Cameron and Branson race to bring urgent attention to oceans

The efforts of James Cameron, the first person to make a solo dive to the ocean's deepest spot, and those by Richard Branson are finally putting ocean exploration in the public eye.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
James Cameron gives the thumbs-up at the successful completion of his solo dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench yesterday. Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

Did famed filmmaker James Cameron just do for the oceans what scientific experts have struggled to do for decades?

When "Avatar" and "Titanic" director Cameron piloted his custom submersible, the Deepsea Challenger, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench yesterday and became the first person ever to make a solo dive to the world's deepest spot, he shined a crucial spotlight on the field of ocean exploration.

In recent years, scientists have been shouting from rooftops around the world that unless humanity puts more energy into studying our oceans, we are at real risk of watching their essential, live-preserving traits fade away forever.

At Mariana Trench, James Cameron is king of the deep (photos)

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The world's oceans are prime drivers behind global climate and weather, and they generate most of our oxygen. But thanks to humanity's general lack of regard for the seas, many marine ecosystems are dying out or struggling due to factors that include pollution, changes in chemistry, overfishing, and more.

As that dynamic has worsened, scientists have called loudly for new energies--both governmental and private--to be spent investigating the oceans.

"We're far behind the curve from where we need to be," longtime explorer, author, TED Prize winner, and former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chief scientist Sylvia Earle told CNET in 2010. "People look at the surface, and they think that's the ocean, and because they can't see what's going on below, they think everything's just fine. But those of us with decades of exploration [experience know that] the ocean is in trouble, and therefore so are we."

A look at the control panel on James Cameron's Deepsea Challenger, which the famous filmmaker has just successfully taken to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth. Acheron Project Pty Ltd

As Earle and other heavyweights who study the oceans have raised the alarm, the response has seemed insufficient to make much of a dent in the problem. And that's where high-profile adventurers like Cameron and Richard Branson, who runs the global Virgin empire, can play such important roles.

Like Cameron, Branson has designs on breaking through some of mankind's toughest barriers. His Virgin Galactic is likely to soon begin taking hundreds of paying passengers into space. And with his Virgin Oceanic and Five Dives initiatives, he aims to enable solo dives to the bottom of each of the world's oceans.

Branson had clearly hoped that Virgin Oceanic, and its chief pilot, Chris Welsh, would be the first to make a solo dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Their submersible, the DeepFlight Challenger, is a much smaller vessel than Cameron's Deepsea Challenger, and was originally commissioned by billionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, who died in 2007. He wanted to be the first person to solo-dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Different approaches
Cameron's new prominence as the first person to make a solo dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench is a distinction that likely would have been Fossett's if not for his untimely death.

In 2007, Fossett died when he crashed his small plane in the mountains of eastern California. The billionaire's death left his DeepFlight Challenger, built by Hawkes Ocean Technologies, without a pilot. Branson later took ownership and developed his Five Dives initiative around it.

Hawkes' approach to building a deep-sea submersible is rather different than Cameron's. For starters, the Deepsea Challenger weighs in at 23,600 pounds. Its largest component is its beam, made from foam that provides both a strong structural core and flotation. The cockpit is below the beam, and under that is an array of scientific gear used for studying the bottom of the sea.

Once on the bottom, the [Deepsea Challenger's] lone pilot will use joysticks to command 12 thrusters to propel the sub along the ocean floor. The thrusters will allow him to move forward at 3 knots, as well as vertically at 2.5 knots....It can turn on a dime and maneuver quietly adjacent to free-swimming animals near the bottom, imaging them on its 3-D cameras....

Throughout the Deepsea Challenger, more than 180 systems are monitored and controlled, including batteries, thrusters, life support, 3D cameras, and LED lighting. One system constantly monitors the sub's battery power and oxygen levels and reports the results to the pilot on a color touch-screen display. Another system reads the pilot's joysticks and in turn controls the thrusters that propel and position the sub, as well as the mechanical arm....

The sub will descend because of more than 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) of steel weights held on to either side by electromagnets. To rise to the surface, the pilot will flip a switch, the plates of steel will fall to the ocean floor, and the lighter-than-water foam will hurtle the sub skyward. This step is critical--if the weights don't drop, the pilot will be stuck at the bottom of the ocean.

By comparison, the DeepFlight Challenger is a svelte 8,000 pounds, is made from carbon fiber and titanium, and is designed to operate underwater for 24 hours without aid. Built like an underwater airplane, it has hydroplanes (essentially, wings) and thrusters that let it collect video and data from up to 10 kilometers over the ocean floor.

The DeepFlight Challenger, which could be the second-ever submersible taken by a solo pilot to the bottom of the Mariana Trench Virgin Oceanic

At these depths, each individual part of the sub must be able to withstand enormous pressures, 1,500 times that of an airplane, and protect its pilot from the extreme conditions just inches away. As [Branson] and Chris [Welsh] each pilot the sub to the bottom of our planet, they will be aware that should anything go wrong, there is no rescue team that can reach them; whilst backed up by a mission crew, once at depth, the pilot and craft are alone....

The craft will cruise at a max of 3 knots and can dive 350ft per minute. At that speed, a dive to the bottom of the Marianna trench and back is estimated to take about five hours.

Within the tiny submersible-making community, there is certainly admiration for Cameron's achievement. Graham Hawkes, the chief engineer of Hawkes Ocean Technologies, said that he believes Cameron's dive "is a great beacon to call attention to the oceans and the need for a new generation of tools that enable cost-effective ocean exploration."

And in a post on the Virgin Oceanic site today, Welsh echoed Hawkes, writing that "James Cameron [has just] achieved 8,000 meters [deep], a huge accomplishment. A dozen people have visited the moon, and hundreds have been up on the Space Shuttle. The world has been circumnavigated and the seven summits conquered again and again. The headwaters of the Nile, the Amazon, and the Mississippi were explored long ago. It happens that the 8,000 meter mark is now a club of 12 people, just like those who have landed on the moon."

Welsh added that, "Virgin Oceanic looks forward to expanding [visits to the bottom of the Mariana Trench] with large-scale exploratory dives covering 12 to 18 miles of trench floor in the deepest trench in each of the five ocean basins. And when all of this is done, we will only have seen a hundred mile visual swath of a much bigger area, meaning exploration of the deep is just beginning."

Clearly, then, having two very high-profile explorers each taking on the oceans' deepest spots with equally high-profile efforts can only be seen as a good thing for those who care about the seas.

"They are going to help collectively push back the frontier in terms of our understanding of such a hostile environment," Andy Bowen, director of the National Deep Submergence Facility at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said of the deep sea. "They'll help to emphasize to the public the relative lack of knowledge about that environment and perhaps the ocean in general."