James Cameron’s Deep Sea Challenge: a scientific milestone or rich guy’s junket?

This post is co-authored by Al Dove and Craig McClain

In the 1989 James Cameron sci-fi movie The Abyss, there’s a scene when Ed Harris’ character dons a special environmental suit that allows him to breathe an oxygen-laden liquid.  Thus protected from the risks of crushing deep-sea pressures (no air = no voids to collapse), he drops from a deep submerged research facility into the inky depths of an abyssal canyon to find and disarm a lost weapon.  During the descent, robbed of speech by the liquid he’s breathing, he’s forced to communicate with his colleagues on the base using text messages tapped out on a forearm console.  What ensues is one of the more tense scenes in sci-fi history as Harris suffers first the effects of pressure, then tackles the errant weapon, and eventually stumbles upon a remarkable submarine alien race in the movie’s climax, all communicated piecemeal to his colleagues on the base in choppy text speech.  Rarely have little green letters appearing on black screen carried so much drama.  Have some new friends down here. Guess they’ve been here awhile…

The whole scene has an eerily prophetic feel in light of exciting news that James Cameron has, himself, made a historic descent in a new submersible beyond the abyssal depths, to the hadal reaches of the deepest part of the world’s oceans: the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, south of Guam in the west Pacific.  This event marks the first occasion that a manned vehicle has been to Challenger Deep since the first and only time it ever happened when, in 1960, Don Wash and Jacques Piccard descended in the bathyscaphe Trieste.  That storied 1960 mission occurred during the heyday of modern US exploration when, fueled by the intense international competition and brinksmanship of the Cold War, Americans could and did tackle any challenge: space, speed, altitude and depth.  In the wake of the Trieste effort, the submersible Alvin was built 4 years later and became the flagship deep sea vehicle for the US and arguably the world, for the next 40 years, even though it has never had the capability of returning to Challenger Deep.

Times change.  The motivations for exploration are different these days and we think it’s fair to say diminished somewhat.  Space folks are experiencing much the same effect, most recently epitomized by the cancellation of the space shuttle project without a viable replacement vehicle for near-earth operations.  Yes, marine science, engineering technology and the motivation for exploratory missions have all changed in the interceding 52 years since Trieste and Deep Challenger.  One constant is that Alvin is still with us; indeed, Alvin is the only human occupied vehicle (HOV) left for deep-sea research in the US.  Think about that for a second: the only vessel that can take humans to the deep sea in America is 48 years old.  The same age as this:Of course we’re being hyperbolic; Alvin is no way a rusted hooptie.  It has been completely renovated and refitted several times and is still a very advanced research tool.  Our point is more that the original design is pretty long in the tooth and you have to wonder if starting from scratch using current design principles we might be able to devise a better tool.  The same has of course been said many times for the space shuttle.

Not that deep sea research has waned for lack of manned research tools; far from it.  Advances in remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology have seen a veritable explosion of deep sea research and some remarkable discoveries that are still occurring at a rapid rate today.  The discoveries of these remote controlled robot explorers have included the hydrothermal vent communities, the exploration of mid ocean ridges, the census of marine life and discovery of deep reefs, brine pools, cold seeps and other extraordinary habitats that prove that the deep sea is anything but a cold lifeless desert.  HOV’s have been used for some of these missions too, but ROV’s certainly seem to be the tool of choice these days.  Why is that? The answer is basically pragmatism.  There are incredible challenges to sending people into the abyssal depths and beyond.  The pressures can exceed a thousand atmospheres, which has been described as equivalent to inverting the Eifel Tower and resting its point on your big toe.  That kind of pressure means that a titanium sphere is about the only object that can maintain a 1 atmosphere internal environment.  By contrast, no passenger means no need for air spaces at all, so ROV’s can be built more cheaply and easily, and without the need for complex life support systems that can ensure the safety of the vehicles occupant(s).  An ROV can allow for longer bottom times not constrained by tired pilots or scientists with small bladders.  ROV’s allow for a whole array of scientists to participate in the dive, all sitting in the same control center in the mother ship watching HD monitors.  Opposed to the 1-2 that can fit into a submersible.  The rise of the ROV is therefore rational, sensible, effective and … boring.

Boring? BORING??  Yes, boring.  We say that because we think it’s largely those in the business of researching the deep sea who can look past the removal of the human element and derive deep satisfaction from ROV operations, by focusing instead on the substantive returns on the topic of their research.  Often times they are able to do this out of the luxury of having at least tasted the 1st hand HOV experience themselves.  They know what it looks like out the porthole, so can better relate to what shows on the video feed coming back from an ROV.  Other times it’s a purely rationalist thing: scientists know that they’re going to get more bang for their research buck from an ROV, so that’s where they invest their efforts, research funds and emotional energy.

It’s a reasonable question to ask then: What is the value of the HOV in modern deep sea research? We have to give a slightly disappointing answer here, which is that we don’t really know.  If one applies that purely pragmatic approach, then ROV’s will probably win every time.  That’s a pity, because to do so is to overlook the inspirational and aspirational elements of the HOV approach.  One does not have to have been to a hydrothermal vent in Alvin to appreciate HOV’s anymore than one has to have been to the moon on Apollo 11 to appreciate Armstrong and Aldrin.  Our position is this: the idea of humans traveling to extreme environments, challenging and overcoming technical and engineering obstacles to do things not yet done, that’s the stuff that’s going to inspire kids to a career in science, not an economically rationalist analysis of research ROI that favors a robotic approach.

As we sat on our respective couches tonight hanging on to every tweet from Cameron and crew (‘cos hell knows, the mainstream media didn’t cover it much, but that’s another post for another day), we felt that we were participants.  When Cameron launched, we launched with him.  As he descended, we waited patiently for each update on his depth and progress (thanks @PaulGAllen!).  When, near the end, 30 minutes went by without any word, we were filled with anxiety and consternation.  And finally, when that silence broke with the statement that Cameron had reached the bottom, we sighed with relief and cheered for his success!  We celebrated because we understand that this represents a profound moment in our history.  From thousands of kilometers away, we participated.  We are reminded of our friends cheering for teams in the current NCAA tournament.  Why not just let robot play?  Why do we need humans?  Because human involvement allows us all to participate.
Photo by (c)Mark Thiessen/National Geographic. Deep Sea Challenge

All of which brings us back to James Cameron (@jimcameron).  Here we have a wealthy individual who has had phenomenal success in another sphere of human endeavor and has then chosen to spend some of his wealth to do something done only once before, and do it a new way for the first time in half a century.  It’s not like he just decided to do this yesterday; Cameron has been doing deep sea dives for years and has over 70 under his belt, which is more than many scientists.  He is often quoted as saying that he makes blockbuster movies to support his real passion for deep-sea exploration.  How do we get aboard that gravy train?! You need only look at the aforementioned scene from The Abyss, or perhaps at the rainforest flora of Avatar’s megadiverse planet of Pandora (all of which look remarkably like benthic invertebrates of various flavors), to see that the ocean and the life within it have influenced him deeply.

We are not afraid to say that we are inspired by his commitment and his willingness to put his money and effort where his mouth is, by pushing the envelope of human exploration.  And yes, even we, with our charismatic marine biology research, aspire to his achievements, too: We would love to be in that little sphere and to peer out that fist-sized porthole and see things never seen by anyone before.

The question that remains unanswered is: “Is it science”?  We would argue emphatically YES.  Cameron’s team did equip their sub with a manipulator arm and suction sampler and they plan to return with specimens from the Challenger Deep, which Trieste could not, although a few ROV’s have done so in the interceding period.  Of course, we hope that this will only be the first of many dives, that Alvin has a new stable mate and the world has a new full-depth-capable research submersible.   The team also had many technological challenges to overcome in the construction of the Deep Challenger submersible, so it’s science from an engineering perspective too.  Doubtless they will gather abundant amounts of video data that can be used to answer scientific questions, just as it can be used to make compelling National Geographic shows.  And the whole endeavor is exploratory in nature, and ocean exploration is and always has been the realm of science.  Observation is, after all, the first step of the scientific method!

Why, then, might some people dismiss the Deep Challenger mission as a rich guy’s boondoggle?   It’s partly the person doing it.   Cameron is not a scientist by training and will likely not turn the results of this expedition into, say, peer-reviewed papers, so perhaps it’s considered pseudo-scientific, but we think this is a dour view that does little justice to the motivations of Deep Challenger and the societal values of this and all explorations.  Even if you put aside any and all pretense to science in this mission (which would be unfair), then simply by virtue of the attention that Cameron’s success will bring to deep-sea research, the mission will have been an unmitigated success.  Indeed, one only need look at the media excitement over the perceived “race to the bottom” (in which Cameron, Richard Branson and Sylvia Earle were supposedly competing to be the first back to Challenger Deep) to see the power of HOV exploration to raise the profile of deep sea research.  In this “race to the bottom” story, however manufactured, we see the media reaching for the kind of compelling conflict that motivated the space race in the 60’s, drama that ultimately shaped the nation’s perceptions of science and engineering for two generations.  Doesn’t that tell you something about the extraordinary potential value of exploratory science?

There’s a great opportunity offset here, too: every column inch spent talking about the wonders and challenges of deep sea exploration is one less inch spent on the latest overpaid celebrity without any real accomplishments or why this pair of pants is must-get for 2012.  Plug in a new name or a new designer and it is the same regurgitated news from last year.  By contrast, every deep dive reveals something new and exciting in the oceans.  Why then is the entire annual ocean exploration budget just a fraction of our national science budget (which is in turn an undersized slice of the federal budget)?  And why has NOAA just zeroed out the budget for the National Undersea Research Program?  Cameron has described this development as “piss-poor” and we definitely agree.

For all these reasons we think it’s time for marine biologists to proudly step into the spotlight offered by the fantastic achievements of the Deep Challenger team.  We need to seize this opportunity to show the public that there is still so much yet to learn in the deep, and that exploration, far from being remote and esoteric, is possible and still inspiring, right here, right now, on this planet.  We should admire the adventurous spirit of James Cameron and to embrace him as a new and legitimate celebrity advocate with tremendous capacity to advance the cause of the marine sciences.  Who knows, by so doing, we might well be able to secure a better funding future for other deep sea research programs and thereby advance science, however you want to define it.  In short, when Cameron succeeds, we all succeed.

Photo by (c)Charlie Arneson/National Geographic. Deep Sea Challenge

38 Replies to “James Cameron’s Deep Sea Challenge: a scientific milestone or rich guy’s junket?”

  1. As you say, it can be both. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. And, yanno, bottom of the Marianas Trench…how damned cool is that?

    (If Cameron had received the same level of service that normal customers get from the telecommunications provider involved, we’d never have known about the dive until he’d resurfaced.)

  2. As a long time lover of space exploration, I am glad to see you tie the two together a bit here because there is a deep divide in the space community of robots vs humans. To deepen the analogy, the government has chosen more often then not to go on the side of robots in space, just like in the deep sea, because of the ROI. This is not a path chosen by nameless bureacrats, but a path chosen by well published scientific panels that openly advise NASA and choose missions largely by peer-review as well as supported by the National Academies of Science. Because of this, it has fallen to the wealthy billionaires such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos and other, to pick up the slack and pursue human exploration of space. Not because of any type of ROI, but as a sense of adventure, and in some cases (such as Elon Musk) a deeply felt belief that it is humanity’s destiny to explore new frontiers. It would appear that the case is the same whether it be the exploration of space or the exploration of the deep sea.

  3. Everyone in the deep sea science and engineering community applauds Mr. Cameron’s achievement. We’ve been watching the groups competing to take humans back to the Challenger Deep for a number of years and the specialized design and technology employed by Cameron’s team suggested that they were the front runners. Hats off to his team.

    The writers make good points about the funding issues made available for deep sea research, the value of manned and unmanned vehicles as tools for science, and the potential public buzz created by the latest events. As noted, Mr. Cameron’s success is good for everyone.

    The point that DSV Alvin is one of a few remaining manned deep sea assets in the U.S. is well made. The decrease in funding for HURL is a troubling example of where things may be headed. However, the authors could do a bit better than comparing Alvin to the picture of a beat up 1964 Chevrolet. Alvin is in no way the same vehicle conceived and built in the late 1960’s. It has been re-designed, upgraded and regularly rebuilt over its continued life time (46 plus continuous years). At present, the Alvin team is finishing the design, integration and building of an upgraded submersible that includes many of the new technologies that the authors eluded to, including a state of the art, deeper diving personnel sphere.

    To consider a particular vehicle, one must consider the nature of the design, the desired attributes and the cost. The upgraded Alvin design is expected to meet very specific design constraints, be able to continue a rigorous daily operations schedule, maintain the high level of success and reliability and continue to be a very versatile scientific and engineering platform. All of these requirements are held within a limited and well scrutinized budget.

    All of these points underscore the cost vs value of the current deep sea science in the U.S. (Alvin’s annual budget is slightly more than 2 million dollars). A recent example of the value of HOV (human occupied vehicles) is underscored in a paper published by Dr. Lisa Levin and colleagues outlining the discovery of a new form of deep sea habitat. Specifically mentioned in the paper was the value of the presence of human observers at the site, an area that had been visited many times previously by ROV’s.


    However, all of the current suite of vehicles (manned, unmanned, remotely operated, mission specific and mulit-use platforms) have an important role to play in future scientific discoveries. The argument that one form of technology is exclusively better than another is an argument driven by funding. It would be better to underscore how well the technologies augment one another to the benefit of science.

    The authors’ point that deep sea research funding is a small fraction of a small fraction should be a message about the national attitude toward science and engineering. It appears that science is under assault by extreme elements that want to argue mysticism rather than rigorous examination as a means to greater understanding of our world. This is a troubling trend that has potential dire consequences for the future of U.S. competitiveness.

    Hopefully, Mr. Cameron’s recent trip to the Challenger Deep will act as a catalyzing event. His work is a testament to what a private individual can accomplish with the proper enthusiasm, engineering and funding. Our National approach toward science, engineering and exploration should capture these same attitudes.

    W. Bruce Strickrott
    DSV Alvin Expedition Leader/Senior Pilot
    Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

    In a perfect world, less money would be sent overseas (packaged in explosives) and more would be spent on the advancement of science and engineering.

  4. Hi Ryan, and thanks for your comment. Yes, the parallels between ocean and space exploration are something many of us think about a lot. You might appreciate earlier posts that more explicitly address these issues. I wrote this for my old blog Deep Type Flow: http://alistairdove.com/blog/2011/2/10/to-go-boldly-or-go-remotely.html and also this piece inspired by the final shuttle launch https://www.deepseanews.com/2011/07/exploration-thy-name-is-atlantis/

  5. It is amazing watching “us” return to the depths again. My inspiration for the ocean was in the pages of old issues of Nat Geo from my parents and grandparents collections. Walsh and Piccard reached Challenger Deep 8 years to the day before my birthday. It may be silly but I felt an intense connection. Then seeing Alvin’s missions, past and present, the discovery of vents and seeps, the missions and records of Her Deepness. It was and is manned exploration that fueled my passion. And it is manned exploration, even more than the ROV’s i get to operate sometimes, that fuels my sons passion. I am proud of Cameron, and a bit ashamed that NOAA and our government have not committed themselves to a true restart on our manned exploration of the deep.

  6. Bruce, thanks for joining the conversation, we’re privileged to have your input. Just to clarify, comparing the Alvin to a 64 Olds was not intended as a criticism of the vehicle, which is doubtless the most successful submersible of all time, but rather to make the point that no newer vehicles have been built in the interceding period since 1964. Every other point you make I totally agree with, and I would add that for 2 million dollars annually, I think Alvin provides AWESOME value.

  7. Don’t forget about the two Pisces subs in Hawaii, part of the HURL program and now on the chopping block with NOAA’s budget cuts. They can’t go as deep as Alvin but have logged thousands of hours in service to science and exploration

  8. A more interesting question to me is not whether Cameron’s trip is science, but whether it’s an indication that soon, only the rich will do science.

    Science being a rich man’s game is nothing new. This was very much the tradition of the first, oh, 300 years of science or so. It’s only been roughly the last 100 years that science has become a profession. (I’ve written a little about this here: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2009/12/gentlemen-scientists.html).

    Maybe some of the DSN contributors can talk about how likely this project would have gone forward if someone who wasn’t independently wealthy got involved. Could the the Deep Sea Challenge have happened any other way (i.e., through public money)?

    Cameron’s trip may be an anomaly. Because while I welcome anyone’s interest in science, returning to “gentleman science” – where only the independently wealthy get to do research – would be a terrible waste.

  9. Oh no Zen, I am quite sure this is a trend and one that matches the X-prize style trend in space. The other teams working on ultra-deep work, notably Richard Branson’s Virgin team, are all privately backed. I am not aware of any wholly government-funded initiatives to develop a full-depth capable submersible. I agree with you that if exploratory research becomes what you call “gentleman science”, then we’ve missed a great opportunity. But then, perhaps we should stop thinking about it as being one or the other. Maybe there are public-private partnerships that can help achieve this sort of stuff? Maybe philanthropists can make-up for govt budget shortfalls, or govt could promote investment through matching or challenge grants? There’s any number of ways we could do it, but all of them are predicated on everybody agreeing that this stuff is important. Based on the abysmal media coverage and zeroing of government research dollars, I don’t think that’s a safe assumption at all. That may mean that it’s left to independently wealthy visionaries alone to pursue. I sure hope not.

  10. CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, and a few cheers for James “T” Cameron to boot. Ya gotta hand it to a guy who has the salty bolas to actually pilot his own vehicle down to the deep depths.

    Unlike Sir Ricky Branson, ahem, who seeks to do the same in a vehicle covered with his companies stickers, heralded by his media hacks, and piloted by, anyone, anyone Bueller?

    Say what you want about the super rich, some have the actual steel to go with the money, not sure you would get me in that experimental tin can, than again I play with sharks for a living so who knows;)

  11. Thank you for this excellent article. While I cannot begin to describe the sadness my children and I feel at the loss of Mike deGruy, we know he would be cheering exuberantly, as are we, this triumphant journey to the bottom of the trench. We wish so very much that both Mike and Andrew Wight were here to witness the resurgence in deep sea exploration since it is what they wanted for a long, long time. We hope that with this expedition and those of Doer Marine and the others that the government wakes up and commits adequate resources to marine science. It is seriously overdue.

  12. Hi Patric. To be fair to Sir Richard, I think Chris Welsh is slated to pilot the first dive of Virgin Oceanic into Marianas Trench. Branson is on deck to go second, into Puerto Rico Trench, but yeah, I get your point.

  13. Dear Mimi, I’m touched that you read our article and took the time to comment. We were all saddened by the loss of Mike and extend our condolences to your family. I never met him, but as you know he was very close with my good friend and colleague Bruce Carlson. I think you’re right that Mike and Andrew would have been thrilled at yesterdays events and we share your desire that the boldness of Mike, Andrew and the rest of the Deep Sea Challenge team is rewarded with a new era in deep sea research. They earned it. Kindest regards – Al

  14. Great article. It’s good to see some cogent (though not short!) assessment and analysis in print, which opens people’s minds to alternative priorities, directions, and choices.

    But instead of seeing an opportunity to gain some of the shrinking funding pie for this particular field of inquiry, I see an opportunity to promote ANY field that adds to our knowledge. There is a lot of animosity being built up in the minds of the less-well-informed that science in general is not a valid method of inquiry. This kind of awesome adventure can remind people about what science is, and how it provides benefits to all of us every day. I don’t want deep sea science to score to the detriment of other science. I want science to be recognised for the value it gives us all. That is what we are about to lose, and it will impact deep sea science AND other sciences together unfortunately.

  15. Would be nice to also recognize the nationality of James Cameron – Canadian.

  16. One of the corner stones of the scientific method is replication. Therefore, it can’t be proper science until James Cameron lets me dive in his sub.

  17. “it’s largely those in the business of researching the deep sea who can look past the removal of the human element and derive deep satisfaction from ROV operations, by focusing instead on the substantive returns on the topic of their research. Often times they are able to do this out of the luxury of having at least tasted the 1st hand HOV experience themselves. They know what it looks like out the porthole, so can better relate to what shows on the video feed coming back from an ROV. ”

    I completely agree with this. Having used both HOV and ROV vehicles to explore seamounts, I was way more capable at interpreting the images on the video screen during ROV dives after having seen the bottom first-hand from an HOV. In addition, the ability to rapidly sweep an area visually meant we missed fewer events while in the sub, whereas the ROV has a very narrow field of view with the better cameras in front. Using an ROV was like doing a narrow transect with most of the focus on objects within 15 ft in front of the ROV, whereas working with Alvin we had two scientists and a pilot visually sweeping a large swath as we tooled along. There really is the need for both types of vehicles in deep-sea science.

  18. I have become increasingly distressed as the government cuts funding to various scientific projects, not just space exploration to deep sea exploration but also research on subatomic physics and nuclear fusion technology. However, stories like this give me hope. The government may drop the ball, but private individuals and corporations are picking it up again. While some may not like Cameron’s wealth, at least he’s getting this stuff done.

  19. AWESOME, that might be the first ever deep-sea rickroll. Well-played sir.

  20. I use both HOVs and ROVs, but mostly ROVs because I work in dangerous places- eg exploding volcanoes- where it simply isn’t practical- plus I like the theoretically limitless bottom time for my sampling. I see great value in both, but I don’t like this framing of the conversation “are humans necessary?” when it comes to ROVs. Humans operate the vehicles, they are simply doing it in a 2-D world, which presents special but not insurmountable challenges. ROVs are not robots, they are always operating with a human in control. Plenty of science can be done autonomously, but that isn’t what we are talking about when we compare HOVs and ROVs. We are comparing the value of observing on the seafloor or observing the seafloor on a flat screen (from sea or land, exemplified by NOAA, OOI, and Ballard who now bring in huge crowds to watch the seafloor with their tele-presence cruises broadcast on the internet!)

    By the way, if you think ROVs are boring, check out this footage… I always show videos like this in my public talks. By comparison, everything I’ve seen from an HOV is pretty darn boring ;)


  21. Having worked with Mike deGruy on the last project in the Gulf as his DP as well as the privilege of working with Bruce Strickrott and ALVIN & Atlantis crew I’m glad to see discussions like these taking place on the Net. The biggest problem we all agree is severe underfunding for these programs. So I for one applaud Jim Cameron on his supreme efforts and his courage! The ALVIN DSV played a critical role in its last dive and Mike deGruy was aboard with Chuck Fisher to gather damning evidence on use of dispersants in the Gulf that were used to HIDE the Macondo well oil from public view when all they did was sink it. It seems that private enterprise such as Cameron’s are truly here for the better of mankind and to discover these type of facts. Cameron is a filmmaker but he’s also an expert in the field of Deep sea exploration as was Mike deGruy. So I say we applaud to all of these heroes and especially Mike deGruy and Andrew Wights ultimate sacrifice. We need to honor them by doing all we can to keep this type of exploration alive and well! It’s time for our government to wake up and keep these programs funded to study and preserve our Oceans which I know is what we all want to see happen.

  22. It is always encouraging to see civilian tech. being used in public, and utilized in such manners as you have done. Mind your data, which is surely to come from extensive field work in this area. The first deep descent I was interested in was the one that the navy, i believe, ran. Dropping a man in essentially a steal ball with one window to the bottom. Crude tech., and a small, small, hole which was purposed for observation. Well with no light, no observing. Even though this was a joke in my mind, guy had to be aware of his assignment. The leak that would eventually spring is what sticks in my mind. Not being able to ascend quickly do to the bends. This cat decided to stay down there longer. In the face of a leak that was seeping into his round coffin, this guy chilled for a bit. You risk takers advance us as a species, for better or worse. Good Luck with your en-devours

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