Back From the Abyss, WHOI Gets James Cameron's Submarine

Deep dive. Built as part of the Deepsea Challenge project, Cameron rode the sub to the bottom of the Mariana Trench last year.

Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

One year ago, Hollywood director and deep-sea enthusiast James Cameron rode the Deepsea Challenger, a specialized, one-person, deep-sea submarine, down 10.9 kilometers into the Mariana Trench, the ocean's deepest point. He became the first person to reach the bottom of Mariana alone, and the first to do it at all in 52 years. (The U.S. Navy's Trieste carried two crew members to the bottom in 1960.) Cameron designed and built the Deepsea Challenger with a team of scientists and engineers over 7 years. Earlier this week, he gave custody of the sub to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, which already manages another famous deep-diving submarine, Alvin. David Gallo, director of special projects at WHOI, chatted with ScienceInsider about WHOI's plans for Challenger. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: When was WHOI first approached to take the sub?

D.G.: I think it's always been in the back of Jim's mind, even when he was building the submarine, that he wanted the legacy and the technology to keep moving forward; he didn't want it to end up in a warehouse someplace. It's been in the works for about a year, and then more seriously through the last summer, and then in the past several months there have been very serious discussions of how this might happen.

Q: How is the sub going to get to you guys at Woods Hole?

D.G.: It's going to make the long truck ride from California to Cape Cod at the beginning of next month. I'm hoping that we get to make several stops at various cities. It's a fantastic device, and I'm hoping it will be an inspiration to kids. It's important for them to see this thing that one person, through his own passion and curiosity, designed, built with his team, and then went in by himself to the deepest part of this Earth. I think it's great, especially in the midsection of this country where people don't get to see the ocean every day.

Q: And what are you planning to do with it?

D.G.: It's difficult to say right now. We're still beginning to understand exactly what's on that submarine. When you think about it, the sub and all its technologies open up the entire ocean to exploration and so there's an awful lot to think about—more than 95% of the ocean is unexplored. Certainly, the deepest parts of the ocean are of interest, so in the next couple of months we'll be using the cameras and the lights [from Deepsea Challenger] on one of our own robots. It's going to take some deliberation and some work, not just by our team but working with Jim's team as well, to decide what to do next.

Q: So you're using some of the parts for other projects. Once you take it apart, do you plan on putting it back together?

D.G.: Absolutely, yes. We have many, many people who are standing in line to dive in the sub, but it's going to take a good bit of training before anyone does that. We're trying to learn from Jim how he got to this point so successfully, and then we'll incorporate that into our own work. This is all very new to our scientists and engineers, so it's going to take a bit of time to come up to speed on the technology.

Q: So people are lining up to take a dive—is that part of WHOI's plans?

D.G.: It's not that easy to do. In a way, it's very disruptive technology. It's not Alvin; it's a one-person submarine, it's a radical design. We have to satisfy a whole lot of different requirements before we can have an individual diving in it, but we have people that really want to do it. So they're going to have to make a strong case. But before we even get to that, we've got so much to do in the near term with the other technologies—the cameras, the lights, the power—all of these things are advances for us and that's going to take up the bulk of our time. But you can imagine—if you had the chance to be trained and dive in it by yourself, would you want to?

Q: In a heartbeat!

D.G.: There you go! And you'd be pushing people to say why can't I do that, why do I have to wait? Woods Hole has a thousand people here, each one of them committed to exploring the ocean, so the pressures to dive are growing. But there needs to be training. It's one thing for Jim to put his life on the line in something he designed; it's a whole other thing to send a scientist into that same submarine.

But I can tell you that in a few years, Jim definitely plans to dive in that sub again. Once he's finished with Avatar 2 and 3, he's looking forward to getting back out there and heading for the extreme deep. So I know one person that stands a good chance of diving again!

Q: When you say that scientists are focused on using Challenger's ancillary technologies in the near term, what precisely will they be doing?

D.G.: Robotics. We've got a robotics systems, the Nereus system, that's all good to go. Before Jim made this offer we were already heading to the deepest ocean with hadal research. [The hadal zone, named after the Greek god of the underworld, is the deep sea zone below about 6000 meters.] So we were already getting together the technologies and the science that would unlock the mysteries of the deepest oceans. That being said, we've only got one team, the Nereus [submarine] team, working on the deepest ocean right now. This is a real windfall for us to be able to talk to Jim's team, who are very familiar with [deep-sea exploration] problems as well and find out what components of Jim's dream can be used on our robots.

I can tell you right off the bat, we plan on using his cameras and lighting this June in the Caribbean to explore some of its very deepest spots. And that's right around the corner, from the expedition point of view. It's tomorrow! It's not a lot of time to come up to speed on these new systems, and it's every bit as dangerous as a space launch to go that deep in the ocean. You can't afford any sort of mistake or miscalculation. So we have plenty to do, just looking at the next deep-sea expedition, let alone looking 5 or 10 years into the future. And remember that you have two schools of the thought—the Jim Cameron, passion-driven, curiosity-driven dream to explore the deep ocean, and then the Woods Hole, step-by-step, science, engineering, sound-footing, not-too-many-risks approach. And then bringing both of those together, so you have elements of risk along with the soundness of science—only good things can come out of that, but it's going to take a while.

Q: Why would a scientist want to use Deepsea Challenger rather than a sub like Alvin?

D.G.: That's a great question! The greatest depth of the ocean is about 7 miles [11,265 meters], so [Deepsea] Challenger opens up the entire ocean, even the deepest trenches, to exploration. [Alvin can dive to just 4500 meters.] These are places that have hardly been looked at before. We're talking about immense pressure and extreme cold. There's all these different kinds of challenges about working deep and Jim's done that homework for us, in his own way. I think we get hung up a lot on the tangible submarine, which is understandable; it's a dramatic, incredible device. But this collaboration is as much about what we're going to do together in the future. … We're looking at creating a whole new suite and breed of scientific equipment to explore and open up the deep ocean and humans and robots working together. That's what we're going for; it's not so much the here-and-now that we're looking at, it's where we're going to take this in the next 5 and 10 years.

Q: So does this mean you're going to keep working with Cameron?

D.G.: Positively, positively. He agreed to be a member of a brand new initiative we started called the Center for Marine Robotics, and that's a consortium of places with robotic expertise—Georgia Tech [the Georgia Institute of Technology], Johns Hopkins, MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], Carnegie Mellon, and the like—and he's agreed to be part of that advisory board. But we'll keep in close contact with his team. Really, this is just the beginning of a whole new era.

Q: What exciting technologies does Deepsea Challenger have other than the ability to go deep?

D.G.: If you want to go [to the very deep sea] in a submarine, or if you want to send a robot that deep, you've got to balance the weight of armor you have to provide to protect your instruments with an equal amount of flotation if you want to move around. You can't just sit on the bottom like a big paperweight; you want to move, so you have to balance the weight with buoyancy. And it's not so easy to have buoyancy bubbles that can withstand 11,000, or 12,000, or 15,000, or more pounds per square inch of pressure. What Jim's managed to do is find a flotation that doesn't take up a lot of space but survives those depths and still provides the necessary buoyancy. The deeper you go into the ocean, the more sophisticated the technology you need. And the beauty of it is that Jim's already tackled that problem.

Q: Cameron had trouble getting funding to go down in Deepsea Challenger again. Does WHOI have plans for securing funding to use the sub?

D.G.: We get a good deal of federal money through proposals we write to the government, but we're getting an increasing amount of support from individuals and foundations and even some from corporations. That money is fantastic, from the private sector, because it allows us to be truly flexible and allows us to do what we do best, which is to facilitate curiosity-driven research. We're looking at ways of doing exactly that, not just relying on the federal government but looking at our relationships with individuals to help us get together the funding to work in places deep inside the ocean, or to do projects which are scientifically risky, for which we normally could not get federal funding.

Q: The U.S. government just killed the National Undersea Research Program. Do you think that means there's less federal appetite for this sort of exploration?

D.G.: Consider the constraints on federal money. It's tough to make the case for basic, curiosity-driven research. I think we need to do better at showing people that it's exploration, yes, and that's exciting, but at the end of the day it's also about the relationship between humanity and the sea and that one thing we know from the ocean now is that the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, all are tied to the behavior and health of the ocean. By traditional senses, sure, there's less money available, but I think some of it will come back as we do a better job at explaining why we do what we do.