Although best-known as an Oscar-winning filmmaker, James Cameron is also an intrepid explorer, inventor and avid creator of cutting-edge technology. Jim’s passion for engineering and fascination with the ocean led him to launch the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE project.
Years in the making, under Jim's leadership, DEEPSEA CHALLENGE assembled a top team of engineers and scientists to create a new type of submersible—the vertically oriented, torpedo-shaped DEEPSEA CHALLENGER—capable of descending to the deepest, darkest place on Earth (the Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench).
On March 26, 2012, Jim and the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team succeeded, and James Cameron became the first person to reach the 11-kilometer-deep (6.8-mile) ocean trench on his own.
Although the entire dive took fewer than eight hours, Jim worked a lifetime to achieve it.
Growing up in Ontario, Canada, Jim always had an interest in science and technology. Even though he was “500 miles from the nearest ocean,” Jim remembers “watching with amazement” the television specials of Jacques Cousteau, tracking the dive of a new deep-sea submersible called Alvin and eagerly awaiting the new discoveries he would read about in his National Geographic magazine. “It was such a golden age of technological exploration,” he says.
Jim made many trips to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. There, he remembers seeing an exhibit on Sublimnos, an underwater habitat designed by Dr. Joe MacInnis, whom Jim thought of as “the Canadian Jacques Cousteau.” Jim was 14 when he sent Joe a letter expressing an interest in developing an underwater habitat of his own.
To Jim’s happy surprise, Joe responded. “He actually sent me back the address of his contact at . . . the Plexiglas manufacturer. . . . I contacted them, and they sent me a sample of Plexiglas. And at that point, I had the window [for the underwater habitat]. I just had to build the rest of it! That was important. That creates the sense of it being possible.”
In addition to Jacques Cousteau and Joe MacInnis, Jim remembers following the career of Don Walsh, the first person to dive to the deepest part of the ocean. In the bathyscaphe Trieste, Don and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard descended 10,911 meters (35,798 feet) into the Challenger Deep.
Years later, both Joe MacInnis and Don Walsh were key members of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team. “How wonderful is that?” Jim says.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
When asked if he prefers making movies about underwater exploration (such as The Abyss and Titanic) to actually doing it, Jim doesn’t hesitate:
“Doing it for real is much better. But it has problems, because there’s no second take!”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
“We test everything!” Jim says.
In particular, DEEPSEA CHALLENGE required Jim and the rest of the team to “fight against the absolute limits of materials science.”
For instance, the actual frame of the submersible (the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER) had to be created from scratch. Instead of metal, such as steel or titanium, the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team invented a new type of super-durable substance—a syntactic foam. This foam is a very dense, strong material made of tiny glass “microballoons.” Syntactic foam is much lighter than metal, and allowed the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER to operate independently.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“When I was in high school, I thought it was just ‘what was where.’
“Now, I realize geography has a big cultural component to it—what people live where, what do they think and what kind of language do they speak, and how does the place that they live affect who they are. Are they mountain people, are they desert people, are they ocean people?
“Our world is very rich and very complex. You can study this stuff your entire life and still only know a tiny part of it.”
Jim is also very aware of the way our physical geography is changing. “If you look at the tar sands in Canada, [extractive industries] are literally changing the landscape. They’re destroying the forests, scarping off all the topsoil. We—collectively, human beings—are systematically taking away the rain forests around the planet and we are doing it so we can plant crops, feed cattle, so we can have hamburgers. That’s pretty much what we are doing.
“So, everyone needs to understand their place in the scheme of things and how the choices that they make for themselves are affecting the world at large. . . . Our footprint on this planet is huge and we need to lighten it up quite a bit.”
Using the geographic perspective was crucial to the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE expedition, Jim says. “One of the biggest dangers on these kinds of dives is not necessarily at the bottom. It’s when you come back to the surface, and [the rest of the team] don’t know where you are, they can’t find you.”
Jim and the rest of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team were forced to invent many of the tools used on the dive, for the simple reason that no one had attempted a descent quite like it before. Navigating by sight, for example, was impossible at such depths.
“When you leave the surface, it starts to get dark very quickly.... By three minutes into the dive, I’m at about 1,500 feet and zero light. So from then on, you’re in free-fall in complete blackness. So we knew that the only light we would have to photograph with was what we brought with us. So, we spent a lot of time developing lights. . . . We created a whole new generation of deep-ocean LED lighting. It was actually one of the more revolutionary things on the sub.”
The LEDs allowed Jim to have a sense of perspective during the long (2-hour, 40-minute) dive down. “I have a little camera out on the end of a boom, and I can turn it around and look back at the sub, which I did quite a bit. You could see all the electrical cables were vibrating, the sub was going so fast. I could see jellyfish, bits of plankton. . . . It looked like I was going through a blizzard. It looked like snow in headlights. If you’ve ever driven far in a snowstorm at night, that’s exactly what it looked like.”
Jim says that storytelling is an important part of being an explorer. “Being an explorer is to be a storyteller,” he told National Geographic Weekend before the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE dive. “The natural world can’t support all 7 billion of us running out there and poking around. So, we need to send the explorers, the societal avatars, people who are going to go out there and bring the story back, in the form of pictures and personal narrative.”
Even though DEEPSEA CHALLENGE was a success, the sub—and Jim—are not done with ocean exploration. Jim and the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team hope to return to the Challenger Deep, as well as other, even less-explored ocean trenches.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . EXPLORER
Science and math are extremely important, Jim says. “We are a technological species. We cannot just accept the idea of an iPhone, or a tablet, or any other piece of technology that we sort of bond with, without understanding what it is. . . . Otherwise, we’re just living in a world of magic.”
As someone who has always had an interest in science, Jim is pleased that “schools now seem to reward curiosity . . . or, I’d like to hope they do! In any case, kids shouldn’t allow their curiosity or interest in the natural world . . . to be dampened by cultural or peer acceptance.
“I do think it’s important for teachers to encourage kids to be curious and to follow their passion. And I think it’s important for students to not think, ever, that science is uncool.”
Jim encourages families to visit museums, aquariums, zoos, and other facilities.
Taking an interest in diverse subjects can lead to unpredictable career paths. For instance, Jim—now a successful inventor and filmmaker—often visited the Royal Ontario Museum as a boy. “I visited for fun—you know, sketching Etruscan helmets or the bust of Queen Nefertiti, things like that. That was my idea of a fun Saturday!”