‘This Big Vast Black Unknown’: James Cameron Describes His Historic Deep-Sea Journey

At the ocean's deepest point, he found "complete isolation from all of humanity."

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Mark Theissen / National Geographic / AP

Filmmaker James Cameron emerges from the Deepsea Challenger submersible after his successful solo dive to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, Monday March 26, 2011.

James Cameron’s 6.8 mile (10.94 km) descent to the ocean’s deepest point took nearly three hours. It was a mission fraught with danger, leading to certain death if anything went wrong with his 24-foot submarine. So what did the filmmaker do when he arrived?

“I just sat there looking out the window, looking at this barren, desolate lunar plain, appreciating,” Cameron said Monday in a conference call.

Cameron is no secret to otherworldly visions. The director dreamed up the alternate Pandora universe in the 2009 blockbuster Avatar. But even he was unprepared for the emptiness that abounded as he rested at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. “It’s really the sense of isolation, more than anything, realizing how tiny you are down in this big vast black unknown and unexplored place,” Cameron said. “The bottom was completely featureless. I had this idea that life would adapt to the deep, but I don’t think we’re seeing that,” he told National Geographic, which sponsored the mission.

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The onboard cameras helped to capture the dark abyss, and Cameron hopes to turn the footage into a documentary. But one mission went unaccomplished; a fluid leak prevented the vessel’s hydraulic arm from collecting any rocks or sea creatures. He had no hesitation, though, in explaining how he’d correct the situation: “That just means I gotta go back and get some more (items).”

The 57-year-old Cameron intended to spend six hours beneath the ocean but could only muster a three-hour stay amid fears of running out of power. The entire mission took seven hours – and while he described it as a “heckuva ride,” the experience wasn’t wrapped in comfort. The electronics surrounding him – 3D cameras, lights, and navigation systems – bumped the temperature in the 43-inch-wide (109-cm-wide) capsule to a sauna-like 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). Then he descended beneath the ocean. “Within a minute or two I’m out of sunlight, and you’re in total darkness for most of this dive, so the sub gets very cold,” he said in National Geographic. He piled on warm clothing as the water temperature around the submarine reached a near-freezing 36 degrees Fahrenheit (2.2 degrees Celsius).

The intense pressure at the bottom of the Challenger Deep trench, rated at eight tons of pressure per square inch, shrunk his steel-walled submarine by more than three inches. But without a doubt, he said, the mission expanded his mind.

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