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NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC - ONWARD AND DOWNWARD

Deep Sea Challenge - FREE Feature Download

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Travel along on a record-breaking descent to the deepest spot in the ocean.

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For years he dreamed of diving to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean. But to make it happen, explorer and filmmaker James Cameron had to design and build his own vehicle, a futuristic submersible called DEEPSEA CHALLENGER. After seven years spent on research, design, and testing, one question remained: Could the sub survive the crushing pressure at 36,000 feet? As he neared the end of a two-month expedition, Cameron was staking his life on the answer.

The village chief, a wispy fellow with an easy smile and snowy muttonchops, came aboard James Cameron’s expedition ship in Papua New Guinea with an entourage. The five young men who attended him called him Big Man, a term of respect. The Big Man spoke in a local dialect, but his meaning came across. Who are you, he asked Cameron, and what are you doing here?

Cameron smiled. “C’mon,” he said. “I’ll show you.”

He led the Big Man and his entourage to where DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, a sleek, 24-foot submersible, rested in its cradle. In a few days Cameron planned to deploy the craft in a deep seafloor trench off the coast, a shakedown run for the big dive to come in the Mariana Trench. The chief ’s eyes widened. His men ran their hands over the vehicle’s brilliant green composite skin. With its blinking battery array and robotic limbs, the machine could have been mistaken for a spaceship.

“This,” said Cameron, “is my sub.”

Big Man peered through the polished-steel hatch.

"I sit inside there,” Cameron said, gesturing toward the sub’s pilot capsule, a sphere of two-and-a-half-inch-thick steel designed for a single pilot. “We close the hatch. And then go pshewww all the way to the bottom. Straight down.”

Cameron was a master at distilling a story into its simplest form. (He once famously pitched his best-known film in six words: “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic.”) So it came as no surprise to hear him describe the first solo dive to explore the deepest spot in the ocean in such radically abridged form. Nothing to it: Close the hatch, and down we go.

But in truth it was not so simple.

Rewind to three weeks earlier. DEEPSEA CHALLENGER lay in its cradle on the deck of its mother ship, Mermaid Sapphire, in Jervis Bay, Australia, a quiet anchorage 125 miles south of Sydney. Cameron’s plan was to hopscotch across the South Pacific, testing DEEPSEA CHALLENGER in a series of ever deeper dives before subjecting it to the crushing pressure of the Mariana Trench’s 16,000 pounds per square inch. The team had plotted a course that would take it from shallow Australian coves to a deep trench off the coast of Papua New Guinea and then to the open seas above the deepest part of the Mariana Trench, known as the Challenger Deep. No manned craft had visited the location since the U.S. Navy bathyscaph Trieste reached a depth of 35,800 feet in 1960, piloted by Lt. Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard. Cameron had invited Walsh on board the Mermaid Sapphire to contribute his firsthand knowledge of the trench.

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THE NEW AGE OF EXPLORATION is a yearlong series of articles celebrating National Geographic at 125.

Society Project DEEPSEA CHALLENGE is a joint scientific expedition by James Cameron, the National Geographic Society, and Rolex. Learn more at deepseachallenge.com.

James Cameron is a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. Mark Thiessen is a staff photographer. Bruce Barcott, a former Guggenheim fellow in nonfiction, spent nearly three months with the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team to cover the expedition.


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