King of the Netherworld: James Cameron Plunges Into the Real Abyss

When James Cameron became the first solo diver in history to reach the deepest point on earth in an innovative single-seat submersible he co-designed and financed, the news made world headlines--it registered almost three billion online visitors--but some saw it as a stunt. This led an irate John Bruno, one of three co-directors of a National Geographic documentary about Cameron's feat, DeepSea Challenge 3D, to highlight in the film Cameron's explorer bona fides. Cameron already had seven deep sea explorations and 76 submersible dives under his belt at the time of launch, and Bruno wanted to honor "the courage and tenacity it took" to make Cameron's lifelong dream a reality.

Great Wight Productions Pty Ltd and Earthship Productions, Inc.
Inside the pilot's sphere of DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible, Cameron monitors the systems on a touch screen.

But Bruno's reenactments showing Cameron's boyhood as a science geek and how images of heroic divers inspired him--especially a 1960 Life cover of Don Walsh and Jacques Picard, the only two men before Cameron to reach the legendary Marianna Trench--did not convince everyone. When the film was released in August, several reviewers dismissed it as a vanity project and remarked on Cameron's ego in acting as producer, star and narrator of a film about his own exploits. Paradoxically, the critics also expressed disappointment at the "anti-climactic" moment when the submersible Cameron piloted actually touches bottom and lands on the Marianna Trench, 35,787 feet below sea level.

"Wearing his sci-fi director hat, Cameron would never have settled for a climax in which the only new species to be discovered are microorganisms. Cue the CGI-generated, 100-foot-long, purple-spotted leviathan! That will have to wait, perhaps, for one of the planned Avatar sequels...", wrote Mark Jenkins of NPR in one example.

No surprise that critics and audience alike have king-size expectations from a James Cameron film--he is responsible for the two biggest blockbusters of all time, Titanic and Avatar. And Cameron himself, an irrepressible showman who likes to be in control, certainly contributed to the film's "negative capability" regarding any science fiction or fantasy--he keeps his eye, and ours, firmly on the real Abyss--even if he does not completely banish the "egotistical sublime" of his own self-dramatizing, Wordsworthian imagination. But is it possible his critics have done a disservice to the unabashed Cameron by confusing his genuine passion for advancing scientific knowledge and for technological innovation, with his entertainer's role? And that fifty years from now, people will know James Cameron as much for his deep sea exploration as his films?

DeepSea Challenge 3D is a surprisingly "quiet" film in terms of big, dramatic moments and 3D special effects. It eschews science fiction for science and whiz bang gadgets for real technology, and it prefers the small dramas of ceaseless trial and error, impossible deadlines, setbacks, and incremental progress. Yet the film attempts to tell a story about a modern-day hero, something we are not so comfortable with, especially when the hero is already rich and famous, he's narrating the story, and he succeeds without any comeuppance.

This is a tale of one man's obsession to do something no one has done before: to build a new kind of speedy, single-person submersible that can reach and explore the deepest ocean bottom. And this record-setting feat with its "robust scientific platform" is meant to inspire others, especially young people, and to encourage a more venturesome spirit and stimulate deep-sea exploration. Cameron wants people to appreciate that the majority of our planet is covered by oceans and 95% of the ocean is unknown. We have a lot of discovering to do, especially if we hope to protect our Earth! And science, with its reverence for systematically understanding the laws governing nature's imagination, "so much more powerful than our own," is Cameron's religion.

The design and construction of the Challenger submersible is one of the expedition's great achievements, boasting innovations in structural engineering (a super-fast, single-seat "vertical torpedo"), material science (a buoyant hull made of "syntactic foam" to resist the huge compressive forces) and imaging (four high resolution 3D cameras, two inside the vessel, two outside). Cameron and his team assemble this craft in Australia, in secret, and Cameron personally bankrolls the whole effort, another example of private philanthropy stepping forward as government funding for science declines. Even the US Navy expresses admiration for these innovations and Cameron eventually donates the vessel to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute "to aid the design of advanced vehicles and technologies for ocean exploration."

Cameron's 13 test dives, which take his newly assembled submersible from one meter of water progressively deeper until he reaches the seven mile bottom of the Marianna Trench, form the narrative spine of the film. Many things break or go wrong and are repaired; others are accepted as unfixable and compensated for in the relentless drive to launch. On one level, DeepSea Challenge is a story about technological invention leading to innovation but instead of Silicon Valley and Moore's law, where everything gets progressively smaller and miniaturization wins the day, this is a tale of the Marianna Trench and Cameron's law, where everything gets bigger and scarier and the risks you take are physical or literally life and death.

The mysterious, nethermost Marianna Trench where Cameron lands is part of a 61 million acre protected marine national monument consisting of volcanoes, trenches and other land forms submerged under the Pacific Ocean, and we know almost nothing about it. With no sunlight reaching such depths, freezing temperatures and water pressure 1000 times normal--the tremendous force can crush a nuclear submarine like "a can of soda"--what kind of life can survive at these nadirs? The answers could help us not just to understand more about the possibility of life on other planets, where similar conditions abound, but perhaps even reveal the origin of life on earth. Cameron took images of "microbial mats"--the earliest form of life on earth, previously found but never at this depth--which contain cells with genes that can fix carbon dioxide in the dark and feed off reduced sulfur, supporting a view that life could have originated in the ocean depths. And Cameron's hi-res 3D images of the trench with its bleak, lunar surface provided more data on "serpentinization" when two tectonic plates interact and release methane and hydrogen, gases that could have provided the first energy sources for the origin and evolution of life.

So while there were no purple leviathans or Loch Ness monsters, Cameron found more than 60 new microbial species and took enough images, observations and DNA samples to keep marine biologists, geologists and cosmologists busy for months. But his most important contribution may have been to show how one human being--an explorer with an obsessive dream, willing to put his resources and his life on the line--can visit the remotest depths of our planet and begin to illuminate it. This can-do spirit, allied with the latest technology and a faith in science, may help lead to our gradual understanding of the vast, hidden landscapes that survive at the bottom of our oceans, harboring secrets from billions of years ago, and may hold the keys to our future.

The content of this article does not reflect the views or opinions of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Responsibility for the views expressed reside entirely with the author.