Idealog - - PROFILE -

I’ ve been l ucky enough to have made some films that have made a l ot of money and that’s given me the cap­i­tal to fol­low my other dream, which i s to do ex­plo­ration. I’ m not do­ing i t as a stunt, I’ m do­ing i t as a way to open a door for science, es­pe­cially ocean science, which i s un­der­funded.

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 Mar­i­ana Trench, which is 10,994 me­tres deep, sur­pass­ing our tallest moun­tain, Mount Ever­est, at 8,849 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 Mar­i­ana Trench.

Idea­log caught up with Cameron while he was in Syd­ney for the Vivid 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.”

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 Mar­i­ana 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.”

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 10,047 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 deep­div­ing 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 physics, 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 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 Mar­i­ana 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.”

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