James Cameron's Next Deepsea Mission: Get Congress to Pay Attention to the Ocean

The film director showed off his Challenger Deep submarine in Washington, D.C. Tuesday.

Filmmaker James Cameron brought the Deepsea Challenger, a vehicle used to investigate the deepest parts of the ocean, to Washington, D.C. Tuesday as he asked lawmakers to pay more attention to it and its potential for helping understand climate change. (Jason Koebler for USN&WR)

"We don't have to go into space to find great exploration horizons," Cameron said. "We can do it right here on Earth."

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Only one man has ever traveled alone to the darkest corner of the Earth: the deepest part at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Tuesday, he was in Washington, D.C. asking lawmakers to pay more attention to it in hopes it might hold the secret to staving off climate change and understanding extreme weather.

The Deepsea Challenger mission, started in secret nearly a decade ago by filmmaker James Cameron, might at first seem like an $8 million pet project of a man who has made the two most successful films of all time. But Cameron says he didn't spend seven years developing the submarine just to become the first person since Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh traveled together to the Mariana Trench in 1960.

"We've got to put vehicles into the ocean to understand it," Cameron says. "This vehicle was done not to set a record but to be a science platform, to go down and do real science."

On that front, Cameron's mission appears to have been a success: Its robotic arms have taken samples of the Challenger Deep, which is more than 7 miles below the water's surface. On March 26, 2012, Cameron spent several hours exploring Challenger Deep, which is located at the southern tip of the Mariana Trench, about 200 miles southwest of Guam. Using Deepsea Challenger's 3-D cameras, Cameron discovered 68 new species. He's currently working on a 3-D film of his mission.

In March, Cameron donated Deepsea Challenger to Cape Cod's Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where researchers will study the submarine in order to design better robotic and manned submarines. David Gallo, director of special projects at the institution, says scientists there hope Deepsea Challenger and future vessels based on the sub will help them better understand phenomena such as climate change and major earthquakes.

"We think of the oceans as a big blue fishbowl," he says. "But they've got the world's greatest mountain range, the world's deepest valleys. They're an important part of the world."

Gallo says that scientists are just beginning to learn more about the Hadal Zone, a general term for the deepest parts of the oceans, which starts at about 20,000 feet deep. It's a region where there is believed to be very little life and no light. It's named after the Greek god Hades.

"The most dynamic and energetic earthquakes come from those regions," Gallo says. "Every time we go down there and turn on a camera, we're finding out something new about the Earth and our relationship with Earth. The clues to the origins of life and the keys to the future of life on this planet, those answers are down there at the bottom."

Says Cameron, who recently announced he is forming a company that hopes to mine asteroids for resources: "As much as I love space exploration, we don't have to go into space to find great exploration horizons. We can do it right here on Earth. It's critical we understand the oceans faster than we're changing the oceans."

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Tuesday, Cameron made waves on Capitol Hill as he pitched the importance of ocean exploration to lawmakers such as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a founding member of the Senate Oceans Caucus. It's a shame "we know more about the backside of the moon than we know about our own oceans on this planet," Whitehouse said.

Cameron famously became a deep-sea explorer before directing "Titanic," when he took submarines to examine and film the ship's wreckage.

Not surprisingly, Cameron's vessel was completely privately funded. To get to the bottom of the trench without crushing Cameron or its scientific equipment, it had to be designed unlike any other submarine.

Piccard and Walsh's vessel, the Trieste bathyscaphe, consisted primarily of gasoline tanks to provide it buoyancy (gas is less dense than water and uncompressible even at high pressures), a pressure sphere that held Piccard and Walsh, and 9 tons of iron pellets to help speed its descent. Cameron's vessel, on the other hand, weighs one tenth of the Trieste and is much more maneuverable. The filmmaker explored the trench for about three hours; Trieste had essentially no scientific equipment and lasted at the bottom for just 20 minutes.