 1,000 atmospheres – picture 1,000kg resting on a single finger nail. If the Trieste suffered any further damage that compromised the integrity of the pressurised cabin, it and its occupants would have been crushed. However, they managed to complete the descent.

Despite the expectations that nothing could survive at that pressure, Walsh and Piccard said they spotted a flat fish before the Trieste kicked up so much sediment that they no longer had any visibility. They waited only 20 minutes before returning to the surface.

At the time, Walsh and Piccard expected another team to return to the Challenger Deep within two years or so, but it took until this week for Cameron to repeat the journey. Fittingly, Walsh, now in his 80s, was a member of the team on the Deepsea Challenger support ship, the Mermaid Sapphire. Piccard died in 2008 at the age of 86.

Why the five-decade delay in returning to this deepest of deep-sea locations? Is it an indication of how little there is to learn there? On the contrary, says Patrick Collins, this marks the beginning of a new phase. “There’s a vast amount to learn down there,” he says.

“We know nothing about it, because it’s so expensive, so difficult and so dangerous to get down there. Since 1960, we’ve gone down twice with robots. At those depths, all the animals are going to be brand new designs, I can guarantee you that. It’s all going to be new.”

A discovery by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and the National Geographic Society, who have co-sponsored the Cameron project, backs up that assertion – in a survey of the Mariana Trench last year, they discovered 10cm-wide xenophyophores, by far the largest single-celled protozoans ever found.

The Deepsea Challenger is just the first of a new wave of vessels racing to explore the deep sea. Another billionaire adventurer, Richard Branson, is developing the Virgin Oceanic, a sort of flying submarine to explore the sea floor. “It’s very alien down there, the life we find is very weird, and the technology we use is super high-tech,” says Collins, explaining the appeal. “It’s hard not to get excited by it.”

Challenger in the deep

Developing a vessel that can withstand the immense pressures at the bottom of the Mariana Trench requires some ingenious thinking and excellent engineering. The Deepsea Challenger fits that bill – a peculiar vessel that wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of James Cameron’s sci-fi films.

Designed by Cameron and Ron Allum and a team of deep-sea specialists over the past eight years and built in secret in Australia, the Deepsea Challenger acts like a vertical torpedo, which serves to hasten descent and ascent.

Funded jointly by Cameron, National Geographic and Rolex, Deepsea Challenger cost many millions of dollars to design and manufacture. It weighs 11.8 tonnes and stands 7.3m tall.

For capturing footage of the voyage, there are four HD cameras for filming in 3D, as well as an array of LED lights that can illuminate up to 30m of water. Another arm, for gathering specimens and surface sediment, malfunctioned early in the descent.

Cameron operated the Deepsea Challenger from a small steel sphere with a diameter of just 109cm – it can act as an escape pod if the vessel becomes immobilised on the sea floor.

There was enough oxygen on board to last 56 hours, and while Cameron was due to spend six hours at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, he ascended after just three.

The Deepsea Challenger is due to make three or four more voyages in the next few weeks.