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Editor’s Note: This article is the first of a two-part Q&A from a roundtable in which James Cameron discussed deep-ocean science with researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Mass.
In March filmmaker and aquanaut James Cameron, back from his record-setting visit to the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench 11 kilometers below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, announced the donation of his sub, DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, to Woods Hole, where scientists plan to use its cutting-edge technology to help further their understanding of life in ocean trenches.
The first order of business when the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER arrives at Woods Hole in a few weeks: Fit its custom-made lights, imaging equipment and high-definition 3-D cameras on to Woods Hole’s Nereus robotic sub in preparation for the latter’s dive to the 10-kilometer-deep Kermadec Trench—off the northeastern tip of New Zealand's North Island—in February or March 2014. The Kermadec Trench is a kilometer shallower than the Challenger Deep site that Cameron explored, but Nereus’s mission is crucial to understanding the peculiar inhabitants, ecosystem and geologic activity that have evolved in ocean trenches—the planet’s most hostile habitat.
The roundtable discussion with Cameron took place in New York City in April and included: Tim Shank, a Woods Hole deep-sea biologist and lead investigator for the institution’s Hadal Ecosystem Studies (HADES) program; Andy Bowen, director of Woods Hole’s National Deep Submergence Facility; Susan Avery, president and director of Woods Hole; along with a handful of journalists.
In part 1 Cameron and the Woods Hole researchers talk about how the technological advances that enabled the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER to take him to the deepest spot on the planet will unlock new possibilities for understanding life at the vastly unexplored hadal depths, those below six kilometers. The discussion also addresses the upcoming Nereus mission and what Woods Hole hopes to find at the bottom of one of the world’s deepest, coldest trenches. Cameron also describes his experiences piloting the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER on his historic voyage to Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.
In part 2 Cameron discusses how the era of exploration in the 1960s—both into space and to the ocean’s depths—inspired his career as a filmmaker and, later, as an deep-sea pioneer and science advocate.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Why are you donating the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER to Woods Hole?
James Cameron: To me, that’s an infinitely better outcome than it sitting dormant until I’m done with my next two movies, and maybe comes to the tech community five or six years down the line when it’s already obsolete or other solutions have been found in the meantime.
[When the dust settled following the March 2012 piloted expedition to the Challenger Deep] my fantasy goal was that the entire scientific community would want to have access to it. Unfortunately the kind of money that existed in the 1960s and ‘70s, the heyday of deep-sea exploration, is harder to come by these days. So we had to look for a way the technology could be beneficial to the oceanographic community. And we came up with something that we’re all happy about.
In terms of [future missions for] DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, I don’t think that any of us want to take that off the table. We’ll look at possibly getting it out to sea again at some point and go out and try to find some funding for that when it makes sense. The more immediate goal is to transition technology from the sub into the mainstream of the oceanographic community.
Short of taking the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER out again, how will it benefit deep-ocean science?
Andy Bowen: That’s underway right now. Some of that technology will be transitioned into our Nereus underwater robotic vehicle, which will undertake a scientific survey project in the [Kermadec Trench] using, in particular, the cameras developed as part of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER program.
Cameron: It’s interesting how those cameras came about. We knew the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER was going to move through the water column rapidly so we would have as much bottom time as possible. But that meant if we wanted to have the camera out on a boom to be able to see the sub and the area around it, that camera was going to be tiny, and I wanted high-definition and 3-D [capabilities]. My previous HD [or high-definition], 3-D submarine camera weighed about 180 pounds, and it went on a 150-pound pan-and-tilt mechanism. Well, all of that was going to have to go out on a boom, and that clearly wasn’t going to happen on a small weight- and space-constrained vehicle.
So I set my engineers with the challenge of coming up with something that was orders of magnitude smaller and had to operate twice as deep as our previous camera system. That puts you off the scale in terms of difficulty, but they built the camera from the sensor level up. [Two of these cameras in a titanium housing weighed about four and a half pounds] We put it on a four-pound pan-and-tilt platform. You could put a couple of these on Nereus.
What else will Woods Hole do with the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER when it arrives in June?
Cameron: My team of engineers that spent seven years building the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER will share their experiences and knowledge with Woods Hole engineers, and vice versa.
I don’t expect a fleet of DEEPSEA CHALLENGERs to be built. That was a very specific vehicle that served a very specific purpose. But if you were able to take the various systems on the sub and abstract them out to a different form factor, you might end up with some of that being integrated into an [autonomous underwater vehicle] for hadal research. Several of those out there going through the trenches starts to give you much better science in return.
I haven’t put any constraints or restrictions on [how the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER’s technology is used]. I think we agreed not to saw up the sub for awhile.
What are the specific scientific goals of the 2014 expedition to the Kermadec Trench?
Tim Shank: We want to take Nereus on a six-week expedition to the Pacific Ocean’s Kermadec Trench to explore part of the ocean’s hadal regions, which are largely unknown. The vast majority of information about these regions comes from two cruises in the 1950s [the Danish Galathea and the Soviet Vitjaz expeditions], which is rather embarrassing. We just have a catalogue with the names of some species that came up in a trawl. In the 2000s there were a couple of cruises that explored hadal depths and brought back some samples, each of which is incredibly valuable. [Sediment samples from the Mariana Trench, for example, have contained highly active bacteria communities even though the environment there is under extreme pressure almost 1,100 times higher than at sea level, according to a March Nature Geoscience report.] The research [also] showed a carbon food supply down in the trenches that we hadn’t known about. [Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]
There are seven institutions around the world and 10 scientists [involved in the Kermadec expedition as part of the Hadal Ecosystems Studies (HADES) program] who are out to answer six major questions, including what’s there in terms of biodiversity, what they are feeding on and how they’ve evolved in isolation.
Cameron: I think it’s interesting to have an overview of just how little is known about hadal depths in terms of biology and geology. Most of what’s known about the bottom has come from images shot miles up in the water column, and it’s a relatively coarse data set. So you’ve got to get down there and look around and ground-truth it. Very little of that looking around has been done. As Tim said, there’ve been a couple of cruises.
Shank: Foremost, we want to bring back samples and study their use for biotechnology. Based on the hadal samples we’ve seen so far, these animals secrete enzymes that are very beneficial for humans. Some are being used for trials to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Now we’re looking for antibody, anticancer, anti-tumor properties, too. All of this depends on how well you can preserve these animals and bring them up [alive], something we can’t do now. [Living samples have been brought to the surface successfully from no deeper than about 1.4 kilometers.]
Cameron: Their biology just doesn’t work when that pressure is taken away. But the deeper you dive the less equipment you can bring with you. It would take a heavy piece of gear to bring a pressure vessel down to hadal depths [that could keep specimens alive when they are brought to the surface].
To the best of our knowledge right now, what is life like at the bottom of the trenches?