Director James Cameron donates submersible to WHOI

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution director and president Susan Avery (left) and explorer and filmmaker James Cameron (right) talked to local media about the Deepsea Challenger, Friday. — Photo by Christy Aumer

Explorer and filmmaker James Cameron has donated the Deepsea Challenger, the multi-million dollar undersea craft in which he descended to the deepest known part of the world’s oceans last year, to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). He made the gift official Friday before a small gathering of invited media, members of the scientific research community, and students.

It took Mr. Cameron’s team of engineers seven years to design and build the Deepsea Challenger for his solo dive to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. During the 35,787 foot dive, he captured high-resolution 3D images and collected samples that have already resulted in identification of at least 68 new species, plus evidence of the deepest bacterial mats ever discovered, according to WHOI.

On Friday, Mr. Cameron stood in front of the Deepsea Challenger and told a crowd of approximately 250 that it was a “surreal” moment.

Looking at a group of Chatham Middle School students nestled on the ground in front of him, Mr. Cameron said he first saw WHOI’s manned subsea vehicle Alvin, one of the first deep-sea submersibles, on the cover of National Geographic when he was about their age. His love for exploration has endured, along with his passion to reach out to young people.

The students asked Mr. Cameron several questions. “Could it survive in space?” one student asked.

Mr. Cameron said he had never been asked that question before, and ultimately responded with a tentative yes after talking through several considerations out loud.

“Stump the expert,” Mr. Cameron said with a laugh.

“They [children] never ask why I did it,” he said, referencing his solo dive with the Deepsea Challenger to the Challenger Deep. “Because they don’t have to know why.”

“They can go there in a cardboard box with a cut-out for a port hole,” Mr. Cameron said with a smile.

Director of the Oscar-winning film Titanic, as well as Avatar and The Terminator, Mr. Cameron announced in March that he would donate the Deepsea Challenger to further deep-sea exploration. WHOI plans to learn from the submersible’s system to advance other vehicles and technologies, rather than use the craft for deep water excursions.

The institution didn’t wait long to extract innovative technology from Mr. Cameron’s “brain child.” WHOI director and president Susan Avery said scientists are currently using the Deepsea Challenger’s high-tech cameras and lighting systems on the hybrid, remotely operated vehicle, Nereus, which will return to the Mariana Trench next year.

Ms. Avery, Mr. Cameron, and the Deepsea Challenger recently returned from an educational tour across the United States, including a stop on Capitol Hill. Ms. Avery and Mr. Cameron spoke at several public events and before congressonal budget committees about the importance of further ocean exploration.

The lack of ocean observation could be linked to a shortage of funding, Ms. Avery told reporters Friday. “Private funding is not sustainable,” she said.

“WHOI is like what NASA is to outer space,” Mr. Cameron said. He added that increased observations of the ocean deeps would be of immense value. He compared such research to observations made in space with satellites.

Mr. Cameron has participated in 88 dives in submersibles to depths beyond two miles. He said his nearly seven-mile descent to the Challenger Deep was “like landing on an alien planet. It’s a very lunar landscape.”

The Deepsea Challenger will join WHOI’s fleet of subsea vehicles. The donation will join WHOI’s new Center for Marine Robotics.

“Our goal for the Center is for it to be the place where the future of robotic technology and capability in the ocean, 10 and 20 years from now, is envisioned and then brought to reality,” Ms. Avery said in a news release.

Mr. Cameron will sit on the center’s advisory board. He added that he’s happy to join the WHOI family and will be returning soon. He passed the “car keys,” a remove-before-flight tag, to Ms. Avery on Friday, and then told her, “Put some gas in it, have fun, and be back by midnight.”

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