KING OF THE DEEP: Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron 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. Image: Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic
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Editor’s Note: This article is the second of a two-part Q&A (part 1 is here) in which filmmaker and aquanaut James Cameron discusses deep-ocean science with researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Mass. In March Cameron 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 the ocean’s trenches.
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; and a handful of journalists.
Here, Cameron discusses how the era of exploration in the 1960s—both into space and down to the ocean’s depths—inspired his career as a filmmaker and, later, as a deep-sea pioneer and science advocate. Cameron and Woods Hole researchers also discuss the need for new ways to get young people excited about science, technology, engineering and math—or STEM—and the danger of a society in which very few are scientifically literate
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Why is piloted exploration still important given the availability of robotic subs, especially if those subs are equipped with the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER’s advanced technology ?
Cameron: I think there are two levels of answer to that. One has more to do with inspiring a nation of young people that tend to be less interested in the STEM areas than we used to be as a nation. People are much more inspired at a young age by an in situ human observer. They can relate to that.
None of us underestimate the vast value of robotics in this, myself included. Having said that, there are operational advantages to having a pilot right there in the moment that you don’t have with a remotely piloted vehicle. I will say [piloting a sub at those depths] does have your attention a little more when you’re physically there.
Shank: I’ve used ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] and Alvin [a U.S. Navy-owned piloted deep-sea sub operated by Woods Hole] on missions to the same site. As a biologist trying to get a 3-D survey of a habitat I would do sampling, and we would draw maps of the site using the ROV. Then you go down there with Alvin, and it’s a whole different terrain, different slopes that you just can’t get when you’re not there.
Cameron: Lighting is also big factor because you’re talking about a wide-field sense of the geography and you have to have the lights to punch out that image. Remotely operated vehicles tend to be smaller and tend to have a smaller physical baseline for the lighting relative to the camera.
Bowen: I have the conviction that human presence is critical to exploring the ocean. My own personal experience mimics both [Cameron and Shank’s] in the sense that we as sensors, if you want to call us that, are still really the best compact unit to explore an unknown environment. In other words, if you’re going into a very unstructured, unknown environment, that is not where a robot excels. A robot goes into a space with a specific mission to measure the dimensions of the room or to tell you about the smells or spectral content of a space. It’s not possible presently to duplicate all of those subtle factors.
Is part of the lack of hadal sea exploration because we haven’t been able to show people what’s there?
Cameron: Although the available scientific equipment is excellent, I think there has not been enough emphasis placed on imaging from an outreach standpoint in the past. This means lighting, wide-field photography—the things that give you that sort of overall perspective.
The problem has been lighting these depths so that they can be seen. [Lighting rigs] usually sap the sub’s power. But I like to light things up like a stadium, because I know that it’s the film [documenting the expedition] that’s paying for the science. Any science that we do is paid for by funding from the film, so there’s going to be a lot of wide-field imaging as well as the stereoscopic imaging. The film has to be 3-D, something you can put in a theater as opposed to television. For the trip to Challenger Deep, the money to fund the filming paid for the ship time, although it wasn’t enough to pay for the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER itself.
What inspired you to explore and document the deep ocean?