What Makes James Cameron’s Mariana Trench Exploration So Special?

Image of Harlequin Tuskfish Choerodon fasciatusPhoto: OpenCage

James Cameron recently became the second human to personally descend into the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, and the first to bring back a sample from the ocean floor in the same location. In doing so, has he sparked our interest in deep ocean exploration?

Why does the Deep Blue Sea Matter?

Our planet’s seas and oceans hold more surprises than just colorful creatures like the harlequin tuskfish.

Humanity has only explored 5% of the earth’s oceans, yet they contain 80% of all life on our planet. Phytoplankton contributes to our oxygen and seawater absorbs carbon dioxide.

Oceans hold a huge percentage of the Earth’s water, with rain coming to land via evaporation from the seas and lakes.

Where is the Mariana Trench?

The Mariana Trench is in the western Pacific Ocean, southwest of the island of Guam.

Island of GuamPhoto: NASA Earth Observatory

The Mariana Trench is 11 kilometers deep. That’s about two kilometers deeper than the height that Mount Everest rises above sea level.

How Deep Do Others Go?

It seems that military submarines may operate at depths of around 900 meters.

The limit for any sunlight penetrating the ocean, or the depth of complete darkness, is about one kilometer.

Anglerfish, among other creatures that dwell in the deep sea, produce their own light to lure their prey or to find their mates.

Sperm Whale Jaw in its SkullPhoto: mikecogh (Michael Coghlan)

Sperm whales may be able to dive down to three times beyond the boundary of darkness, to about three kilometers. A more conservative estimate puts their maximum depth at 2,500 m.

How Quickly did James Cameron Descend and Ascend?

Cameron’s dive in the Deepsea Challenger vessel took about two-and-a-half hours. That would be a ‘pedestrian’ pace of 4.4 km/h, or a bit under 3 mph.

Cameron then spent about the same amount of time exploring the depths. He took photographs and video shots, and collected samples from the ocean floor.

By leaving some ballast at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the Challenger ascended in only 70 minutes. (Many joggers could sustain a running pace just under 10 km/h, or 6 mph.)

Angler Fish SkeletonPhoto: Ryan Somma

How Significant was Cameron’s Dive into the Mariana Trench?

Cameron was the first human being to descend into the Mariana Trench since 1960.

Map for the Mariana TrenchPhoto: Mudkipz_KGM (Amazing Race)

More importantly, he demonstrated that this feat is technically possible and set a de facto budget (of whatever he spent) so others can make definite plans to follow.

Perhaps James Cameron’s dive will indeed inspire the next generation of scientists to boldly go where so few have gone before.

Meika Jensen, MastersDegree.net, 2012, “Let’s Explore the Ocean”, referenced Aug. 16, 2012.

Fabienne Faur, Agence France-Presse in National Post, “James Cameron on historic trip into the abyss: It was like visiting an ‘alien world’”, March 26, 2012, referenced Aug. 15, 2012.

David Watson (aka Dr. Galapagos), “The deep diving capabilities of sperm whales“, 2001-2002, referenced Aug. 16, 2012.