Ocean STEMulation: Cameron’s Solo Dive to Challenger Deep


Focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math, as they pertain to the ocean.

In 1960, two men did what no human had ever done before: Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard descended to the deepest point in the ocean. 

Over fifty years later, nobody had repeated the feat – until now. The Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean, is home to Challenger Deep, the ocean’s deepest point at 10,994 m (6.8 miles) below the surface.  As we discussed in a previous blog, this trip is dangerous and difficult and requires advanced technology. 

On Monday, March 26, James Cameron, became the third person ever to go to Challenger Deep, and the first to do so alone. 

Cameron emerges from his sub, the Deepsea Challenger, after traveling to the Mariana Trench. Photo by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

The filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer in Residence has long been fascinated by our planet’s “inner space” and many of his blockbusters, including Titanic and The Abyss, have been ocean themed.

But for Cameron, this voyage is more than just a novelty. His sub is equipped to gather unprecedented video footage and physical samples for scientific study. He intends for this to be the first of many dives to gather information about the most mysterious place on earth.

A hydraulic leak prevented Cameron from using a mechanical arm to gather samples, cutting his voyage short – but he plans to refine the mechanics and continue making dives. The team also had trouble with the sub’s sonar system, causing them to not use an unmanned lander, which was supposed to descend ahead of Cameron to attract deep-sea life for him to examine.  

The first voyage, in 1960, experienced difficulties as well; during the descent, a Plexiglas window in the entrance tunnel cracked due to the extreme pressure. The loud bang shook the vessel but Walsh and Piccard couldn’t identify the source of the noise at the time. They were still protected by a steel hatch so they continued to the bottom, where their landing stirred up so much sediment that they could hardly see a thing. 

Walsh and Piccard inside the bathyscaphe Trieste during their historic trip to Challenger Deep. Photo from NOAA via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Cameron said, “I call this dive just the first phase. We prove that the vehicle works, and hopefully bring some real science back.” Though he observed few signs of life or interesting geological features during his shortened stay at the bottom, he is optimistic that there is more to discover on future voyages.

Human exploration of the deep sea has been extremely limited thus far and there is much that scientists have yet to understand. Don Walsh said he and Jacques Piccard thought their trip to the bottom would be followed up within a few years, but funding for scientific exploration of the deep sea dwindled, and the two were disappointed that further exploration was discontinued. Cameron hopes his expedition will spark more deep-ocean science.

Previous deep sea discoveries have been groundbreaking, revealing information about our planet’s geology and changing how scientists view life. 

Before the discovery of hydrothermal vents in 1977 it was thought life was dependent on sunlight. When communities of animals that thrive in the deep sea using chemosynthesis were discovered, it greatly expanded our understanding of the potential for life to exist.

When scientists discovered hydrothermal vents, it also improved understanding of plate tectonics and ocean chemistry. An entire subsurface water cycle, which appears to be as important to the planet as the better-understood surface water cycle, was discovered. 

A hero in these discoveries and many others is Alvin, a submersible that has been in operation since 1964 and is most famous for being part of the discovery of the Titanic

Alvin conducts deep sea research. Photo by NOAA via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. 

Alvin can descend to 14,800 ft (4,500m) holding three people. Even for Alvin however, the deepest points are out of reach. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have been useful in studying these parts of the ocean but they lack the ability to interpret their surroundings, and are only a partial substitute for human exploration.

We hope Cameron’s journey is part of the start of a new era of increased interest in the deep frontier. It seems other breakthroughs will follow close behind. Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic team is also developing a deep ocean vehicle for a trip to Challenger Deep – and Branson’s commercial bent may even lead to increased access to, and appreciation of the ocean for everyone.

 

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