Just days after the filmmaker plunged more than 35,756 feet (10,890 meters) into the Pacific Ocean to the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth, his team piloted Cameron’s innovative submersible to yet another deep-sea spot.
This time, members of the expedition took Cameron’s lime-green Deepsea Challenger to a depth of 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) off the coast of the tiny island of Ulithi, part of Micronesia.
The image of the Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger was taken by an unmanned seafloor “lander” — a large contraption that is baited, hoisted over the side of a ship and dropped to the seafloor. Once it’s on the bottom, bait ideally lures seafloor creatures, and the lander’s suite of instruments can take samples, photographs and data.
Cameron was slated to have a lander by his side during his Mariana Trench dive, but the plan was scuttled because of various mechanical problems, so Cameron went down to the bottom without any robot companions.
The DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, as seen by the unmanned lander DOV Mike during a DEEPSEA CHALLENGE project test dive off Ulithi Atoll in March. Photograph by Deepsea Challenge Expedition
National Geographic – If his schedule permits, Cameron said he would like to do more dives himself in DEEPSEA CHALLENGER. “I’d love to continue with the dives, but I’m not sure that if I’m making Avatar 2 and 3 over the next few years I’m going to have much time,” he said.
Now that the sub has proven itself as a viable science platform, Cameron said he has no objections to other scientists going down in his stead: “I don’t have to be the one piloting the sub. Other people can make the dives.”
Expedition geologist Fryer said that she for one would leap at the opportunity. “I’d be the first person to take a ticket,” she said. “Train me up, and set me down.”
For instance, on April 1 Ron Allum, co-designer of the project’s custom DEEPSEA CHALLENGER sub, completed a dive to 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) off the coast of the tiny Pacific atoll of Ulithi. During that dive, Allum recorded images and video of deep-sea life and collected rock samples using the sub’s mechanical arm.
“The interesting thing about [that sample] is that it’s a piece of one of the coral-growth features on the flank of a seamount,” explained expedition member Patricia Fryer, a marine geologist at the Hawai’i Institute of Geophysics & Planetology.
“So we should be able to date the coral … and that will help us figure out how rapidly that atoll has subsided.”
Scientists recently sent an unmanned, baited lander into an unexplored section of Challenger Deep and successfully retrieved dozens of the small, shrimplike amphipods that Cameron saw during his dive but was unable to capture.
“We also got some beautiful and still images and 3-D video from the drop,” Bartlett said. “It was really very, very successful.”
“I’m sure that scientists would be anxious to gain access to this [kind of] material,” project manager Bowen said.
“The bottom line is that there’s so little material or measurements or observations about the hadal environment”—the ocean’s deepest level, below 20,000 feet (6,000 meters)—”that any information is highly sought after and very valuable. I would expect any scientist worth their salt would die for that kind of data.”
A continent of Ocean bottom below 20,000 feet
Cameron said there’s no shortage of candidate sites for future dives. “If you add up the aggregate area of the hadal depths, it totals about the same as the continental United States,” he said.
“So there’s an entire continent’s worth of ocean that’s never been viewed or explored, and it’s still waiting and it requires machines like the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER to do it.”