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It took movie director and explorer James Cameron seven years to fulfill his lifelong dream to go to the deepest spot in the world's oceans, a depth of nearly 36,000 feet, almost seven miles. To get to the bottom of the Mariana Trench off Papua, New Guinea, he helped design and build his own submersible vehicle, the neon-green Deepsea Challenger.
James Cameron, the director of "Titanic" and "Avatar," among other films, made the descent last March, and he writes about his experience in the cover story of the June issue of National Geographic magazine. He joins us from his home in Santa Barbara, California. Mr. Cameron, welcome to the program.
JAMES CAMERON: Hey, it's great to be on again. Good to hear your voice, Melissa.
BLOCK: Thanks. Well, you made the descent solo, and I want you to describe where you were, the capsule in the submersible where you were sitting.
CAMERON: Sure. The sub is 24 feet long, and it's this kind of long green torpedo that's - kind of moves vertically through the water. So I was in a steel sphere down toward the bottom of that. I had a window that I could look out that was about nine-and-a-half-inches thick. The inside of the sphere is about 42 inches, and it's packed full of all kinds of electronic equipment. So there's not much room. It's quite snug.
BLOCK: Well, needless to say, you had lots of cameras taking pictures all the way through this. What did you see on the way down?
CAMERON: The way down, you know, the sub is moving pretty quickly. It's not really designed for observation in the water column. It's designed to slip through that. I had a good view of the sub from the outside because I had a camera out on the end of a boom that I could move around and kind of check the whole sub. It's when you start to approach the bottom is the first time you really see anything, and then the bottom comes up in a very kind of ghostly way.
There's just sort of suddenly, there's something there. And then as you approach, you get to see detail. Although - and the interesting thing is approaching the bottom in the Challenger Deep, there was actually no detail. It was completely smooth, almost like new fallen snow on a big flat parking lot.
Now, the moment, you know, the moment I got to the bottom, I had to report in, make sure everything was OK and then get about the business of exploration, which included immediately taking a sediment sample in case for whatever reason I had to come back quickly, at least I'd have that, and then start driving around because, you know, one of the promises we made to ourselves was this was going to be a science platform. It was going to be a true exploration vehicle, not just designed to set a depth record. So I, you know, I took off across the bottom as planned and started looking for the north slope of the trench.
BLOCK: And as you were steering the submersible across the bottom there, seven miles down, what did it look like? What did you see?
CAMERON: Well, it's very lunar, you know? And we did expect that, You know, you don't expect a profusion of life like you might see at, let's say, a hydrothermal vent community where it's just boiling with biomass, you know, shrimp and crabs and that sort of thing. We did find 68 new species, most of them bacteria, but some small invertebrates as well that were brought back either by the sub or by the robotic lander vehicle that we were also operating at the same time.
BLOCK: You ended up staying on the ocean bottom for about three hours, and then, of course, there's the key moment when you have to throw the switch that's going to start your ascent.
BLOCK: I want to know what was going through your mind right before you flipped that switch.
CAMERON: Well, you know, I tend not to milk it out. There's always a little bit of a sigh of relief when it works the way it's supposed to work. So, you know, we treated it like a space mission, and you have to go in with a lot of redundancy. And so I wasn't surprised when it worked, but you're always a little bit relieved because the alternative is not pretty.
BLOCK: To say the least.
BLOCK: That's a little understatement there.
BLOCK: When you and I talked a few years ago about "Avatar," I remember you mentioning your inspiration, the inspiration you drew from deep-sea life and creating the world in that film. Why the fascination with ocean and deep ocean in particular?
CAMERON: You know, I'd like to say I love the ocean before we ever met from the Jacques Cousteau films that I saw as a kid in the mid-'60s. And then I got scuba certified and started diving in kelp beds and then later in - on coral reefs and so on. And I was just always struck by the endless ingenuity of nature in creating these incredible life forms. And I drew a lot of inspiration from that for "Avatar," and all I simply did was take some of those colors and some of those forms and changed the scale, you know, just blow them up to human size or larger. And all of a sudden, they looked quite alien, when in fact they exist right here on our world already.
BLOCK: Your co-producer on "Avatar," Jon Landau, has said that the sequels, "Avatar 2 and 3" might be either set underwater or use motion capture that was filmed underwater. First, is that true? Can you verify that?
CAMERON: Yeah. There will be underwater scenes and sequences and surface water scenes. And the graphic artists, you know, the designers of all the creatures and settings are very excited by that.
BLOCK: Do you think those two passions of yours, filmmaking and the ocean exploration, do they come from the same place? Do they sort of arise from the same germ, do you think?
CAMERON: I think that's an interesting question because, you know, as a kid, I spent a lot of my time reading, and it was mostly science fiction. So I was fascinated by the idea of alien worlds and all the different forms that life might take. And so expressing that through fiction and especially films like the "Avatar" films and actually getting to create an alien world is not that dissimilar to being fascinated by the alien world that we have right here, you know, on Earth that starts just a few feet underwater and goes all the way down to seven miles, to the most extreme depths.
BLOCK: Well, now that you've gone down seven miles to the ocean floor, something you've wanted to do for so long, what's next? What's the next frontier for you?
CAMERON: Well, it's a little bit different than sort of climbing Mount Everest. Sort of once you've done it, you know, you could climb lesser mountains, but I don't think of it that way. I think of the fact that all of the deep trenches combined, which haven't been explored at all, total up to an area greater than North America. But we're not done exploring our own planet. I think most people think we are, but we're definitely not. And so now, you know, a whole new generation of vehicles can be created to open up this dark continent.
BLOCK: And it sounds like you'd really like to go back again.
CAMERON: Oh, heck, yeah.
CAMERON: There's so much to see. You know, thinking that you've explored the deeps just because you've been through the deepest spot is a bit like wandering around in a wheat field in Nebraska with a flashlight for about a mile in the dead of night and saying you've explored America. You know, there's so much more to see. And I know they're going to be wonders. You know, for example, one of our robotic landers happened to land right in front of a rock outcropping, not far from where I dove, only a few miles away, and discovered a whole new type of bacterial community that might be a window into the way life actually emerged on this planet.
And so that's created quite a bit of scientific interest. But it was unable to take a sample of what it was seeing because it didn't have a pilot. So, you know, it was just a kind of, you know, a dumb drop vehicle. So, you know, there's a reason to go back right there.
BLOCK: Well, Mr. Cameron, it's great to talk to you. Thanks so much.
CAMERON: Thanks, Melissa.
BLOCK: Film director and National Geographic explorer-in-residence James Cameron. We were talking about his solo descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. You can see images from that voyage at our website, npr.org.
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