A year ago, James Cameron surprised the world by taking a submersible he’d secretly developed to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, nearly seven miles below sea level.
He spent several million dollars on the sub, called Deepsea Challenger, which needed to withstand pressures of at least eight tons per square inch.
The feat equaled the 1960 record set by Don Walsh and the late Jacques Piccard, and the movie director became the first to solo to the earth’s deepest point.
The Explorers Club gave Cameron, 58, a medal for his longtime contributions to oceanography. That’s where I caught up with him.
Clash: Your big movies are water-influenced, and your passion is the sea. What got you interested?
Cameron: The flip answer is I grew up near Niagara Falls so I heard water 24 hours a day thundering in the background. No, it was inspiration from explorers of the early 1960s when I was a young teen.
We were going in both directions then -- into space with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and into the sea with images for the first time on television of Jacques Cousteau.
Clash: So you chose the sea?
Cameron: My epiphany was that I could go into the ocean, but my chances of becoming an astronaut seemed ridiculously tiny.
At the time, seven guys had been picked out of hundreds of millions. I pestered my dad to get me scuba lessons and wound up learning in a pool in Buffalo, New York, in the dead of winter.
Clash: On March 26, 2012, did you go as deep on your dive as Don Walsh did in 1960?
Cameron: I think Don holds the official record. My depth was measured at 35,787 feet and Don’s was 35,803 feet -- plus or minus 15 feet. Technically, if he’s on the low side of his error number and I’m on the high side, we’re the same (laughs).
Clash: Describe your thoughts going down. Loneliness comes to mind.
Cameron: It’s something explorers seek -- the opportunity to be away from the herd and the comfort of human companionship to appreciate the universe in its stark beauty.
On previous dives I always had things to do based on depth and time. On the big dive, I ran through the entire checklist at 27,000 feet. So I still had 9,000 feet to go and nothing to do!
I’m sitting there getting colder thinking about pressure building up outside. That’s a long time to think, “Gee, this seemed like a good idea at the time!”
Clash: Any leaks?
Cameron: Hatch seals get tighter the deeper you go. You’re more likely to have a leak near the surface.
Deeper down, the pressure forces a steel-to-steel seal, so you’re not going to leak. You may implode, but it’ll be quick. I think of it as a “cut to black.”
Clash: Anything living at the bottom?
Cameron: No vertebrates, but you do see arthropods -- very tiny, like snowflakes, and quite sparse. I didn’t see animal tracks from worms or any type of benthic animal. But we were able to identify a number of bacteria genomes in the sediment sample I brought back.
Clash: You’ve made over two dozen dives to the Titanic wreck, 12,460 feet down. Talk about the first visit.
Cameron: I was diving in the MIRs with Russians who had only visited a couple of times, and I was fooling around with their new sonar.
I noticed the ground sloping up. At the last second, I realized the only place the ground could slope is where the bow had hit bottom and pushed it up, like a plow. So I said, “I think ...” and the next thing we saw was a wall of rivets.
We did a quick back-up and came within inches of hitting it!
Clash: That’s not very romantic.
Cameron: The second time was exactly what you’d think. It emerged out of the darkness -- beautiful, mysterious. Each visit is different.
Sometimes you see this massive wall, other times you come up over the deck and see places that are barely changed.
Clash: You are a stickler for detail. In the final cut of “Titanic” you changed the night sky because astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson sent a letter saying it wasn’t representative of the fateful night.
Cameron: When Rose is lying on the raft at that time of year in 1912, there’s no way she could have seen those stars, so yes, we replaced what we shot with the actual star field present at that time.
Clash: Other than your own creations, what’s your favorite movie?
Cameron: After all these years, “The Wizard of Oz” is still my favorite.
(James M. Clash is the author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s” (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
Muse highlights include Peter Rainer on movies and Hephzibah Anderson on books.
To contact the writer of this column: James M. Clash at Jamesmclash@gmail.com
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