A Cinematic Journey to the Challenger Deep

Nearly nine months after diving to the deepest point in the Marianas Trench, researchers from the Deepsea Challenge Project are presenting their preliminary findings to the public in a series of lectures at UCSD and abroad. The research team included 12 scientists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, dozens of ship hands from Papua New Guinea and James Cameron, a seasoned diver better known for directing blockbusters like “Titanic” and “Avatar.”

“James Cameron reached out to us, and he’s the one who made all of it happen,” Doug Bartlett said, who served as chief scientist for the Deepsea Challenge Project. “The institution actually signed a non-disclosure agreement at his request.”

This agreement is why researchers involved with Deepsea Challenge had not presented their findings until late last month. The researchers worked with engineers from Korea, Japan and the eastern United States to build the vessel that would send Cameron to the bottom of the sea in a record-breaking six hours.

“It’s a green torpedo that shoots down through the water column — nothing like it,” Bartlett said. “There’s very little drag going down, and it’s able to come up quickly as well.”

The vessel was padded with a novel material, dubbed ‘syntactic foam’ by the researchers who developed specifically for the project.

“We had it synthesized under high pressure, so that it was able to provide buoyancy during the high stresses — up to 30,000 atmospheres — of the bottom of the sea.”  

Unlike other submersibles that have travelled to great depths, the Challenger craft was engineered with video technology in mind. One of the primary objectives of the mission was to gather footage for a feature-length documentary about the deep sea to promote a greater appreciation for the marine environment.

“It had some really bright lights, which is not surprising given it’s a James Cameron operation.”

The craft was also fitted with a 3D video camera on one wing, a macro camera on a second and a wide-angle lens on the third. Outside the craft was an iMac film camera — armored with syntactic foam to withstand the skull-crushing pressures at the bottom of the sea. The entire hull was made out rows of batteries — a workaround to the problem of powering the lights and cameras in such a small vessel.

“It took almost two years to get everything together, but it felt magical to be out there finally, last March,” Bartlett said. “To be in the Solomon Sea, under the stars in the open sky — it was triumphant. It was a colorful, wonderful, dedicated group of people on board, too. There were Academy Award winners, famous writers, film experts…and there were scientists. It was great to link up with other scientists.”

At sea, Cameron quickly assumed leadership of the project.

“He was no diletante,” Bartlett said. “Every other day, we’d meet in the bridge of the offshore survey vessel, and he’d go through the responsibilities of the various teams involved with the landers. It was clear that he knew exactly what needed to happen. He was relentless in getting done what needed to be done.”

In Guam, one of the major diving points on the excursion, the team collected samples of animals that have never been characterized before — and which still remain unnamed. One of the more interesting clinical finds is an amphipod that the researchers have found to produce scyllo-inositol, a molecule synthesized artificially to treat Alzheimer’s disease. “We’re also culturing hundreds of new microbes from the dive,” Bartlett said. “Who knows what therapeutic value they might have?”

The total cost of the project has not been released, but Bartlett stated its numbers in the tens of millions of dollars. Much of the funding came from Rolex, which developed a watch capable of withstanding full ocean depth earlier that year. The watch was placed on the hull of the submersible, in view of Cameron’s many video cameras.

“We filmed it the whole time — it didn’t crack,” Bartlett said. “We got the money, and now Rolex has a new commercial for its watch.”

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