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Challenger Deep as a tourist site? Modern-day Jules Vernes say 'yes'

There's not much to see in the blackness seven miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. But enthusiasts can envision the day when citizen adventurers would descend to Challenger Deep and other deep-sea destinations.

By Jacqui GoddardCorrespondent / March 28, 2012

Crews continue in-water testing of the Deepsea Challenger submersible before explorer and 'Titanic' filmmaker James Cameron piloted to Challenger Deep, the lowest point of the Mariana Trench, in Australia on Sunday.

Mark Thiessen/National Geographic/Reuters



Had it been a write-up in a travel brochure, it would not have sounded the most tempting of destinations. “Come to Challenger Deep,” it might have said. “No sunlight, freezing cold – and fish is off the menu.”

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If anyone had expected James Cameron to return from seven miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean with descriptions of picture-postcard scenery and breathtaking fauna, they would have been disappointed. The bottom of the world is featureless and bleak, with no obvious signs of life, he revealed.

“Back from trip to deepest place on Earth – oceans hadel zone,” he tweeted after resurfacing March 26, using the name for ocean depths so formidable that they are likened to Hades’ underworld. “Puts a new spin on ‘to hell and back,’ ” he quipped.

Yet the idea of plummeting 35,756ft to the sea floor, cruising the bottom in a submersible “in complete isolation from all humanity,” and exploring an environment so alien in appearance that it seemed to Mr. Cameron to resemble another planet, or the moon, is one that he and others are keen to repeat.

The Canadian film director’s remarkable plunge to the bottom of the Mariana Trench marks a new era of exploration that in the coming years is likely to expand scientific understanding and possibly even make areas of the deep ocean a hot-ticket tourism destination.

“Many of us grew up knowing the Disneyland ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That was science fiction becoming science fact, it was our first glimpse of what lies beneath the surface of the water,” says Jeff Blumenfeld, communications director of The Explorers Club, whose membership past and present has included the first to reach the North and South poles, the first to summit Everest, and the first on the moon.

“Now you and I can go somewhere like the Bahamas and hop on a sub to see what’s down there. Kids can see a tweet from James Cameron at the bottom of the ocean, they can look at images of the Titanic mapped in 3-D. Technology is allowing us to peer into areas of this world we only dreamed about before,” he says.

The queue to claim more "firsts" is already forming behind Cameron, whose dive made him the first to journey solo to the deepest point on Earth, 52 years after US Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard got there in the bathyscaphe Trieste.

At Triton Submarines in Vero Beach, Fla., engineers have designed a sub that they envisage one day taking adventurers – whether ocean scientists on private missions, or commercial passengers paying as much as $250,000 a ticket for the ultimate joyride – to the Hadel depths. It is working on a reality show to chronicle its work and inspire excitement.

“We want to bring the ocean to the world in an inspiring and sustained way that will make kids go, 'Wow, I want to be an explorer, I want to know more about the ocean,’ ” says vice president Marc Deppe. “We want kids carrying submarine lunchboxes to school, wearing submarine shirts. When you’re a kid and you see something cool, that’s what sells the dream.”

At home on the island of Necker, in the British Virgin Islands, Sir Richard Branson is virtually a neighbor of the 28,373-foot (8,648-meter) Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest point in the Atlantic Ocean. He is not content to just sit and wonder what might be down there. He wants to conquer it as part of a venture known as the Five Dives project, which aims to send a manned submersible to the lowest recess in each of five oceans.


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