James Cameron’s giant dive for mankind

The Canadian-born filmmaker takes a sub of his own design to the deepest place in the ocean

A giant dive for mankind
Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

Update: James Cameron completed the first solo dive to the furthest depth of the world’s oceans on Monday, diving more than 11 km into the Mariana Trench, in the western Pacific Ocean. The enterprise, though, wasn’t entirely successful, as a hydraulic failure forced an early end to the mission. See here for more details.

To the tight-knit community of deepwater explorers, the deepest point in the world’s oceans is referred to as “Ocean Everest.” But Challenger Deep, a chasm at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific, is deep enough to swallow the world’s tallest mountain whole. As of last week, only two people had ever ventured into it; by contrast, 12 have been to the moon. In 1960, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and then-U.S. Navy lieutenant Don Walsh took a vessel called the Trieste more than 11 km down and stayed 20 minutes before returning to the surface. As Maclean’s went to print Tuesday, Canadian filmmaker James Cameron was set to become the third, in a sub of his own design.

For the man who made Titanic and Avatar, the two highest-grossing films in history, visiting the bottom of the Mariana Trench has been an ambition as tremendously outsized (and vainglorious, some would say) as his sprawling, epic films. But it’s a goal he’s quietly pursued for years. “People think he’s doing it for the movies, for the publicity,” says Cameron’s long-time friend Phil Nuytten, president and founder of Nuytco Research Ltd. in Vancouver, whose subs were used in Cameron’s 1989 film The Abyss. “Not at all. The stuff he’s done has never been done before.” Cameron has said in the past his main motivation is curiosity.

Last week, Cameron and his team arrived on the tiny island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, and waited out powerful 30-knot winds for calmer seas. On Monday evening, they boarded a ship called the Mermaid Sapphire and set out for the patch of ocean above Challenger Deep, carrying Cameron’s high-tech sub. It is the size of a stretch limousine, but not a luxurious ride: if the dive goes according to plan, the filmmaker will squeeze himself into the tiny pilot sphere (a shape that can resist the crushing pressure of the deep sea), a fit so tight he can barely move his arms and must fold his legs up against his chest. Barring technical difficulties or bad weather, more than 1,000 lb. of steel weights held in place by electromagnets will pull the sub vertically downwards in a slow, spinning motion.

There, Cameron will find an environment as strange as the science fiction worlds he creates on film. With its ferocious pressure and near-freezing temperatures, the bottom of the Mariana Trench is more like another planet than anywhere else on Earth. With the advantage of a series of thrusters controlled by a joystick, Cameron will propel himself along the floor, using 3D high-definition cameras and other scientific tools to capture images of his surroundings, documenting bizarre species and even retrieving samples. The plan is to explore the bottom for six hours; after that, with the flick of a switch, the sub’s steel ballast will fall to the ocean floor, allowing its buoyancy to lift him back to the surface. Cameron’s ears won’t pop once: the sub’s interior is pressurized.

Cameron’s risky dive is just one of the challenges he’s encountered to reach the bottom of the world. The technical difficulties of designing this sub, unlike any ever made, were extraordinary. He faced competition from three other teams with their sights set on the Mariana Trench, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic, and a team backed by Eric Schmidt of Google. In February, Cameron lost two members of his crew in a helicopter crash in Australia. At that point, he almost abandoned the project.

Don Walsh, now 80, served as his mentor. (Piccard died in 2008.) “Make no mistake, Jim is a first-class engineer,” says Walsh from Guam. “But he’s not only a good engineer; he’s creative. He makes art, and he applies that to his engineering.” Walsh fondly likes to call him “Jacques Cousteau on steroids.”

James Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ont., in 1954, the son of an engineer. At 17, his father’s work took them to California, where he went to college for a while, then took a job as a truck driver, wishing to make movies. Cameron landed work as a model-maker, and quickly moved on to designing sets and spaceships for schlocky genre films, something he’d done for fun as a kid. Soon he was making movies.

Cameron’s first big hit was The Terminator (1984), which he wrote and directed. His work became increasingly sprawling, ambitious and expensive: Terminator 2 was the first film to cost $100 million, and Titanic was the first to cost more than $200 million. His most recent blockbuster, Avatar, was years in the making; he started writing it in 1994, and shot it in 3D with cameras he designed himself. No matter how big the film, he has stayed involved in every aspect, telling The New Yorker he even does actors’ makeup touch-ups himself, “especially for blood, wounds and dirt.” Cameron has been married five times, once to Linda Hamilton, who starred in the Terminator franchise. He has been married since 2000 to actress Suzy Amis.

Cameron’s lifelong interest in the deep ocean—his childhood hero was Cousteau—comes across in his movies, from Titanic to The Abyss, which tells the story of a diving team looking for a lost nuclear sub. Much of that film takes place underwater; some actors and crew members had to get scuba-certified. To shoot Titanic, Cameron made 12 submersible dives to the North Atlantic shipwreck. He has led expeditions to the wreck of the Bismarck, a Second World War German battleship, and to hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic and Pacific. According to National Geographic, which has a website tracking Cameron’s dive, he’s made 72 deep submersible dives, including 33 to the Titanic. “He’s spent more time on the Titanic than Capt. Smith did,” says Walsh, referring to the captain of the doomed ocean liner.

For the past several years, as Cameron finished Avatar, he has been planning his record-breaking dive into the Mariana Trench. “Four years ago, he invited me to Malibu, and we spent a day talking about this idea he had,” Walsh recalls, “to construct a one-person submersible, and try to go to the deepest place in the ocean.” As the one living person to have made such a dive, Walsh was the ideal adviser. But despite his larger-than-life persona, Cameron kept the details of his plan quiet. “I signed a non-disclosure agreement, but as I kid him, even after signing this agreement, he never told me anything I could be silent about.” Walsh believes Cameron played his cards close to his chest so he could focus on his work, and because of his fame. “If things didn’t go well, people might say, ‘He’s a Hollywood celebrity and it serves him right, he should go back to making movies,’ ” Walsh says. “They’d take cheap shots.”

Cameron hasn’t revealed the cost of his mission, but deep sea exploration is incredibly expensive; it’s typically left to governments or companies interested in oil and gas, which is one reason the Mariana Trench hasn’t been visited in 50 years. Maybe because the 50th anniversary was approaching, in recent years four teams,, backed by wealthy investors (including Cameron’s) announced they’d set their sights on the trench. California-based DOER Marine is working on a sub that could carry two or three people to the ocean’s greatest depths; the company received funding through Schmidt of Google, according to president Liz Taylor. Triton Submarines, which builds luxury subs for the rich, has designed a three-person sub with a large glass sphere for viewing. “It’s very comfortable, you sit upright, and you enjoy this incredible view,” says president Bruce Jones of the sub, which hasn’t been built. Cameron, he notes, “is in a tiny sphere balled up in the fetal position.”

Like Cameron’s sub, Virgin Oceanic’s vehicle is a one-man experimental design, definitely not for pleasure cruising. Originally conceived for adventurer Steve Fossett, who died in a plane crash in 2007, the craft—called DeepFlight Challenger—was acquired by Branson’s Virgin Oceanic with Chris Welsh, a California entrepreneur and yachtsman who will pilot it. DeepFlight Challenger resembles an airplane with short “wings” off its sides; it could complete a dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and back in five hours.

Between the four groups, there has been collaboration, but also a whiff of competition. With Cameron mum about his progress, it was easy to get the impression he had fallen behind. In February, sub designer Graham Hawkes, who built DeepFlight Challenger, told Men’s Journal the race was on. “I don’t know that Cameron cares about it. I suspect he does,” he said. “I think Virgin definitely does. They’re racing.” As of this week, the three other teams are still in various stages of designing or testing their own vehicles.

In January, Walsh paid a visit to Sydney, Australia, where Cameron’s sub, called the DeepSea Challenger, was built. “I was fully prepared to go into the shop and see a bunch of parts lying on the floor,” Walsh says. “And there it was, ready to go.” Long, sleek and battery-powered, the DeepSea Challenger—co-designed by Ron Allum, also known as “The Professor,” who is Cameron’s long-time collaborator—is mostly made of a special foam that provides buoyancy, and shrinks as it gets squeezed by the incredible pressure of the deep ocean. (The team tested other types of foam, but they cracked and warped under pressure; in the end, Allum designed a new material himself.) The sub is a high-tech wonder, tailor-made for Cameron: according to National Geographic, the oxygen feed inside the pilot sphere was calibrated to the director’s own breathing rates. Water vapour from his breath and sweat condenses and gets sucked into a plastic bag which, in case of emergency, is available for drinking.

When Walsh saw this submarine, he was astounded. His own trip to the bottom of the Mariana Trench had been made in the Trieste, a type of vessel called a “bathyscaphe,” essentially a crew cabin suspended underneath a float—in this case, a metal shell filled with gasoline, which is lighter than water. It took the Trieste five hours to reach the bottom of Challenger Deep; without the advantage of Cameron’s thrusters to manoeuvre across the bottom, the vessel kicked up a sediment cloud that enveloped it as soon as it landed, making it impossible to see outside of the porthole. “It was like being in a bowl of milk,” Walsh says. After 20 minutes, with no sign of it clearing, they began their 3½-hour ascent. Comparing the DeepSea Challenger with the Trieste, which carried no scientific equipment, is “like if Wilbur Wright were asked about the differences between his airplane and a 747,” Walsh says. “It’s a half-century of technology between us.”

To physically prepare for the hours he would spend crammed inside his sub, Cameron’s training regimen included running and free-diving (without a scuba suit) to increase his lung capacity. Beyond that, “yoga,” Nuytten says. In the pilot sphere, “he’s literally in the full lotus position, with his knees crammed up around his ears.”

As Cameron’s dive date approached, tragedy struck. On Feb. 4, filmmakers Andrew Wight and Mike deGruy, who were working with him and National Geographic on a documentary, took off in a helicopter near Sydney to capture images from the air. The helicopter crashed after takeoff; neither survived. “It was a horrible setback,” says Nuytten, who travelled to Santa Barbara, Calif., for the memorial service. In a statement after the crash, Cameron called the two men, with whom he’d collaborated on other films, including the documentary Last Mysteries of the Titanic, his “deep-sea brothers.”

On March 8, the public got its first look at Cameron’s glossy, lime-green submersible. That day, following a successful eight-kilometre dive off the coast of Papua New Guinea, he announced he’d be tackling the Mariana Trench within the next few weeks. On the test dive, despite a few glitches, “overall the vehicle performed like a champ,” he wrote in an email to Walsh. With the drama of a storyteller and the meticulousness of a scientist, Cameron described what he saw: “Out on the plain the dominant fauna were 1’ diameter jellies that would lie on the bottom or swim about 2 meters up. When disturbed they would fly off the bottom.” He talked about being alone at the bottom of the ocean, “nothing but the ingenuity of the engineering to get me back . . . it’s simultaneously scary and exhilarating. It’s the precipice we put ourselves on by choice, to test ourselves and our machines.”

In his films, Cameron has shown us creatures unlike anything on Earth, from the terrifying alien queen that does battle with Ripley in Aliens to the lithe, blue-skinned Na’vi people of the planet Pandora in Avatar. Much of his inspiration has come from the deep ocean: the lush creatures of the Pandoran rainforests, for example, are said to have been inspired by Cameron’s own dives to coral reefs and kelp forests. He might use some of his footage from the Mariana Trench to make Avatar 2, according to reports.

It remains to be seen what creatures manage to inhabit the crushing pressures, frigid temperatures and constant darkness of the Mariana Trench. Other than Walsh, Piccard and probably now Cameron, only robots have been there: Japan’s Kaiko, which visited over a decade ago, and Nereus, a U.S. robot, which went into the trench in 2009. Last year, a team of scientists from National Geographic and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography sent down free-falling landers equipped with digital video cameras, and found massive amoebas called xenophyophores, single-celled animals that can grow to 10 cm.

Other than that, sea cucumbers, crustaceans and microorganisms can live at the bottom of the ocean, but scientists couldn’t be sure if fish (which are more fragile creatures) can survive so deep. Walsh says that he and Piccard saw one in the trench in 1960. “Just before we landed, Jacques spotted a flatfish,” Walsh says, but they were unable to photograph the fish, or to capture it as a sample; since then, others have questioned whether it might have been a different animal, like a sea cucumber, or just a trick of the eye.

Unlike the Trieste, Cameron’s sub is equipped with several high-tech tools, like a mechanical arm to collect samples and a “slurp gun” to vacuum up any interesting creatures for further study. Thrusters should help him avoid getting stuck in a sediment cloud, and a two-metre panel of LED lights can illuminate his way. Two unmanned landers were constructed to dive with him; on the floor of the trench, they were designed to collect water samples and animals, as well as take photos and video.

Whatever Cameron finds at the bottom of the ocean will add to our knowledge of a place that, for now, is less understood than the surface of the moon. The science is crucially important. Some believe that life might have originated in places like the ocean’s trenches, where one tectonic plate pushes down into the Earth’s interior, driving up nutrient-rich mud. The trenches can teach us about our planet’s geology, Walsh says. The ocean floor “is a big conveyor belt,” he explains. “The sea floor is cycled into the trenches. Understanding that process is important.”

When Walsh and Piccard visited Challenger Deep in 1960, they thought other explorers would be back within a couple of years. More than half a century later, the next man to do it, rather improbably, looks to be a Canadian famous for his blockbuster films. If Cameron’s mission is to build interest in the deep ocean, his background is really his advantage, Walsh says. “An unknown 28-year-old navy lieutenant is no match for Jim,” he says. “He already has an audience.”