By Ker Than
National Geographic News
Squeezed into a submersible as futuristic as anything in his movies, James Cameron intends to descend solo to the ocean‘s deepest point within weeks, the Canadian filmmaker and explorer announced Thursday. (See more pictures of Cameron’s sub.)
Just Tuesday, during testing off Papua New Guinea, Cameron dived deeper than any other human has on a solo mission. Now he aims to become the first human to visit the Mariana Trench‘s Challenger Deep in more than 50 years—and to return with animals, images, and data that were unthinkable in 1960.
That year the two-person crew of the U.S. Navy submersible Trieste—still the only humans to have reached Challenger Deep—spent only 20 minutes at the bottom, their view obscured by silt stirred up by the landing (more on the Trieste dive).
By contrast, the Cameron-designed DEEPSEA CHALLENGER sub is expected to allow the explorer to spend about six hours on the seafloor. During that time he plans to collect samples and film the whole affair with multiple 3-D, high-definition cameras and an 8-foot-tall (2.4-meter-tall) array of LED lights.
Already the tech-laden sub has taken Cameron a record-breaking 5.1 miles (8.2 kilometers) straight down. That Tuesday dress rehearsal for Mariana made the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER the deepest-diving submersible in operation and the deepest-diving single-pilot sub in history.
Designed to sink strangely—and efficiently—upright, the 26-foot-tall (8-meter-tall) craft was eight years in the making. Among its advances is a specially designed foam that helps allows the new sub to weigh in at 12 metric tons, making it some 12 times lighter than Trieste.
Despite its innovations, the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER‘s spherical steel cockpit just barely accommodates its single occupant—in this case, Cameron, the man behind Avatar, Titanic, The Terminator, and, fittingly,The Abyss.
Nothing in his fictional worlds could quite prepare him for real-life exploration, said Cameron, a veteran of dozens of deep-sea submersible dives.
“When you’re making a movie, everybody’s read the script and they know what’s going to happen next,” said Cameron, also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, in a video statement. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)
“When you’re on an expedition, nature hasn’t read the script, the ocean hasn’t read the script, and no one knows what’s going to happen next.”