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James Cameron on the New Age of Exploration, Part 2

The deep-sea explorer and Avatar director discusses what inspired his filmmaking and historic deep dive and how to get the next generation of adventurers similarly psyched
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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?

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.

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