At noon, local time (10 p.m. ET), James Cameron’s “vertical torpedo” sub broke the surface of the western Pacific, carrying the National Geographic explorer and filmmaker back from the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep—Earth’s deepest, and perhaps most alien, realm.
The first human to reach the 6.8-mile-deep (11-kilometer-deep) undersea valley solo, Cameron arrived at the bottom with the tech to collect scientific data, specimens, and visions unthinkable in 1960, when the only other manned Challenger Deep dive took place, according to members of the National Geographic expedition.
Before surfacing about 300 miles (500 kilometers) southwest of Guam, Cameron spent hours hovering over Challenger Deep’s desert-like seafloor and gliding along its cliff walls, the whole time collecting samples and video.
Among the 2.5-story-tall sub’s tools are a sediment sampler, a robotic claw, a “slurp gun” for sucking up small seacreatures for study at the surface, and temperature, salinity, and pressure gauges.
Desolate lunar like Ocean Bottom
The whole time, Cameron said, he didn’t see any fish, or any living creatures more than an inch (2.5 centimeters) long: “The only free swimmers I saw were small amphipods”—shrimplike bottom-feeders that appear to be common across most marine environments.
“When I was in the New Britain Trench a couple weeks ago, the bottom was covered in the tracks of small animals, which gave it an eggshell appearance,” he added.
“But when I came to Challenger Deep, the bottom was completely featureless. I had this idea that life would adapt to the deep … but I don’t think we’re seeing that.”
Still, the science team is hopeful that the small sample Cameron took of the trench’s sediments, along with the sub’s constantly whirring cameras, will provide some new insight into the remote underwater realm.
The mud, they say, could contain exotic species of microbial life that may not only advance our understanding of the deep ocean but also help in the search for extraterrestrial life.
Renewing Public Scientific Curiousity
According to biological oceanographer Lisa Levin, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE program’s potential for generating public interest in deep-ocean science is just as important as anything Cameron might have discovered.
“I consider Cameron to be doing for the trenches what Jacques Cousteau did for the ocean many decades ago,” Levin, who’s part of the team but didn’t participate in the seagoing expedition
Dive Cut short by Leaks
A hydraulic fluid leak convinced Cameron to end the mission after about three hours. Previous projections had him surveying and sampling Challenger Deep and its life-forms for as long as six hours.
“I saw a lot of hydraulic oil come up in front of the port. The port got coated with it,” he explained.
Cameron had planned to collect rock and animal samples with the sub’s mechanical arm, but with the leak, “I couldn’t pick anything up, so I began to feel like it was a moment of diminishing returns to go on.”
Finally, he said, “I lost a lot of thrusters. I lost the whole starboard side. That’s when I decided to come up. I couldn’t go any further—I was just spinning in a circle.”
Earlier, an issue with the sub’s sonar system had scuttled the launch of a baited, unmanned “lander.”
Cameron—best known for creating fictional worlds on film (Avatar, Titanic, The Abyss)—remained optimistic.
“Next dive,” he said. “Gotta leave something for the next one.”
Speaking last week, Scripps’s Bartlett had emphasized that Monday’s dive was only the beginning and could “represent a turning point in how we approach ocean science.
“I absolutely think that what you’re seeing is the start of a program, not just one grand expedition.