Cameron: Well, let’s set the way-back machine for the 1960s when I was about 10—I was born in 1954. At my most impressionable age, I was surrounded by feats of exploration, some of it being done by Woods Hole Oceanographic, which for me was the cool place. They had Alvin, which came online in 1964. I related to space exploration and deep-sea exploration the same way, which was as a science fiction fan. The penny dropped for me when I was about 15 and I realized, well, I’ll probably never go to another planet, but I can sure as heck go into the ocean. I can learn to scuba dive. I was living in a landlocked place, 450 miles from the nearest ocean, so I learned to scuba dive basically in a pool. I scuba dived in creeks and rivers around my house in Canada. I later scuba dived all around the world.
Part of my inspiration for my movie The Abyss was a quick piece of B-roll taken of the sub Jason Jr. that ran on the news in 1986, about a year after the Titanic was discovered. It was that image of Jason Jr. in a test pool, probably in Woods Hole, whirring around. From the moment I saw it, it was love at first sight. The sound was turned off, and I don’t even know what the program was, but I knew instantly what it was—it was a flying underwater camera, and I wanted one.
Things happened pretty fast then. By 1988 I’d written The Abyss and come to Woods Hole to see how [marine engineering] was all done. I was going to simulate it all in shallow water. I needed ROVs, and we were going to pretend we were deep, even though it was filmed in only 60 feet of water. We created a false ocean floor and everything. In the process of that, I got hooked on the engineering because we had to build a lot of things for ourselves, including camera systems, diver propulsion vehicles, underwater lighting and so on.
The next stage was in 1995 when we went to Titanic. I met with the Russians that operate the Mir submarines. I knew Alvin was booked solid and I wouldn’t get anywhere near it, but the Russians were hurting to get the subs in the water because they’d lost state funding. It had just crashed and burned in 1991. So I met with them in 1992 or 1993, and I realized that this was a system available for lease. And it was perfect because there were two of them. I put the camera on one, and I’d have a sub in the picture. I wound up doing seven expeditions with the Russians and making 55 dives in the Mirs. In the course of that we built all kinds of new things—cameras, lights, robotic vehicles and so on. A lot of that stuff was precursor technology to what went into the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER. In the process I realized that it’s really hard, it’s really challenging, and it’s really fun. On the other hand I also learned that there is zero forgiveness in the ocean. You build a piece of technology for filmmaking and it breaks down, and you do another take. If it breaks down in the ocean, you’ve probably lost it or killed yourself. I love the engineering, and I love the exploration, and I love the imaging—and they all come together in the Venn diagram. And I love the science. I’m just curious although I don’t pretend to be a scientist.
Is it still possible for young people today to be inspired in the way you were?
Cameron: Look, I think we all know what the situation is. I sat on a NASA advisory council for three years right about the time after the Columbia crash, and everybody was wringing their hands and bemoaning the fact that we weren’t putting out enough engineers, we weren’t putting out enough scientists, there weren’t enough people coming into NASA, what can NASA do about it? It’s the same thing in the ocean community, except NASA’s got a bigger budget.
Culturally, kids today aren’t as inspired by exploration, and I just think it’s something that we have to work harder [to promote]. Back in the ‘60s it was easier. The stuff was all happening anyway—it was all around us. Now we have to make it sexy and interesting, and we have to empower kids—and I say kids because I think these decisions are made when you’re eight, nine, 10, 11 years old. By the time you’re in high school with all the peer pressure and the career pressure, if you’re not hooked on the passion and curiosity of building things and figuring out how things work and figuring out how nature works, it’s going to be almost too late, although a good teacher in high school—a good mentor—can really change the way you view the world.
Avery: There’s no real conduit in middle school and high school to study ocean science. Physics, chemistry and biology don’t really have it because the ocean—and the atmosphere, for that matter—are very complex systems. Getting students interested in an undergraduate science curriculum is a real challenge.
Shank: One way we’re trying to improve science and discovery is to make them part of exploration. On my HADES cruise to the Kermadec Trench in February we’ll be conducting tele-presence that students can get involved in from their classrooms. They will be able to hear the scientists talk about what we’re seeing and make discoveries when we do. That’s one way to keep students interested, make them part of the process.
What are the consequences of poor science literacy in future generations?
Cameron: We have to have these exemplars for kids to see that not only haven’t we explored this planet—and certainly there’s much to do in space as well—but there’s also so much we need to know in order to operate this world. Because right now we’re like a five-year-old at the controls of a 747. This planet is a big, complex, intricate system, and we’re driving it all over the place—and we’re about to drive it into a mountain if we don’t figure it out a little better. The ocean plays an enormous role in all of the climate models, and it’s the part that we have the least data to plug in.
We’re not going to solve the challenges of the 21st century by going back to the 20th century. We’re going to have to think our way through to the other side, and a lot of the solutions are going to be technology solutions. And a big factor also is, even if you’re not a scientist, you need to be scientifically literate to have a democratic process in the 21st century. If you want freedom and democracy, you must understand science. And if I talk anymore, I’ll really go off. Anyway, I think you can see that I really care about science and people’s comprehension of it.