For a Hollywood movie director with a flair for extravagant scenes and stunning imagery, it is almost certainly the least visually spectacular production of his entire career.
Starting with a close-up of himself hunched over a joystick, looking cold and slightly nervous as he flicks glances through a tiny window, the footage then pans across an expanse of featureless, white terrain, accompanied by a soundtrack of white noise.
Yet in just 26 seconds, this seemingly scant-on-thrills offering represents a record of one of the most significant feats of human exploration. Released one day after James Cameron’s extraordinary solo dive 36,756 feet through the Pacific Ocean to Challenger Deep, the lowest point on Earth, it is no Avatar, Titanic, or The Abyss—but it might just rank alongside Neil Armstrong’s “one small step.”
For this place of blandness, revealed courtesy of the Oscar-winning director and his expedition partners, National Geographic, is the bottom of the world. Amid the rejoicing over Cameron’s accomplishment on Monday—best summed up by his wife, Suzy Amis, who tweeted upon his safe return, “I have the COOLEST HUSBAND in the UNIVERSE!!!!!”—scientists were waiting on the surface in a state of high anticipation, eager to know what deep-sea souvenirs Cameron might bring back for them. The answer was none.
A hydraulics failure incapacitated the robotic arm, “slurp gun,” and other tools that he was to have used to sample sediments, grab passing creatures, and suction up microbes as he roamed the sea floor. Then it shut down all the thrusters on the starboard side, leaving the 24-foot Deepsea Challenger spinning in a circle. With the flick of a switch, a frustrated Cameron released the 1,000 pounds of weights that had earlier dragged his vessel seven miles to the ocean floor, and went shooting back to the surface.
“I couldn’t pick anything up, so I began to feel like it was a moment of diminishing returns to go on,” he explained, lamenting the lack of scientific chores he had been able to perform, but adding coolly: “Next dive. Gotta leave something for the next one.”
The “next one” might have an extra expedition member or two: dead chickens. By packing unmanned landing vehicles with bait, then dropping them through the trench prior to the submersible diving, scientists hope to attract life forms to the feast, ready for their close-up as Cameron swoops down behind in Deepsea Challenger with his cameras and tools at the ready.
That Cameron got to Challenger Deep at all was testament to the seven years of planning and elite expertise that he assembled around him. But news that he not only plans to go back but also to turn his project into an ambitious, longer-term program of undersea research, has prompted delight in the deep-sea exploration community.
“In some ways, this is no less than the equivalent of putting man on the Moon,” said Craig McClain, assistant director of science at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, in North Carolina, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. “This is the least explored part of our planet; it’s a sort of a black box, an unknown. What Cameron’s dive has done is an overwhelmingly great thing, refocusing national and international interest on deep-sea exploration.”
The deep ocean, he said, is “an environment of extremes—high pressure, low temperatures, lack of food. Exploring these extremes tells us a lot about how life functions, and what the limits are to adaptation. Can an organism really adapt to everything, or are there limits to even what biology can do?”
What little previous exploration there has been of the world’s deep oceans has yielded some startling survival stories. Worms have been found living around hydrothermal vents with one end of their bodies in nearly freezing water and the other at 200 degrees Celsius. Bacterial life clustered around the vents has adapted to the lack of light by using geothermal radiation for energy, as an alternative to photosynthesis.
At the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, which has collaborated with Cameron on his project, Dr. Greg Rouse has studied worms capable of devouring the bones of whales and seals despite not even having a mouth or gut. “There might be some wonderful surprises in the Mariana Trench. We keep finding new things in the deep sea, just some extraordinary animals,” he said. “On average, the sea is about 4 kilometers deep, and where Cameron’s just been is about 11 kilometers. We have had no biological samples from that deep part or any of the world’s other deep trenches. In addition, we don’t really know much from the average depths. We’re really in the dark, no idea what’s down there.
“What we might find in the sediments are strange animals that may well adapt to life at these extraordinary pressures, or they may be quite simple animals living much shallower. Often the answers are far more than we ever could have imagined. Just the sheer, complete novelty of samples from a habitat like that is of enormous value.”
Ironically, Cameron is reinvigorating the public and scientific appetite for solving mysteries of the deep just as the U.S. government’s commitment to it appears to be waning. The current budget proposal for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration zeroes funding for the agency’s undersea research program—which provides resources such as underwater exploration vehicles—and shrinks the amount available for ocean exploration.
“I think we’ve got to do better,” Cameron told Nature News earlier this month, passing his verdict on the situation as “piss-poor.”
Liz Taylor, president of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, a marine consulting firm in California founded by respected oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, said: “He is right. Cameron’s efforts are visionary, while the decisions by NOAA to zero-fund the National Undersea Research Program are woefully short-sighted.”
The time and effort required by scientists to gain access to deep-ocean exploration vehicles “seems almost a Herculean effort,” she said. “At the same time, ordering a $5 million oil field ROV (remotely operated vehicle) requires little more than filling out a requisition form.”
In the end, it could be down to deep-pocketed adventurers such as Cameron to keep ocean exploration afloat.
Said Taylor: “I hope that Mr. Cameron’s efforts will serve to inspire people around the world to stop and think about the oceans and all that they do to make the planet hospitable for us—despite all we do to the oceans.”
Editor's Note: This article originally stated that deep-sea bacterial life has adapted to lack of light by using geothermal radiation for photosynthesis, when in fact, it uses geothermal radiation for energy, as an alternative to photosynthesis.