A Director’s Deep Dive

Filmmaker James Cameron sets a world record for the deepest solo ocean dive

Mar 26, 2012 | By Kelli Plasket
MARK THEISSEN—NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC/AP

Director James Cameron went to new depths for his filmmaking Sunday. He set the world record for the deepest ocean dive by a single person when he spent three hours in the Challenger Deep, Earth’s deepest spot. It’s at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a dark, desert-like place 35,576 feet—or nearly 7 miles—deep in the Pacific Ocean. The famous director is also the first person to reach that depth since it was first explored in 1960.

“Just arrived at the ocean’s deepest [point],” said a message posted to Cameron’s Twitter account on Sunday. “Hitting bottom never felt so good. Can’t wait to share what I’m seeing [with] you.” The dive is part of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific expedition and planned documentary by Cameron, National Geographic and Rolex. The findings and images from the expedition are expected to open up new areas in deep-sea exploration.

Director’s Challenge

This type of extreme research is nothing new to the director. Cameron, 57, is the filmmaker behind blockbuster hits Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). During several years of research for Titanic, he famously traveled to the bottom of the ocean to visit the sunken ship. He also visited the deep sea as research for his fictional 1989 film The Abyss, about a submarine encounter with an alien species. "Most people know me as a filmmaker,” Cameron said during a press conference Monday morning after the dive. “But the idea of ocean and exploration has always been the stronger driver in my life.”

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh (right) congratulates Cameron for his successful mission to the Mariana Trench. Along with oceanographer Jacques Piccard, Walsh was the first person to reach the Trench 52 years ago.
MARK THEISSEN—NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC/AP
U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh (right) congratulates Cameron for his successful mission to the Mariana Trench. Along with oceanographer Jacques Piccard, Walsh was the first person to reach the Trench 52 years ago.

Cameron and his team have been preparing for the trip for seven years. On Sunday, Cameron took more than two-and-a-half hours to make the dangerous 6.8-mile journey down to the Trench, an area with near-freezing temperatures, no sunlight and heavy water pressure. Cameron traveled in the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, a cramped, 24-foot-long mini-submarine he helped design. The sub was equipped with 3-D cameras and lights for filming the adventure. It also had a mechanical arm for collecting samples of soil and deep-sea creatures, though there was a problem with the probe that kept the sub from collecting anything during the trip.

Humans have not visited the Mariana Trench since two divers first reached the deep-sea spot in 1960. The divers—U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard—spent 20 minutes there but could hardly see anything. Their landing kicked up too much sand from the seafloor. They took no pictures.

In his well-equipped sub, Cameron was able to spend three hours in the Trench, exploring and filming. He plans to use his recordings in a 3-D film production for movie theaters and for a National Geographic TV special.  Cameron also plans to return to the Trench.

“I see this as the beginning,” Cameron said Monday morning. “It’s not a one-time deal and then moving on. This is the beginning of opening up this new frontier.”