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.”
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.
Through Virgin Oceanic, the company he set up with California businessman Chris Welsh to advance development of a submersible engineered by British sub designer Graham Hawkes, he claims he could dive the Puerto Rico Trench within six months. Thereafter, chief pilot Welsh will dive Challenger Deep and three others will plunge abysses in the Arctic, Indian, and South Atlantic oceans. So the plan goes, at least.
Within the submarine community some express doubts about his ambitions and concerns about the craft, which has yet to pass pressure tests and gain regulatory approval.
Sir Richard is enthusiastic and talks of the sub being a stepping stone to bigger but lighter vehicles with future potential for both scientific exploration and tourist thrill-rides into the trenches and elsewhere.
“If you look at the history of exploration, you get people perhaps like Jim and myself who are lucky enough to be able to pioneer new frontiers and, as a result, other people can follow,” he says in a phone interview. “What’s exciting is the very fact that the oceans haven’t been well explored and we know very little about them… Under the sea we’ve got mountains and valleys, giant vents coming out of the depths, and species that have never been seen by mankind. There’s also thousands, literally thousands of shipwrecks, Spanish galleons. Magnificent exploration potential.”
Of 500 astronaut wannabes he has signed up at Virgin Galactic for $200,000 flights to the edge of space, 150 have expressed an interest in also becoming aquanauts. “I can see it happening,” says Sir Richard, somewhat vaguely.
Capt. Alfred Scott McLaren, retired from the US Navy, has a little more experience underwater. A former nuclear attack submarine commander, president of the American Polar Society, past president of The Explorers Club, and currently chief pilot of the Super Aviator submersible, his hours spent below the waves add up to a stunning 5-1/2 years' worth. He has also journeyed to the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck.
“The question that often comes up is ‘Isn’t it more important to take scientists down than nonscientists?' Well, it’s a trade-off. I tell people that those who can afford to make these dives from the general public, they are also influential with politicians and potential funders. The more we do to make the oceans accessible to the general public, the more pressure and demand will be put on governments and institutions to gear up and conduct research,” he says.
Cameron, whom McLaren describes as “the Steve Jobs of the underwater world” for his innovation and consummate grasp of engineering, has “opened up a vast new horizon for everybody,” he says.
“There’s an estimated 2 million species of marine life, and today only about 300,000 of these have been identified – everything from microorganisms to large marine mammals, fish, giant squid, and the newly discovered colossal squid," says McLaren. "Who knows what’s under there yet – we might find things that reach back into prehistoric times.”
Expeditions on Cameron’s level require years of effort, millions of dollars, and technical, engineering, and scientific prowess that most explorers or scientists could only dream about.
At The Explorer’s Club, president Alan Nicholls predicts receiving an upsurge in grant applications for smaller ocean exploration projects over the coming weeks, inspired by Cameron’s success.
Separately, he says, the Cameron effect could also galvanize the growth of deep-sea tourism.
“We’ve seen it with space travel, people paying $30 million to go into space,” he said.
“Could we see the day someone starts selling tickets to go down the Mariana Trench? Sure.”