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New heights, new depths: James Cameron on the future of deep-sea exploration

Despite humankind’s ventures up mountains and across oceans, the deep ocean is still relatively unexplored.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, just five percent of the sea floor has been topographically mapped in detail, while the remaining 95 percent remains unseen by human eyes. In stark contrast, NASA has thoroughly mapped every crevice on our own Moon, Mercury, almost all of Venus, the Red Planet and the dwarf planet Ceres. These statistics are particularly mindboggling when you consider that 24 people have flown to the moon and 12 people have set foot on it.

As for the deepest point of the ocean – the Marianna Trench, which is 10,994 metres deep, surpassing both our tallest mountain Mount Everest at 8849 metres and the height commercial airlines usually fly at, at 106,68 metres – just three people can claim to have been down there.

And one of those individuals is none other than Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron, who is equally as passionate about exploring the deep ocean as he is about making blockbuster films.

After embarking on a dive in a submersible vessel he had built, the Challenger Deep, in 2012, he still holds the title of the first ever solo expedition to the Marianna Trench.

Idealog caught up with Cameron while he was in Sydney for Vivid’s festival promoting his new exhibition at the Australian National Maritime museum, James Cameron – Challenging the Deep, which celebrates his lifelong pursuit in deep ocean science, technology and exploration.

Not all inventors and innovators put their life on the line to conquer new frontiers, but Cameron says with a laugh, “They should, they might be better engineers.”

Cameron at the exhibition. Photo credit: Getty Images

But risk is always relative, he adds. The Challenger Deep (which The New York Times reports set him back a cool US$10 million) was built in Sydney by Australian and lead engineer Ron Allum, and had been tried and tested many times before it embarked on its Marianna Trench voyage.

“I can’t say that there was no risk, but I believe in engineering and we spent seven years building the vehicle,” Cameron says. “We tested it over a series of dives that went progressively deeper – I didn’t just get in and dive down seven miles.”

But even this is downplaying the stakes, as despite the feats of technology, there were hairy experiences, too. During one test 8,000 metre dive, the on-board computer system crashed, leaving him with no functionality while underwater. He called the event “character building”.

But what drives one of the world’s most successful movie directors to climb into an enclosed space and dive to the deepest point in the ocean? He says it’s not just the sea that sets his curiosity alight, it’s more about opening new frontiers for humankind.

“The unknown fascinates me, exploration fascinates me,” Cameron says. “If I could go to Mars, if I could land on Europa [one of Jupiter’s moons] and do all these things I imagine us doing in the next half century, I’d be happy to do that. I’m practical enough to know that that’s not going to be me. I believe exploration is projecting yourself physically to a place, observing it firsthand and doing as much science as you can do, because to me, science and exploration go hand-in-hand.”

Inside the Challenger Deep. Photo credit: Getty Images

But while there are many people with their gazes fixed on the abundant spaces to explore above us, Cameron found himself interested in what lay below the surface: an area that many have cried out for funding in.

For example, the US government gave the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) US$5.7 billion in funding in its 2017 budget, while NASA received US$19.3 billion.

“The basic reason is that deep space — NASA’s favourite turf — is a distant, hostile, and barren place, the study of which yields few major discoveries and an abundance of overhyped claims,” sociologist Amitai Etzioni wrote of the lack of deep sea exploration in Issues in Science and Technology. “By contrast, the oceans are nearby, and their study is a potential source of discoveries that could prove helpful for addressing a wide range of national concerns from climate change to disease.”

Cameron says while people think of the Earth’s corners as fully explored now, much of the deep ocean remains a mystery, as the current orbit remote sensing tools can’t pick up on what’s underneath the water.

“The planet is two thirds water by surface area, and our deep submergence exploration tools don’t typically go below 6,000 metres,” he says. “So there’s unexplored depths from 6,000 metres right down to 10,000 metres, and that depth is called the Hadal Depth.

“If you look at 12 major Hadal Depth trench systems all around the world, that’s an area we have literally barely looked at, and by barely looked, I mean we’ve looked a bit in the Challenger Deep, because that’s the deepest spot. If you can build a vehicle that can go there, anything is possible, but your greatest enemy is pressure, obviously – pressure and range from the surface, which affects your ability to communicate and navigate.”

Close to home, the nearest Hadal Depth trench to New Zealand is the Kermadec Trench, which juts out to the north east of the North Island. It is one of Earth’s deepest oceanic trenches, clocking in at 100,47 metres.

It hasn’t yet been visited by any person in a vessel, but in 2017, the New Zealand-based NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) and University of Southern Denmark led a joint expedition to take sediment samples from the trench, using a range of sophisticated autonomous deep-diving vehicles. 

But the difference between telling the story of a machine’s journey to the bottom of the ocean and telling the story of a human’s journey is vast. Through Cameron’s experience, he can tell the human tale of venturing to this frontier – from forming the vision, to the challenges faced when carefully designing the right technology, to the struggles against the hostile environment.

And this is the point of sending a person down to these depths rather than an unmanned research vessel: to return to tell the story and inspire others, he says. It excites the imagination more than sending a robot down ever would, as all people are interested in exploration in some way.

It’s a path he chose to go down long ago. When Cameron was deciding what to study in college, he says he was faced with a choice: continue down the track with psychics, astronomy and marine biology, or get into the arts.

“At a certain point, I realised that I was probably better as a storyteller than as a scientist, but I’ve managed to re-converge those two passions later in life. I’ve been lucky enough to have made some films that have made a lot of money and that’s given me the capital to follow my other dream, which is to do exploration. I’m not doing it as a stunt, I’m doing it as a way to open a door for science, especially ocean science, which is underfunded.”

But with the Deep Sea Challenger launch six years ago now, what does the future hold for deep sea exploration? Cameron says in terms of technology, the vehicle he used is already obsolete.

“If we started to build a vehicle with the same tasking today, we’d use new material, new science, new electronics that didn’t exist back then and it’s only six years later,” he says.

The technology is constantly breaking new ground, he says, which is the exciting part – the potential for exploration is always being expanded and shifted.

“If we get through these Avatar films, we might design some more vehicles. Maybe robotics, maybe photographic systems – I can imagine a camera system for the deep ocean that’s omni-directional, pressure resistant and we could just stick it out there on an arm, like a big selfie stick, mount it on our robotic vehicle, so somebody at home can sit there with their mouse joystick and pan the camera where ever they want and feel like they’re right there with you.”

There’s already been significant discoveries made in the depths by Cameron and crew. He says a robot they dropped into the Sirena Deep, one of the deepest points of the ocean located 200 kilometres from the Mariana Trench, found bacterial mats that might have been “a glimpse into genesis on earth and the origin of life itself”, so he’d like to explore that area and other deep ocean targets further.

But not everybody has deep pockets and can fork out to get to the bottom of the ocean, so that’s his goal, he says: to democratise deep sea exploration.

One company Cameron is involved with is OpenROV, a low-cost, underwater drone company which aims to make underwater exploration and education affordable. Through the work of National Geographic, the Avatar Alliance Foundation and other supporters, more than 1,000 of their drones have been distributed to classrooms and non-profit organisations.

“The average person can get a ROV in their hands, throw it in the water, go down and explore. It’s got a 300 foot tether, so you can take it into a lake, into an ocean, look around in your own local environment and if you discover something of interest, there’s a social media component that goes to that and is linked into the science community, so the idea is that we want to have a citizen explorer who gets these relatively low cost tools in their hands and can go out and do something,” Cameron says.

After all, if discovering new frontiers is one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments, it shouldn’t be a solitary expedition, he says. If he had the option of taking a scientist down to the Marianna Trench with him, he would have. It was just a strategic decision when building the vehicle to make it smaller and more nimble.

“We always have the image of the Antarctic explorer, beard crusted with ice, trekking by himself. It shouldn’t be that. It should be as participatory as possible.”

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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