The bright green torpedo riding on the back of a semi-truck cruised slowly into the parking lot at the TA Travel Center in Willcox. Three large RVs with the words Deepsea Challenge emblazoned on their sides preceded it.
The green torpedo was far from a weapon, but instead a remarkable submarine which brought scientists, engineers, technology and sponsors together with a goal to explore the deepest part of the world’s oceans.
Explorer and Hollywood Film Director James Cameron piloted the 24-foot long Deepsea Challenger on March 26, 2012 on a record-breaking solo dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on earth at 6.8 miles below the surface of the ocean, about 200 miles from Guam in the Pacific.
In the process, he filmed, photographed and collected specimens found at that depth, where he stayed for three hours, discovering hundreds of new species and microbes, said Marine Biologist and teacher Dijanna Figueroa, who was traveling on the cross-country journey when the submersible stopped in Willcox on Sunday, June 2.
The day before, the Deepsea Challenger began its voyage from the California Science Center in Los Angeles to its permanent home at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, said Dirk Mathison, public information for the Deepsea Challenger’s journey across the country.
According to a press release from Mathison, Cameron, who donated the vessel to WHOI, told attendees at the send-off in California, “One of the most critical aspects of exploration, besides actually going there and bringing back the pictures and the science, is the telling of the story. It’s vital to communicate to the public, especially students of all ages, what was done, how it was done, and why it was important.”
“By telling the story to school-kids in a hands-on way, we can inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists and explorers, who are so vital to the nation. Moving the Deepsea Challenger cross-country to its new home at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution provides an opportunity to make the sub available to students and the general public, so they can see it, touch it and ask questions. This will create a major inspirational dividend of the Deepsea Challenger project,” Cameron said.
The journey marks the first time the sub was shown in public. The trip was intended to engage and inspire children and to focus on the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in education, Mathison said.
Helping to tell the story at the start of the journey were Cameron, his wife, Suzy Amis Cameron, who founded MUSE School CA, based in Calabasas, Calif., and several scientists and teachers, some of whom were involved in the expedition and continued on with the rest of the journey.
Figueroa, a teacher at MUSE, said the school is dedicated to early childhood through 8th-grade education “with a focus on science, technology, engineering, art and math -- and sustainability – Green STEAM.”
Figueroa explained that Cameron climbed into the sphere through a hatch at the top of the vessel. The sphere allows the intense pressure to be equal on all sides, keeping the sphere from imploding and crushing him in the sea’s depths.
“He spent seven hours in the 62-inch sphere,” she said, a challenge in itself.
Once inside the sphere, the submersible turned and went torpedo-style to the bottom, she added, faster than any other submarine.
Dr. Christina Symons, a marine geologist, was on the expedition which left from Sidney, Australia, where the sub was assembled.
“There was a microbiologist, Roger Chastain, also on the expedition, and robotics on the Deepsea Challenger discovered 60 microbial species never seen before. There were also arthropods, including shrimp-like organisms and sea cucumbers at the bottom,” she said, adding all the cameras, lights, batteries and tissue samplers, had to be in pressure boxes, as well, to keep from imploding.
“This cross-country journey will give the public and especially children the opportunity to see the sub and be inspired by the exploration and scientific discovery it enabled. It’s important for children to know that if they can imagine something, they can actually do it,” said Figueroa.
The Deepsea Challenger was scheduled to visit Dallas’s Perot Museum of Nature and Science, followed by Washington, D.C., where it was on display on Capitol Hill June 11. It will be delivered to WHOI by mid-June.
The sub’s trek across the U.S. comes a little more than a year after Cameron’s solo dive to 35,787 feet, almost 11,000 meters (35,787 feet), to the deepest place on Earth - the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench - in the marine vehicle the “Avatar” and “Titanic” director and his team engineered.
The Deepsea Challenger was specifically engineered to be the first of its kind – a vertically-deployed, manned submersible and robust science platform capable of diving to full ocean depth. The sub’s ability to remain at the bottom of the Challenger Deep for nearly three hours to explore, sample and capture the first high resolution 3D images ever taken of the location, is unprecedented.
In 1960, the Trieste, the only other manned submersible to reach the Challenger Deep, was able to stay only 20 minutes on the bottom before ascending.
In March 2013, Cameron donated the sub to WHOI. Upon its arrival in Massachusetts, WHOI scientists and engineers will begin to work with Cameron and his team to incorporate the sub’s numerous engineering advancements into future research platforms and deep-sea expeditions. This partnership harnesses the power of public and private investment in supporting deep-ocean science.
Recognizing the power of new technologies, like those embodied in the Deepsea Challenger system, to explore and understand the ocean, WHOI recently launched the Center for Marine Robotics (CMR), a novel collaborative model that enhances the development of robotic technologies by bringing together partners from academia, the federal government, and the private sector. The CMR’s scientists and engineers will revolutionize the way people and machines work together in the marine environment and enable new approaches to complex scientific challenges. Cameron will serve on the Center’s Advisory Board.
Deepsea Challenge, Cameron’s eighth deep-ocean expedition, marks a globally-recognized milestone in an exploration and diving career spanning decades. An avid scuba diver since 1969, Cameron has logged more than 3,000 hours underwater, including 500 hours in helmets. He has made 85 submersible dives, most of them to depths greater than two miles. Seeking to combine his two great passions—diving and filmmaking—Cameron has directed numerous feature films and marine documentaries that have broken new ground in underwater cinematography, beginning with The Abyss in 1989. In 1995, he made 12 manned-submersible dives to the Titanic wreck for his feature film of the same name, which won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and broke the record for global box office. Titanic’s earnings have only been surpassed by Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar, which garnered an unprecedented $2.8 billion worldwide.
Figueroa said she was at the dinner table years before the expedition when Cameron first came up with the idea to build a submersible to reach the bottom of the sea.
Symonds added, “The goal was science, but it brought together biologists, geologists, technologists, oceanographers and others as a cross-disciplinary effort. It’s difficult to get to, financially and physically, so everyone gained as we tried to learn about the Trench together.
“We know more about the solar system than we do the depths of the ocean. It’s earth’s final frontier.”
Production and postproduction have been ongoing for National Geographic’s DEEPSEA CHALLENGE 3D, a forthcoming documentary about the Expedition.
Deepsea Challenge was a joint scientific expedition by James Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex. Learn more at deepseachallenge.com.
Some information in this article was taken from a press release at the website http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/explorer-and-director-james-cameron-to-launch-deepsea-challenger-on-cross-country-journey-from-los-angeles-209643081.html.