I almost had the thrill of my professional life to date a few months back when it looked like I was going to interview Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron about a Titanic special he had coming up on National Geographic Channel. I had to stay close to my phone, as I was told Cameron may call within a certain time frame during a given day, since his availability was limited due to the fact that he was “on the other side of the world.” No more than that cryptic info was given.
Cameron never called, but given what we have since learned about that trip he took to the other side of the world, I certainly can’t fault him. It turns out he was prepping to engage in a fascinating and historic one-man dive into the Mariana Trench‘s Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in the ocean, and perhaps the most isolated spot on our planet. He accomplished this feat last month, descending 6.8 miles into Challenger Deep (an area deeper than Mt. Everest is tall). The trip was part of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific expedition by Cameron (a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence), National Geographic and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research and exploration. Some folks had speculated that he also might have used the opportunity to shoot some of the Deep’s alien-like environs to use in Avatar 2 while he was in the neighborhood, but Cameron denies this.
“It was like someone rolled latex paint on Masonite,” Cameron explains of finally reaching the floor of Challenger Deep, in the new special James Cameron: Voyage to the Bottom of the Earth, premiering this Sunday, April 29, at 9 and 9:30pm ET/PT on National Geographic Channel. “We’re talking pretty much the bleakest place I’d seen in the ocean.”
In the half-hour special, Cameron also recalls the highs and lows of the more than seven-year design phase of the spherical sub he used (called DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, pictured above) that was specially built to endure the elements. It even shrank about 3 inches because of the pressure during the descent. Cameron himself is 6’2″ tall, so he found that fitting into the customized submersible a unique challenge. He had to keep his knees bent for hours, with only a few inches of arm movement critical to operating the vehicle. Customized cameras inside the sub let viewers of the special experience the cramped quarters from Cameron’s point of view. CGI animation also illustrates the colossal scale of the trip to reach the bottom, which took over two hours.
In addition to this dive being an epic achievement in research, Cameron is also pleased that it has drawn attention to the importance of further exploration of the ocean (ocean territory about the size of Australia remains largely unexplored). As the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE expedition enters its next phase, the filmmaker/explorer says, “More money gets put into space exploration, but the ocean is our life support here on spaceship Earth. And we’re destroying it faster than we’re exploring it. I think [the dive] draws attention to the ocean and the lack of funding for ocean exploration.”
James Cameron: Voyage to the Bottom of the Earth premieres on National Geographic Channel April 29 at 9 and 9:30pm ET/PT, with an encore showing May 3 at 9 and 9pm ET/PT.