The director of "Titanic" and "Avatar" used a specially designed submarine to dive nearly seven miles. to explore and film the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth about 200 miles southwest of the Pacific island of Guam, according to members of the National Geographic expedition.
He spent a little more than three hours under water after reaching a depth of 35,756 feet before he began his return to the surface, according to information provided by the expedition team. He had planned to spend up to six hours on the sea floor.
If he succeeds, Cameron will be the first person to reach the deepest known place on Earth since Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960. Cameron will be filming the trench in 3D – possibly for use in the movie Avatar 2 – and he also hopes to collect sediments and a few deep living specimens for analysis.
The Mariana Trench forms the boundary between two tectonic plates, where the Pacific Plate is subducted beneath the small Mariana Plate. It is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 40,000-kilometer (25,000-mile) area where most of the world's volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur. At 11,000 meters, its depth is about the height a commercial airliner flies.
Before, Cameron's exploit, only three other vehicles succeeded in reaching the Mariana Trench: the U.S. Navy-built bathyscaphe Trieste, which carried Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh there in 1960, and the Japanese-built robot Kaiko, which made three unmanned expeditions to the trench between 1995 and 1998. The Nereus, a new type of deep-sea robotic vehicle, called a hybrid remotely operated vehicle dived to 10,902 meters (6.8 miles) on May 31, 2009, in the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean, according to reports a team of engineers and scientists aboard the research vessel Kilo Moana.
To reach the trench, Nereus dove nearly twice as deep as research submarines are capable of and had to withstand pressures 1,000 times that at Earth's surface--crushing forces similar to those on the surface of Venus.
"Much of the ocean's depths remain unexplored," said Julie Morris, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the project. "Ocean scientists now have a unique tool to gather images, data and samples from everywhere in the oceans, rather than those parts shallower than 6,500 meters (4 miles). With its innovative technology, Nereus allows us to study and understand previously inaccessible ocean regions."
"Reaching such extreme depths is the pinnacle of technical challenges," said Andy Bowen, project manager and principal developer of Nereus at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).
"The team is pleased that Nereus has been successful in reaching the very bottom of the ocean to return imagery and samples from such a hostile world. With a robot like Nereus we can now explore anywhere in the ocean. The trenches are virtually unexplored, and Nereus will enable new discoveries there. Nereus marks the start of a new era in ocean exploration."
During a July 2011 voyage to the Mariana Trench Scripps researchers and National Geographic engineers deployed untethered free-falling/ascending landers equipped with digital video and lights to search the largely unexplored region. The team documented the deepest known existence of xenophyophores, single-celled animals exclusively found in deep-sea environments.
Xenophyophores are noteworthy for their size, with individual cells often exceeding 10 centimeters (4 inches), their extreme abundance on the seafloor and their role as hosts for a variety of organisms.
The researchers spotted the life forms at depths up to 10,641 meters (6.6 miles) within the Sirena Deep of the Mariana Trench. The previous depth record for xenophyophores was approximately 7,500 meters (4.7 miles) in the New Hebrides Trench, although sightings in the deepest portion of the Mariana Trench have been reported. Scientists say xenophyophores are the largest individual cells in existence.
Recent studies indicate that by trapping particles from the water, xenophyophores can concentrate high levels of lead, uranium and mercury and are thus likely highly resistant to large doses of heavy metals. They also are well suited to a life of darkness, low temperature and high pressure in the deep sea.
"The research of Scripps Professor Lisa Levin (deep-sea biologist) has demonstrated that these organisms play host to diverse multicellular organisms," said Doug Bartlett, the Scripps marine microbiologist who organized the Mariana Trench expedition. "Thus the identification of these gigantic cells in one of the deepest marine environments on the planet opens up a whole new habitat for further study of biodiversity, biotechnological potential and extreme environment adaptation."
The xenophyophores are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to considerations of the nature and diversity of life at extreme depths. For example, according to Dhugal Lindsay (Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, or JAMSTEC), the Dropcam movie also depicts the deepest jellyfish observed to date.
The instruments used to spot the mysterious animals were "Dropcams" developed and used by National Geographic Society Remote Imaging engineers Eric Berkenpas and Graham Wilhelm, participants in the July voyage.
"The 'Dropcams' are versatile autonomous underwater cameras containing an HD camera and lighting inside of a glass bubble," said Berkenpas. "They were created by National Geographic engineers to allow scientists and filmmakers to capture high-quality footage from any depth in the ocean. The devices were baited and used 'camera-traps' to capture imagery of approaching marine life."
"Seafloor animals are lured to the camera with bait, a technique first developed by Scripps Professor John Isaacs in the 1960s," said Kevin Hardy, a Scripps ocean engineer and cruise participant. Hardy advanced the ultra-deep glass sphere design used on 'Dropcams' more than a decade ago. "Scripps researchers hope to one day capture and return novel living animals to the laboratory for study in high pressure aquariums that replicate the trench environment."
Also during the expedition, Scripps researchers successfully tested an advanced seafloor Deep Ocean Vehicle (DOV) design, using similar spheres to recover microbes and test other advanced system components.
The xenophyophore sightings were positively identified by Scripps' Levin, director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, and confirmed by Andrew Gooday of the UK National Oceanography Center.
"As one of very few taxa found exclusively in the deep sea, the xenophyophores are emblematic of what the deep sea offers. They are fascinating giants that are highly adapted to extreme conditions but at the same time are very fragile and poorly studied," said Levin. "These and many other structurally important organisms in the deep sea need our stewardship as human activities move to deeper waters."
The Daily Galaxy via National Geographic and NSF
Image credit: With thanks to AP/Associated Press Images