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Cameron Completes Titanic Solo Journey to the Ocean Floor

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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James Cameron, who proclaimed himself the “king of the world” upon winning three Oscars for his 1997 film Titanic, can now proclaim himself king of the underworld as well. On Monday the moviemaker became the first solo aquanaut to reach the deepest recess of the Mariana Trench, touching down at the Challenger Deep site about 11 kilometers below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

Cameron, who also directed the first two Terminator movies as well as Avatar, piloted his DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible on the seven-hour round trip, spending about three hours at the deepest spot on the planet to collect samples for marine biology, microbiology, astrobiology, marine geology and geophysics research. Based on the success of this expedition, he plans to explore other deep-water habitats, including the New Britain Trench in the Solomon Sea and the Sirena Deep portion of the Mariana Trench.

The DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, 7.3 meters long but only 109 centimeters wide, includes a number of features designed to aid Cameron on his expedition. The sphere-shaped pressurized cockpit features a mechanism that collected moisture from Cameron’s breath and sweat in the air into a plastic bag, where it could have been accessed if Cameron was running low on drinking water. The vessel itself descends vertically, with the cockpit oriented at the bottom, below a 2.4-meter-long panel of lights and batteries. About 70 percent of the vessel’s volume is taken up by syntactic foam made from millions of hollow glass microspheres suspended in an epoxy resin.

The director is no stranger to the abyss, having made more than 70 deep submersible dives, nearly half to the Titanic, prior to Monday’s endeavor. Fifty-one of his dives were in Russian Mir submersibles to depths of less than five kilometers. Cameron has also invested millions to build robotic submersibles that enabled him to capture underwater footage for his IMAX Titanic documentary called Ghosts of the Abyss and for a Discovery Channel film about the Bismarck, a German battleship sunk by Allied forces in the North Atlantic in 1941.

The only other manned mission to the Challenger Deep was completed in January 1960 by then U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard aboard the bus-sized bathyscaph Trieste. Walsh and Piccard spent about 20 minutes on the ocean floor before resurfacing. Walsh served as a consultant for Cameron’s expedition and was aboard the expedition ship Mermaid Sapphire, from which Cameron launched the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER.

Built in 1953, the Trieste‘s 15-meter-long floats contained 70 tons of gasoline to help with its descent. As the depth increased, the gasoline compressed, further reducing the vessel’s buoyancy. The Trieste featured a two-person cabin that could carry enough oxygen for 48 hours. The blimp-shaped vessel had two small cone-shaped windows that gave its occupants a wide-angle view of the surrounding sea and carried mercury-vapor floodlamps, a camera with an electronic flash, an echo-sounder with a range of about 180 meters and a telephone that received and transmitted directed sound waves through the water. As Scientific American reported in its April 1958 issue, the bathyscaph helped ocean explorers “overcome the bugaboo of the great pressure in the ocean deeps and shown that man can journey there quite safely and comfortably.”

Only two other vessels have been to Challenger Deep—Japan’s Kaiko robotic sub in March of 1995 and the Nereus, built by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution engineers, in May 2009. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen Marine Biodiscovery Center (MBC) in Scotland are studying a bacterial species—Dermacoccus abyssi sp. nov.found in mud samples from one of the robotic missions to determine whether marine organisms might be used as a source for new chemical compounds, which could be used to develop novel treatments for cancer, inflammation, infection and parasitic diseases.

Like any good filmmaker, Cameron has even planted the seeds for a sequel (perhaps several). The director-turned-aquanaut’s voyage was cut short by a hydraulic leak that prevented the submersible’s mechanical arm from working properly, according to Cameron, who had planned to spend six hours at the bottom, was also unable to launch the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER‘s unmanned lander containing cameras and baited plastic traps to attract, observe and possibly collect any predators who might be swimming through his landing zone. It’s likely the Mariana Trench hasn’t seen the last of the Titanic director.

James Cameron photo courtesy of Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. N a g n o s t i c 8:14 pm 03/26/2012

    This is really cool. An artist doing a turn as an explorer of the deepest point on the sea bottom. Renaissance man stuff this is. It’s quite interesting that he’s done this during the same time another record is being challenged – Joseph Kittenger’s balloon-born free fall.

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  2. 2. N a g n o s t i c 8:18 pm 03/26/2012

    …which I mention simply because Kittenger’s record skydive occurred around the same time as Trieste’s record voyage to the sea bottom.

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  3. 3. Jerzy New 4:24 am 03/27/2012

    Hey, it’s not Titanic! He resurfaced. Do you wish him bad?

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  4. 4. indeseo 3:24 pm 03/28/2012

    While It is to applaud this man’s courage, curiosity and the money he was willing to spend to do this, I can’t help but think it is several steps away from the future, and not even a small step forward – the most extreme example would be the emperor Nero imagining he is an artist, while the effects of his reign hold in terror the real artists – an extreme example, I remind you, the reader.
    Would that the powers-that-be understood that it is for those who have devoted their lives to what make events like this possible, and it is for them to be the ones who get the excitement of such an event as reward for the long, difficult and lonely work it took to get there, rather than being pushed aside by someone who is really just a dilettante with scads of money to rush in with as if he were a scientist, when really he is only a minor adventurer …
    This is again the confusion of mistaking a personality for someone who has actually done something to be celebrated for.
    This is just another sad day for science and another windfall for the glittering but empty, the glitterati, that we long to worship, hoping that someday we too will be acclaimed for doing NOTHING, and being lauded as if it were important

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  5. 5. bucketofsquid 10:28 am 03/30/2012

    Yay or something. In a primarily capitalistic society, science doesn’t happen without a big bank roll. Cameron has the money and he is spending it in a way that advances science and technology. That is better than buying another big house or a pet wallaby.

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  6. 6. Wayne Williamson 6:11 pm 03/30/2012

    very much agree….

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  7. 7. Quinn the Eskimo 5:19 pm 04/1/2012

    James Cameron, whatever you think of him, has legitimately earned a spot in the Pantheon of Global Explorers.

    Well done! Sir.

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