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James Cameron dive launches race to the bottom of the world (+video)

Before James Cameron made a solo dive to the Challenger Deep – the deepest point in the ocean – only one mission had been there before. Now, several groups are planning deep-sea dives, and engineering advances could shed new light on the region. 

By Staff writer / March 26, 2012

Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron is congratulated by ocean explorer and US Navy Capt. Don Walsh (r.) after completing the first ever solo dive to the Challenger Deep, the lowest part of the Mariana Trench. Walsh took the same journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench 52 years ago in the bathyscaphe Trieste with Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard.

Mark Theissen/National Geographic/AP

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Film director and explorer James Cameron on Monday completed a historic solo dive to the Challenger Deep – the deepest spot in the ocean – aboard an oversized torpedo of a submersible that expedition scientists say could help open new opportunities for researchers to study some of the most remote places on the planet.

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National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron completed a record-breaking dive to the lowest point of the Mariana Trench. See scenes as Cameron's sub, DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, resurfaced, and Cameron emerged from the pilot's capsule around noon, local time (10 p.m. ET March 25th).

The pioneering design of Mr. Cameron's Deepsea Challenger, as well as those of other groups who plan similar manned deep-sea dives later this year, may lead to a new generation of manned and unmanned subs that could accelerate the pace of research generally, other specialists say.

Cameron returned to the surface at noon local time some 300 miles southwest of Guam after enduring nearly seven hours tucked in a cramped cockpit so small he could not fully extend his legs. He spent nearly three hours at the Challenger Deep itself, gathering 3-D video.

He also had planned to gather samples of rocks and marine life. But a hydraulic leak rendered the sub's mechanical arm and claw useless, he explained during a post-dive press briefing.

With no way to gather samples, a planned six-hour stay on the bottom was cut in half.

It took him just over 2-1/2 hours to reach the Challenger Deep and a mere 70 minutes to reach the surface once his time on the bottom ended.

While there, he says he took a page from astronauts' experiences and made sure he took time to savor the view – the otherwise deep, black water illumined by banks of LED lights along the sub's hull.

“I just sat there looking out the window, looking at this barren lunar plain and appreciating it,” he told reporters, following the trip, which was funded by the National Geographic Society, Rolex, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Cameron's trip marks first solo dive to the Challenger Deep, and only the second visit by humans. In 1960, the US Navy sent the submersible Trieste and its two-man crew to the bottom there.

More trips are in the offing this year by various groups aiming to take people into the Challenger Deep or other parts of the Mariana Trench. These efforts include Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Oceanic sub, which like Cameron's Deepsea Challenger, is a single-seater. Several of the marine scientists who have worked with Cameron also are working with Mr. Branson's group.

Life in the trenches

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