James Cameron showed us new worlds in films like Avatar and The Abyss. So it's no wonder that the film-maker would want to explore the one we actually live in. Deepsea Challenge 3D chronicles his journey to the greatest depths of the ocean—thanks to an incredible sub that Gizmodo recently had a chance to see up close.
In March 2012, Cameron piloted a one-man submersible called the Deepsea Challenger to the bottom of the Mariana Trench: The deepest part of the ocean, at 35,787 feet (or nearly seven miles). He was only the second voyage down to these depths, which is part of his reason for going. You see, the world has been explored to death. But the ocean? The way Cameron sees it, it's the final frontier here on Earth.
And he's not wrong. According to the NOAA, we've only explored five per cent of the ocean. So Cameron's interest is very important, because for whatever reason, humans don't seem to have as much desire to explore the ocean as we do, say, space. To put it into perspective, the Deepsea Challenger is the one and only vessel capable of travelling to those depths.
The Deepsea Challenger is badass, and we got a chance to see it in person after a screening of the film at the American Museum of Natural History that included a Q&A with Neil Degrasse Tyson:
But back to Deepsea Challenger. Now, travelling some 35,000 feet under water takes more than just a regular old sub. The vehicle has to be the right shape and size to withstand the immense pressure felt that far under the sea. For example, Deepsea Challenger is a sphere, because they're the most impervious to pressure. If it were a different shape, like a cylinder, the walls would have to be much thicker. It also does things like spin as it descends, so it doesn't get off course.
All of its 1,500 exterior circuits were custom-made for this particular machine, and it has more than 180 different systems—from battery packs to sonar—that are constantly operating during the dive. In case you forgot that this is James Cameron we're talking about here, the sub's four tiny, custom-fit, external HD cameras will remind you.
This thing is so decked out that Cameron's ears didn't even pop as he descended. But he probably felt a bit claustrophobic, although he said in a Q&A session that he wasn't: The sub itself may be 24 feet-long, but the cockpit is just 43 inches wide—and it's chock full of equipment. We watch Cameron crammed inside, in a foetal position, unable to stretch his arms all the way out. I felt my throat tightening as I watched him try.
The film chronicles Cameron's journey from building the vessel to doing test dives—the first of which just put the sub barely under water—to the actual full-on mission to the Mariana Trench. He had to undergo seven test dives before he actually went the full 35,787 feet.
Why? Because diving that deep is incredibly risky. If there's so much as a crack in the armour of the vessel, you're screwed. If water starts to seep in, the pressure is so great that it could literally tear you in half. Beyond that, any number of systems could fail, there could be a fire, instruments could malfunction, and you could die in an astounding variety of horrifying ways. Besides, we don't even really know what's down there—which is part of the reason Cameron wanted to go in the first place.
Cameron is a genius film-maker (although I stand by the opinion that Avatar sucked a fat one), but in Deepsea Challenge, we see another side of him: A brilliant guy who craves exploration. The way he describes his penchant for this type of adventure is by describing his childhood in the 60s, the age of space exploration. His thirst for exploration only grew, merging his passion for both diving and film in his movies. Take Titanic, for which, he took 12 deep sea dives to see the sunken ship. He's done 72 deep submersible dives total, but the Titanic dives really whet his appetite to see more—and to go deeper. From that perspective, Deepsea Challenge is the next logical step.