Diving Back To The Bottom Of The Mariana Trench

Robert Siegel talks to retired Navy Captain Don Walsh about the attempt by movie director James Cameron to take a submersible capsule to the bottom of the Mariana Trench — the deepest spot on Earth. Walsh says the National Geographic and James Cameron expedition will be a combination of science and adventure, because Cameron is a storyteller and dedicated amateur explorer. Walsh made a 1960 dive to the same trench.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The man who directed the films "Titanic" and "Avatar" had a real-life adventure this week. James Cameron rode a one-man submarine to a deep underwater trench in the Pacific Ocean, breaking the world solo dive record by a mile. And that is only a warm-up for James Cameron. Next, he has his sights on the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest one in the world. That's a place that a Swiss oceanographer and a U.S. Navy lieutenant reached in 1960.

Cameron says he'll stay down there - again alone - for six hours filming. Well, on the line with us now from his home in Oregon is that Navy lieutenant who made the dive in 1960. Don Walsh is now a retired Navy captain. Welcome to the program, Don.

CAPTAIN DON WALSH: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, you know what kind of vehicle James Cameron is taking down there. How different is it from what you took down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench?

WALSH: Without being too precious, I'd say if you ask Orville Wright what was the difference between his airplane and a 747, you'd get the same look of puzzlement...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WALSH: ...for our inability to even explain it because it's a wholly different machine. The advancements in material science, electronics, all of these things have contributed to a really super-efficient vehicle. I was out to see it in Sydney, Australia. I saw it in a shop for the first time, and it's mind-blowing.

SIEGEL: Well, the vehicle is different, but the Mariana Trench, I assume, is the same.

WALSH: Yup.

SIEGEL: What is James Cameron likely to see down there? What does it look like down there?

WALSH: Well, of course, after you go a few hundred feet, it's pitch-black. So what you're treated to is kind of a light show of all the bioiluminscent critters that live in the deepest parts of the ocean. And there's an interesting variety of things down there. One of the things that's contentious is we reported we saw a flatfish when we - just before we landed. That's something like a sole or a small halibut. And that was quite a finding because that's a marine vertebrate, not an invertebrate, and it's not suspected they might live that deep in the sea. Many say that's not what we saw. But we're kind of hoping that with Jim spending six hours down there, that he can vindicate us.

SIEGEL: Where is the line here, in what James Cameron is about to do, between ocean science and a great adventure?

WALSH: Well, actually, Robert, some of each because Jim is a consummate storyteller. We know that's a given with his successes in movies. He loves to make documentaries. And the report I got from him after his recent dive to 8,000 meters was very, very interesting and the scientific observations he made and the kind of data he took. So I'm looking for both adventure and solid science to come out of his deepest dive.

SIEGEL: On that dive, he describes the surface down below that he said it's as flat as a billiard table.

WALSH: Yeah.

SIEGEL: It's like - and a beach - it's an underground beach in the seafloor.

WALSH: Yeah. Well, we talk about these trenches, but actually they're not. I mean, we see them in the books, the magazines because they're very wide compared to the depth if you were to do in real scale. So they have to exaggerate the vertical scale to get it on a page of a book, and people tend to think of things like the Grand Canyon. Actually, the bottom of the Challenger Deep is about 7 miles long and a mile wide, something in that order. And the slopes on each side are very, very gentle.

I mean, you're not looking at sort of vertical faces. That's, you know, that's a sort of a fictional thing to show people - give them an idea, but it's an erroneous idea when you try to put it on a page in a book or a magazine.

SIEGEL: Don, there have been dives with robots taking images, and I assume they could sample soil as well. Scientifically, can the robots with - they can't tell as good a story when they come back, but can we find out just as much by sending them down there?

WALSH: That's a good point. Why man? I once asked Roger Revelle, who was arguably the high priest of postwar oceanography in the United States, why man? And he didn't hesitate. He looked at me. He said because you can't surprise an instrument because - well, the robots really will do the majority of the work in the deep trenches. We still are going to have to have man, the intervention, and - because the trained mind and the trained eye at the worksite is very, very important. And so it's going to be a mix of these tools. And I think that we will see, I hope now, the beginning of more man visits to the deepest parts of the ocean.

SIEGEL: Well, Don Walsh, I just want to observe before you go that while James Cameron is, as you say, a great storyteller, film director, in 1960 when you went 7 miles under the sea, to the Mariana Trench, you were a pretty good storyteller. You wrote the cover story in LIFE magazine about it.

WALSH: Well, that was my first big hit, and I've never duplicated it since. As you remember, getting a cover story in LIFE magazine was a big thing for a writer.

SIEGEL: Not a bad start in journalism, I would say.

WALSH: Right.

SIEGEL: Well, Don Walsh, good luck and thanks for talking with us.

WALSH: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Retired U.S. Navy Captain Don Walsh made the trip to the bottom of the Mariana Trench back in 1960, and that's a feat that will be attempted soon by movie director James Cameron.

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