Film di­rec­tor, oth­ers plan to ex­plore the Mar­i­ana Trench

The Washington Times Daily - - Life - BY SETH BOREN­STEIN

Earth’s last fron­tier is about to be ex­plored first­hand af­ter more than half a cen­tury. It’s a mis­sion to the deep­est part of the ocean, so deep that the pres­sure is the equiv­a­lent of three SUVS sit­ting on your toe. And it’s be­ing launched by the rich and fa­mous.

In the next sev­eral days, James Cameron, the di­rec­tor of “Ti­tanic,” “Avatar” and “The Abyss,” plans to dive nearly seven miles down in a one-man lime green sub­ma­rine he helped de­sign. The lo­ca­tion is the Mar­i­ana Trench in the western Pa­cific.

Air­line and tele­com en­tre­pre­neur Richard Bran­son is not far be­hind. And for­mer Google CEO Eric Sch­midt is fund­ing an­other deep-water sub­ma­rine project that’s still on the draw­ing boards.

More peo­ple have been to the moon than to this place be­neath the sea roughly 200 miles south­west of Guam.

Only two peo­ple, Swiss en­gi­neer Jac­ques Pic­card and U.S. Navy Capt. Don Walsh, have been to this un­der­wa­ter val­ley. And they spent only 20 min­utes there. Their sub kicked up so much of the sea floor that all they could see out the win­dow was a murky fog.

That dive was in 1960 and no one has been back since. Un­manned subs have ven­tured that deep, but there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween see­ing some­thing re­motely on a com­puter mon­i­tor and be­ing there, see­ing it up close.

“It’s the last fron­tier for sci­ence and ex­plo­ration on this planet,” Mr. Cameron said in a ship-to-shore in­ter­view with the As­so­ci­ated Press. “It’s to draw public at­ten­tion to the oceans and con­tin­ued need for ex­plo­ration as well as stew­ard­ship. It would be a good thing if we un­der­stand the oceans be­fore we de­stroy the life that’s in them.”

Mr. Cameron said he plans to spend at least six hours on the bot­tom in his cramped, al­most-form-fit­ting sub, Deepsea Chal­lenger. He plans to film an un­der­sea doc­u­men­tary with his part­ner Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, in­clud­ing 3-D footage.

Craig Mclean, chief of re­search for the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, called Mr. Cameron a hero.

“This is an awak­en­ing for the public on how lit­tle we know about our planet,” Mr. Mclean said. “We don’t

have to look up in the sky to find what’s out there. We’ve got it in our oceans.”

Andy Bowen, di­rec­tor of the deep-sea sub lab at Woods Hole Oceano­graphic In­sti­tu­tion in Mas­sachusetts, re­motely guided the un­manned Nereus to the same sea floor for 13 hours in 2009. He de­scribes the pitch dark, icy cold place as “the most hos­tile, most re­mote en­vi­ron­ment on the face of the planet.”

Mr. Mclean said the 16,500 poundsper-square inch pres­sure isn’t bonecrush­ing, “it’s oblit­er­at­ing.” Mr. Cameron said if there were a leak, the pres­sure would crush him so fast he couldn’t even cry out.

But get­ting to that dan­ger­ous place, Mr. Bowen said, “is frankly in­tox­i­cat­ing.”

Mr. Cameron al­ready feels the majesty and he hasn’t been quite that deep yet. On a test dive ear­lier this month for his 12-ton, 25-foot ver­ti­cal sub, Mr. Cameron went to a dif­fer­ent trench 5.1 miles down. That set a record for the deep­est solo sub dive and he said he was mes­mer­ized by deep-sea anemones that looked like hang­ing gar­dens, tube worms and jel­ly­fish that would pulse by.

There was a mo­ment when Mr. Cameron was pho­tograph­ing a jel­ly­fish that swam right in front of his view­port, back­lit by spe­cial light­ing tech­niques.

“I just saw this very an­cient and very sim­ple an­i­mal,” Mr. Cameron re­called. “The thought that popped through my head was that God must have been proud the day that he cre­ated the jel­ly­fish.”

And, Mr. Cameron added, he’s an athe­ist.

Mr. Cameron’s plan for the deeper dive de­pends on calm weather and pin­point tim­ing to con­serve bat­tery life. In 1960, Capt. Walsh and Pic­card took nearly five hours to reach the bot­tom.

Mr. Cameron said his plan “is to scream to the bot­tom as fast as pos­si­ble, then work at the bot­tom with all lights blaz­ing.” His de­scent in the dark, slightly-above-freez­ing water will only take 90 min­utes and tech­ni­cally there’s enough life sup­port for a 56-hour dive. Mr. Cameron won’t say how much the ex­pe­di­tion costs.

While it may seem des­o­late — it’s too deep for tra­di­tional fish to sur­vive be­cause of the pres­sure — there is life. Rav­en­ous lit­tle shrim­p­like crea­tures, sea anemones, worms with bristly feet, and sea cu­cum­bers live in this sec­tion of the trench called Chal­lenger Deep, said sci­en­tists on the Nereus team at Woods Hole.

“Ex­plor­ing the trenches is a view back in time be­cause they are so iso­lated from the ocean and cir­cu­la­tion,” Woods Hole submersible chief Mr. Bowen said. “It’s in­evitable that it’s go­ing to re­veal some­thing about the bi­o­log­i­cal his­tory of the planet.”

Back when Capt. Walsh, now 80, took the plunge, he and Pic­card saw sparkly tiny fish in the dark that glowed like light re­flect­ing off snowflakes. He could hear sea an­i­mals out­side. But once the ship landed and caused a dustup in the fine flat oat­meal-col­ored bot­tom, he could see noth­ing.

“It was like star­ing into a bowl of milk,” said Capt. Walsh, who is in Guam with the Cameron ex­pe­di­tion.

Mr. Cameron won’t be alone in try­ing to fol­low Capt. Walsh. The next up is likely to be Mr. Bran­son. His com­pany last year bragged that it’s been to all seven con­ti­nents and is go­ing into space, so a $17 mil­lion sub ven­ture is the next log­i­cal step. Google founder Mr. Sch­midt is help­ing fund a $40 mil­lion ef­fort by Cal­i­for­nia-based DOER Ma­rine to work on a more sci­ence-ori­ented hu­man deep-sea sub that is at least two years away. Also said to be in the hunt is Tri­ton Sub­marines in Florida, a firm with no celebrity con­nec­tion.

While some peo­ple call this “a race to the bot­tom,” DOER Ma­rine’s pres­i­dent Liz Tay­lor said it is a far more col­le­gial ef­fort.

“What we re­ally have is a race against time in terms of what hu­mans are do­ing to the oceans,” she said. Oceans pro­vide most of the world’s oxy­gen.

“Ba­si­cally it’s our plan­e­tary life-sup­port sys­tem at stake,” she said, “and we’re treat­ing it as a su­per­mar­ket and sewer at the same time.”




Di­rec­tor James Cameron will be tak­ing the cramped, al­most-form-fit­ting Deepsea Chal­lenger submersible (top) seven miles down into the Mar­i­ana Trench in the western Pa­cific. An un­manned submersible took a photo of the flat bot­tom of the trench with a stalked anemone within view (left). A deep-chi­maera, a bone­less fish, ap­peared dur­ing an­other mis­sion (above).


“It’s the last fron­tier for sci­ence and ex­plo­ration on this planet,” said film di­rec­tor James Cameron of the Mar­i­ana Trench, seven miles down in the western Pa­cific.

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