By WILLIAM J. BROAD http://topics.nytimes.com
As a boy, he used to squeeze his body into drainage pipes, snaking along to see how far he could go.
As an adult, he made the two top-grossing movies of all time, “Avatar” and “Titanic.”
And on Wednesday, James Cameron folded his 6-foot-2-inch frame into a 43-inch-wide capsule and plummeted, alone, down five miles in the New Britain Trench off Papua New Guinea. His feat, in a 24-foot-long craft dubbed the Deepsea Challenger, broke by a mile the world depth record for modern vehicles that a Japanese submersible had held.
But he wants to go deeper: This month, Mr. Cameron plans to plunge nearly seven miles to the planet’s most inaccessible spot: the Challenger Deep http://www.extremescience.com/deepest-ocean.htm in the western Pacific, an alien world thought to swarm with bizarre eels and worms, fish and crustaceans. He wants to spend six hours among them, filming the creatures and sucking up samples with a slurp gun.
“It’s a blast,” Mr. Cameron said in an interview during sea trials of his new craft. “There’s nothing more fun than getting bolted into this and seeing things that human beings have never seen before. Forget about red carpets and all that glitzy stuff.”
His attempt is also dangerous. Two people once died in a submersible. Last month, Mr. Cameron lost two members of his team in a fatal helicopter crash.
He built his miniature submarine secretly in Australia, and already it has outdone all other watercraft in its ability to ferry people through the deep’s crushing pressures. As with the birth of the private space rocket industry, where commercial companies are building ships to take astronauts aloft, the debut of Mr. Cameron’s submarine signals the rising importance of entrepreneurs in the global race to advance science and technology.
His goal with his next dive is to tackle a much older record. A half century ago, in a technical feat never equaled, the United States Navy sent two men down nearly seven miles into the Challenger Deep, their vehicle 60 feet long. A window cracked on the way down. The landing stirred up so much ooze that the divers could see little through the portholes, took no pictures and began their ascent after just 20 minutes on the seabed.
Mr. Cameron’s bid is to be unveiled Thursday in Washington by the National Geographic Society http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/n/national_geographic_society/index.html?inline=nyt-org , where he holds the title of Explorer-in-Residence http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/grants-programs/explorers-in-residence/ . Both the society, which is helping pay for the expedition, and Mr. Cameron took pains to characterize the effort as purely scientific rather than competitive.
It comes as a number of wealthy men — including Richard Branson of the Virgin empire and the Internet guru Eric E. Schmidt — are building or financing miniature submarines meant to transport them, their friends and scientists into the remotest parts of the world’s oceans, including the Challenger Deep.
Mr. Cameron will collect samples for research in biology, microbiology, astrobiology, marine geology and geophysics. “The science is paramount,” Ellen Stanley, a National Geographic spokeswoman, said in an interview. “We’re out to learn what’s down there.”
Mr. Cameron called his venture “very different from going down and planting a flag” — a seeming reference to how Russian explorers in 2007 put a flag on the seabed under the North Pole http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/02/world/europe/02cnd-artic.html . Their deed was meant to strengthen Moscow’s claims to nearly half the Arctic seabed.
The Challenger Deep is in the Mariana Trench, the deepest of the many seabed recesses that crisscross the globe. Over the decades, biologists have glimpsed their unfamiliar inhabitants mainly by lowering dredges on long lines. Up have come thousands of strange-looking worms and sea cucumbers. More recently, robot cameras have spied ghostly fish with sinuous tails.
Aboard Mr. Cameron’s expedition is Douglas Bartlett, a professor of marine microbial genetics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, an arm of the University of California at San Diego. Last year, Dr. Bartlett led a team that dropped cameras into the Mariana Trench and observed giant amoebas http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-205_162-20124830/giant-amoebas-discovered-6-miles-deep/ — a first in the inhospitable zone. Known as xenophyophores, these mysterious life forms consist of a single cell and appear able to grow to the size of a fist. Scientists find them exclusively in the deep sea.
National Geographic said the public would be able to follow Mr. Cameron’s expedition at www.deepseachallenge.com. It described the project’s main science collaborator as Scripps, followed by the University of Hawaii, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Guam. The film director has long exhibited a fascination with the deep sea, making “The Abyss” (1989), “Titanic” (1997) and a number of documentaries about lost ships, including “Bismarck” (2002) and “Ghosts of the Abyss” (2003), a 3-D tour of the Titanic http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/t/titanic/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier ’s interior. National Geographic said that Mr. Cameron had now made a total of 76 submersible dives, including 33 to the famous luxury liner.
The crew capsules of submersibles are made small to better withstand tons of crushing pressure, and thus have no amenities. Mr. Cameron’s solo model is unusually small, its inner diameter less than four feet.
He said the vehicle over all had many cameras but only one thick porthole, its inner diameter three inches. He described the craft as a “vertical torpedo,” meant to fall and rise quickly so as to maximize time for exploring the seabed.
“You’d be an idiot not to be apprehensive, but I trust the design,” Mr. Cameron said as he contemplated his impending dive. “You’re going into one of the most unforgiving places on earth.”
He said the deaths early last month of his two crew members, Mike deGruy and Andrew Wight — both celebrated filmmakers who specialized in carrying viewers into the sea’s depths — initially prompted him to want to scrap the expedition. The two were preparing to film a sea trial of the Deepsea Challenger when their helicopter went down shortly after takeoff from an airstrip south of Sydney, Australia.
“It was a horrible day,” Mr. Cameron recalled. “We felt sick at heart. It caused us to question risk and the meaning of life. I personally did not want to continue at that point, but the team rallied.”
Mr. Cameron said the project, if successful, will result not only in a number of new scientific findings but two documentary films — one a 3-D production for wide-screen theaters, and the other a National Geographic TV special.
He said that he would take some protein bars with him for the historic dive, but that much of his space was taken up with digital recording decks.
“It’s full of electronics,” Mr. Cameron said. “It’s tight, like a Mercury space capsule.”