In-Depth: Deepsea Challenger

"I'm the King of the Sea World!"

Director James Cameron has been an avid diver and deep sea explorer for the past ten years, unbeknownst to the majority of us plebs. It’s like finding out that Jack Nicholson enjoys serious forays into quantum physics.

And perhaps not even James Cameron, himself, could’ve imagined that his 1989 film, The Abyss was actually quite prophetic (at least in name) in its pertinence to his 2012 oceanic endeavors. As recently as March 7th, reaching a depth of 5.1 miles below the surface, Cameron has been putting the remarkable Deepsea Challenger through the ropes in order plunge even further into the murky depths. The Deepsea Challenger sub and its remarkable design and technology merit their own in-depth explanation, as does the impending journey into the most incredible environment on earth.

Full details and photos after the jump.



The objective is not to match or exceed the 50-year old deep dive title held by Jacques Piccard and American Naval officer Don Nash in the Bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960 to the area of the Mariana Trench (in the Western Pacific Ocean, near Guam) called the Challenger Deep (an astounding 35,797 ft or nearly 7 miles), but if successful, Cameron will be the first human to travel to that depth completely solo. Interestingly enough, the now 80 year old Nash will be present for Cameron’s attempt and has blessed the endeavor, praising Cameron for his scientific knowledge and his quest for the aquatic holy grail. Other subs are clamoring for this oceanic X Prize, including a team from Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic, as well as a few others.

Obtaining microorganisms, fish and geological samples, as well as key oceanic data and 3D imagery will be on Cameron’s docket for this trip. Scientifically speaking, the journey will be monumental. And to give you an idea of how extreme the environment is, the Challenger Deep exceeds in depth what Mount Everest is in height. And keep in mind that this isn’t some sightseeing tour of the Great Barrier Reef. Cameron will encounter positively crushing pressures, complete darkness and near freezing temperatures. It’s not even known if he will be able to maintain communication with the world above at such depths or whether the sub will withstand the massive pressure exacted on its hull. Though the sub he’s piloting has multiple backup systems, as well as robust life-support, the risks are huge.

If you compare his quest to to the desires of the average Hollywood icon, you’ll find that Cameron comes across as several notches up on the toughness scale. He might even shun personal trailers, foot massages and lattes on command.


We already know that Cameron can’t just go down with just a wetsuit and some basketball-sized family jewels. So, what kind of vehicle is the Deepsea Challenger? It’s no mere submarine. Like a massive angry pickle, the 24-foot vertical deep-dive craft is a conglomeration of material toughness and state-of-the-art technology. It has been in the making for the past several years in Australia, and photos of it haven’t been released to the public until just this past week.

A collaboration between Cameron, National Geographic, Scripps Institute of Oceanography and NASA, with support from Rolex (will Cameron wear a Subie?), the Deepsea Challenger is designed to descend (around 500 feet per minute) and ascend quickly, providing ample time to explore the ocean depths (up to 6 hours, compared to the Trieste’s rather scant 20 minutes). The technology on the Deepsea Challenger includes 1500 circuits powering 180 custom systems, four high-def cameras, boom-light, a seven-foot LED panel with a 100 foot beam projection, high-grade, crush-resistant buoyancy foam, a bevy of lithium ion batteries bathed in silicon-based oil for saltwater protection, and finally, a slurp gun so Mr. Cameron can pick up specimens just like an aquatic Dyson. The walls of the cabin’s sphere are made of high grade steel that is 2.5 inches thick.

Even so, the expected 16,000 psi of pressure bearing down on the Deepsea Challenger will be enough to compress the craft a couple of inches, which is fully expected during the dive. The rather shrimpy 43 inch spherical cabin will be crammed full of 6’2″ Cameron and a plethora of high-tech electronics that will make the fit a little tight (and excessively hot) but should allow this dive to be far more than just another wet field trip.


Once Cameron is close to the ocean floor, he’ll receive a signal so he can activate the thrusters and possibly jettison some spherical steel ballast to reduce the weight and slow the sub down. The horizontal thrusters will then enable him to do the hard but thrilling work of exploration. He’ll investigate tectonic plates and how their action propels tsunamis, photograph and collect never-before-seen animal life and prove to the world that being made fun of for directing Titanic was easily more than worth it in order to one day attain the bragging rights to the title of “baddest ass in the deepest depths” of the ocean. When the expected battery life of the craft is close to spent, Cameron will dump 1,000 pounds of steel ballast on the ocean floor so that the Deepsea can make the rapid ascent back to light, air and probably a much needed bathroom break.

And before you poo-pooh the littering portion of the trip, keep in mind that there is some environmental sacrifice in the quest for scientific advancement. We’ll all be waiting with baited breath to see what James Cameron achieves on this monumental journey and we certainly wish him godspeed.

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