‘Avatar’ director dives to world’s murkiest depths

James Cameron has become only the third person in history to man a submarine to the lowest point of the world’s oceans. He described a ‘barren, desolate’ and entirely alien place.

Far beneath the surface of the Eastern Pacific, a deep scar rips through the ocean bed. At 10.9 km, the Mariana Trench is the lowest point on Earth – two miles deeper than Everest is high. It runs for over 2,500 km, and it is almost entirely a mystery.

On Sunday, film director James Cameron made the first ever solo descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Cramped into a tiny ball in the cockpit of the submarine ‘Deepsea Challenger’, Cameron was surrounded by billions of dollars worth of electronic equipment, almost all of it custom made.

With nearly seven miles of water weighing down on it, the submarine faced extraordinary amounts of pressure. It needed to be extremely tough and watertight; but for the sake of manoeuvrability, it also had to be relatively light. No suitable material existed – so the engineers invented one. This thick foam – called ‘Isofloat’ – makes up 70% of the submarine’s mass. Its creator swears that it is as ‘strong as steel.’

As well as being densely packed with the hi-tech equipment needed to withstand extreme conditions, the Deepsea Challenger was armed with several sophisticated video cameras. Cameron, creator of some of the world’s biggest blockbusters, is now turning his lens on the world’s most unexplored territory – using the same 3D technology that made Avatar a phenomenon.

So what will his footage reveal? Not, as he had hoped, some monstrous creature of the deep: the only creatures clearly visible on the ocean bed were tiny translucent shrimp-like organisms. It is astonishing that any animal can exist in such high pressure conditions, without sunlight or warmth. But judging by what little we know, there are likely to be plenty more discoveries in store – possibly even including weird, alien varieties of fish.

For now, the environment alone was awe inspiring enough. ‘I just sat there looking out the window,’ Cameron said, ‘looking at this barren, desolate lunar plain, appreciating.’

Hidden depths

Few people fail to see the thrill of the voyage. But why, ask critics, should such a groundbreaking trip be headed by a film director? This ought to be a scientific venture. By taking over the project as a swashbuckling pursuit of records and headlines, they say, James Cameron is hindering a valuable opportunity to learn about one of the planet’s great remaining mysteries.

Not at all, say others: voyages of discovery are about capturing the public imagination, and few have proven better at that than James Cameron. His trip has not only aided scientific progress, but inspired and educated millions around the world. Surely the excitement of discovery is half of what science is about.

You Decide

  1. Was James Cameron’s trip important even though he didn’t find anything new?
  2. Why do humans have such a powerful urge to explore unknown places?

Activities

  1. Write a science fiction story about encountering something unexpected and extraordinary in the ocean’s depths.
  2. Do some research using the internet and identify five examples of unusual adaptations that deep sea organisms have developed to overcome the extreme conditions they face.

Some People Say...

“Why always this obsession with being the first to do something? It’s pure vanity.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Where can I see the films James Cameron shot from the submarine?
Cameron intends to make them available, but when and where is not yet clear. He has hinted that he hopes to capture footage to use in his forthcoming filmAvatar 2. But judging by his comments nothing he has so far found is likely to be quite spectacular enough.
So the trip was a failure?
It wasn’t a total success: he doesn’t appear to have made groundbreaking discoveries, and a system failure meant he was unable to collect samples. But he achieved the main aim of getting to the bottom, and he plans to return: ‘gotta leave something for the next one,’ as he said.
What exactly were people expecting?
It was such uncharted territory that nobody knew what to expect – it still is, in fact. And that’s a huge part of the appeal.

Word Watch

James Cameron
The Canadian filmmaker has directed an enormous host of blockbusters, including the two highest earning films of all time: Avatar and Titanic . He has been fascinated by the deep sea since exploring shipwrecks in his research for the latter.
Pressure
Pressure is the amount of force divided by the area. Living things usually struggle to adapt to big changes in pressure – this is why our ears pop underwater and in aeroplanes. The weight of water on the Deepsea Challenger was equivalent to three SUVs parked on a big toe.
Extreme conditions
Pressure is not the only problem. At such depths there is no visible sunlight and temperatures are permanently near freezing. Until fairly recently scientists thought life was impossible in such an environment.
What little we know
Strange and wonderful creatures have been found in the deep oceans, many of which create their own light: lanternfish with biological head torches and enormous eyes; anglerfish with gigantic gaping jaws which lure prey using a bright bauble; viperfish which communicate using flashing colourful lights on their fins. It is unclear, though, whether fish can survive in the deepest parts of the Mariana Trench: possibly only simpler organisms can manage.

Subjects

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