March 22, 2012

Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron announced that he will attempt to reach the world’s deepest point, the Mariana Trench, nearly 7 miles (11.2 km) beneath the ocean’s surface, in the next few days. Cameron’s dive in his specially designed submersible marks the launch of Deepsea Challenge, a joint scientific project by Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research and exploration to expand our knowledge and understanding of these largely unknown parts of the planet.

Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic
DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, the submersible designed by explorer and filmmaker James Cameron and his engineering team to travel to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, is lowered into the water for testing off the coast of Australia. The vessel is the centerpiece of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE
Cameron’s historic Deepsea Challenger expedition will be the first extensive scientific exploration by a manned vehicle to the Mariana Trench’s lowest point, the “Challenger Deep.” Cameron plans to spend six hours at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean trench, some 200 miles (322 km) southwest of Guam, to collect samples for research in marine biology, microbiology, astrobiology, marine geology and geophysics.

Relying on advanced engineering and technologies created by Cameron and his team, successful field tests were completed off the coast of Papua New Guinea. They included untethered deep-water dives — including one to a depth of more than 5 miles (more than 8 km) — in the revolutionary, single-pilot Deepsea Challenger submersible, the result of an eight-year engineering effort and the deepest-diving manned marine vehicle in existence. 

“The deep trenches are the last unexplored frontier on our planet, with scientific riches enough to fill a hundred years of exploration,” Cameron said. “National Geographic, which has been exploring the world for nearly 125 years, is the ideal partner to help usher in a new era of deep-ocean research and exploration that supports leading scientific institutions in answering questions about the deepest, unexplored parts of the Earth. Our goal is to build a scientific legacy for generations to come. It’s also to inspire people across the globe to celebrate exploration and to explore with us online and through the media we produce.”
The Challenger Deep has only been reached once in a manned descent, on Jan. 23, 1960, by U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard in the bathyscaphe Trieste.
They spent approximately 20 minutes on the ocean floor before returning to the surface. Now, 52 years later, Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger represents breakthroughs in materials science, unique approaches to structural engineering and new ways of imaging through an ultra-small, full ocean depth-rated stereoscopic camera. Cameron’s Cameron-Pace Group, which supplies 3-D technologies and production support services, has provided the capability to document the historic expedition in high-resolution 3-D.

Photo by Brook Rushton
Pictured with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron (far right) and Don Walsh (far left), who was aboard the only other successful manned descent to the Mariana Trench in 1960, are world-renowned filmmakers and explorers Mike deGruy (middle) and Andrew Wight, who were killed in a helicopter crash in Australia in February. The DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team will honor DeGruy and Wight’s memory by moving forward with the expedition to the Mariana Trench as a tribute to them and their contributions to the project.
“Some believe the golden age of exploration is behind us. On the contrary, I believe we are at the beginning of our greatest age of exploration,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s executive vice president for Mission Programs. “We salute James Cameron for his commitment to science and exploration, and we are delighted to be part of this groundbreaking adventure to the deepest and least explored point on Earth.”

Cameron was named a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence in 2011. While working on his film “Titanic,” he took 12 submersible dives to the famed shipwreck two and a half miles down in the North Atlantic. The technical success of that expedition led Cameron to form Earthship Productions, which develops films about ocean exploration and conservation. Since then he has led six expeditions, authored a forensic study of the Bismarck wreck site and done extensive 3-D imaging of deep hydrothermal vent sites along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the East Pacific Rise and the Sea of Cortez. Cameron has made 72 deep submersible dives, including 33 to Titanic. Fifty-one of these dives were in Russian Mir submersibles to depths of up to 3.03 miles (4.87 km).

The Deepsea Challenge expedition will be chronicled for a 3-D feature film for theatrical release on the intensive technological and scientific efforts behind this historic dive, which will subsequently be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel, and documented for National Geographic magazine.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, is the Deepsea Challenge Project’s primary science collaborator. For nearly a decade, Scripps has been involved with James Cameron in developing new ways to explore and study the deepest parts of the oceans. With its decades-long history of deep-sea exploration, Scripps is recognized as a world leader in investigating the science of the deep ocean, from exploring the deep’s geological features to researching its exotic marine life inhabitants.

Photo by Brook Rushton
Cameron inside the pressure sphere simulator at Acheron Project offices in Sydney, Australia. The actual sphere where Cameron will sit aboard the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER during his descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench has an interior diameter of 43 inches and provides life support, communications and control of the submersible. The vessel is the centerpiece of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific project by Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research.

The expedition also is collaborating with the University of Hawai‘i, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Guam and Rolex. Additional funding for education and digital outreach has been provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which supports original research and public understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. DOER Marine from Oakland, CA is responsible for providing arms and sampling equipment on the Deepsea Challenger.

Parts of the Mariana Trench are now protected under a 2009 proclamation by President George W. Bush that established the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument and gave management responsibility to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued permits for the dive in the U.S. areas of the Monument. Permits for other parts of the Challenger Deep and beyond were secured from authorities in the Federated States of Micronesia.

You can listen to Dr. Earle and biologist Craig McClain talk about James Cameron’s upcoming dive at the following link:  NPR’s On Point.

Stay tuned to the official website of the Deepsea Challenge for the latest news. 

Edited by Deb Castellana


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