James Cameron to enter the abyss

  • Article by: WILLIAM J. BROAD
  • Updated: March 20, 2012 - 3:51 PM

Director James Cameron is preparing to dive nearly 7 miles into the Mariana Trench in a torpedo-like submersible that is one of a kind.

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James Cameron, seen inside a pressure sphere simulator, is awaiting calm conditions in the western Pacific to dive in his submersible

Photo: Brook Rushton, New York Times

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For centuries, submariners have slipped beneath the waves in vehicles made for horizontal travel. Their craft are basically underwater ships. Even submersibles, small vessels that dive unusually deep, follow the horizontal plan.

Until now.

In a stroke, James Cameron has upended the field -- literally and figuratively. A man known for imaginative films ("Titanic," "Avatar," "The Abyss"), he has reinvented the way that people explore the deep ocean.

This month, Cameron unveiled his unique submersible and announced plans to ride it solo into the planet's deepest recess, the Challenger Deep in the western Pacific, nearly 7 miles down. Cameron, now near the dive site in the expedition's ship, is awaiting calm seas.

Cameron calls his craft a vertical torpedo. The axis of his 24-foot-long craft is upright rather than horizontal, speeding the plunge. His goal is to fall and rise as quickly as possible so he can maximize his time investigating the dark seabed and its strange life forms. He wants to prowl the bottom for six hours.

"It's very clever," said Alfred McLaren, a retired Navy submariner who helps run a company that makes submersibles. "Nobody has done this kind of thing before." He likened Cameron to "an underwater Steve Jobs -- difficult to get along with but very creative."

Just as bullets are spun to steady their flight, Cameron's craft rotates on its vertical axis -- another first. In a test dive, he has already broken the modern depth record for piloted vehicles, going down more than 5 miles.

The deep sea -- opaque to light and radio waves -- is much harder to explore than outer space. Most daunting of all, the waters overhead will exert a downward pressure of more than 8 tons per square inch on Cameron's craft.

Cameron plans to plummet 6.8 miles. The Challenger Deep is the most remote area of the Mariana Trench, the deepest of the seabed recesses that crisscross the globe. He is to cram his 6-foot-2-inch frame into a personnel sphere just 43 inches wide, forcing him to keep his knees bent and his body largely immobile. The dive plan calls for him to remain in that position for up to nine hours.

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