James Cameron on his dive: 'culmination of a lifelong dream'

James Cameron describes the mixture of exhilaration, discomfort and feelings of isolation and awe he experienced on his historic solo dive to the deepest part of Earth.
Written by Laura Shin, Contributor

In a press conference the morning after his historic solo dive to the deepest spot on Earth (see related article and photo galleries here and here), James Cameron described the place that he explored as "very lunar," and said that when he was down there, he felt that he was in "another world, almost completely divorced from the experience we have as human beings."

He also described his dive as "the culmination of a lifelong dream since the 1960s," and said, "Most people know me as a filmmaker, but the ocean and being an explorer have been a stronger driver in my life."

Below are some of the highlights of the press conference:

  • He noted that the goal was to "take sediment core samples, suction samples of small animals seen down there and take the imaging that scientists need to understand this last frontier on planet earth." He also added, "Here in the 21st century when you can take Google maps and zoom in on any part of the world no matter how remote ... the last frontier for us that is unmapped and unseen is the ocean. There’s nothing deeper than these hadal depths … there are a number of deep trenches around the world, but this [the Challenger Deep] is the deepest. We felt that this had a certain symbolic value."
  • He described how physically uncomfortable and extreme the experience was: Because the dive took place on the equator, it was very hot when he was getting in, "like a sauna inside." The cockpit fit him so snugly that his feet were pressed against one side, and the back of his head pressed against another side. As he was streaming down the water column, within a few minutes, he was in water that was 36 degrees Fahrenheit, and so, his feet and head, which had been hot before, were now freezing cold because they were pressed against the cold cockpit.
  • He said, "Within a minute or two, I'm out of sunlight, and you're in total darkness for most of this dive. It doesn't get a lot of light or a lot of heat, so you have to put on warm clothing." He then added that the cockpit has a full electrically heated suit underneath the seat in case the pilot needs it.
  • Because of the extreme temperature changes, "the walls have all this condensation all over them, and you’re constantly getting dripped on," he said.
  • "The whole sub squeezes down almost three inches in length just because of the pressure. The sphere I’m in actually shrinks and the windows shrink down," he said.
  • "When I came down I landed in a very soft, in an almost gelatinous flat plain, almost featureless plain.... When I got my bearings, I drove across it for quite a distance, and I started to work my way up that slope. I didn’t see anything bigger than an inch long," he said, referring to sea creatures.
  • "When I was in New Britain Trench," -- the deepest part of the Solomon Sea, at 29,988 feet below -- "the bottom was covered completely by the tracks of small creatures. When I got to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, it was completely featureless and uniform and I couldn’t see the tracks of the small worms," Cameron said. He added that while he thinks life has adapted to the deepest places on the microbial level, he didn't see anything bigger than shrimp-like creatures in the Challenger Deep, whereas in the New Britain Trench, he saw big jellysfish and anemones.
  • He described it as a "completely black world, devoid of any sunlight, any heat, The animals down there are adapted to this extreme pressure. They’re usually white, they may have eyes to see bioluminescence."
  • "You know, you may have butterflies in your stomach beforehand and a sense of anticipation, but once I got in the vehicle, the excitement of going somewhere that people haven’t been before, except for my good friend Don Walsh who has been there before … that takes over, the adrenaline clicks in, and I was just thinking like an astronaut: 'I’ve gotta do this thing, and I’ve gotta not mess it up.' So the fear really goes away," he said.
  • When he was on the bottom, Cameron said, "There had to be a sense of bearing and witness and just being there. So despite this big procedure I had set for myelf, there had to be a moment where I just took it in and said, 'I'm here at the deepest place in the ocean.'" He noted that when the Apollo astronauts went to the moon, they said they were so focused on their work, they didn't think about what they were doing until they came back, and he didn't want to make that same mistake.
  • The expedition had placed a "lander" vehicle with bait in the area about a week ago to see what kinds of animals it would attract, but he was not able to rendezvous with the vehicle.
  • Cameron knew his hydraulics ruptured when he saw a plume of hydraulic oil through his window. That meant he couldn't take the rock samples he had intended to take.
  • Cameron estimated that he spent five hours on the ocean floor.
  • Referring to the fact that he had to remain in the same position for about nine hours, he said, "I did a lot of running and yoga to prepare for it physically and mentally knowing this would be a physically challenging thing to do."
  • Cameron and his crew initially planned a series of 12 dives, but now, he says, "our window has narrowed down," so they may do three or four.
  • He noted that he was supposed to be heading to the premiere of Titanic 3-D in London at the time of the press conference, but the dive had been postponed a day due to uncooperative weather. "The ocean presented me with a choice: 'You can bring about this dive that you’ve worked for for seven years … or walk the red carpet in London.'" (He still hopes to make the premiere.)
  • He said, "As you go past everything you’ve ever known" -- and Cameron has made several dives, including to the wreck of the Titanic -- "as you go down 16,000 feet, and I passed 27,000 feet, which is the solo record we set a few weeks ago, and you start to realize there is an enormous column of water above your head.... It's really a sense of isolation, realizing how tiny you are in this vast, black and unexplored planet.”

Related on SmartPlanet:

You can read more highlights of the conference on the Deepsea Challenge's Twitter feed.

photo: Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron gives two thumbs-up as he emerges from the Deepsea Challenger submersible after his successful solo dive to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. The dive was part of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific expedition by Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research. (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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