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James Cameron makes deep donation to oceanographers

A visualization of the Mariana Trench with an exaggerated vertical scale. credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

A visualization of the Mariana Trench with an exaggerated vertical scale.


After setting a record for the deepest single-person dive, filmmaker James Cameron stored his submersible in his garage and moved onto other projects — namely sequels to his hit 2009 movie Avatar. Now he’s pulling the craft, the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER (DSC), out of storage. On the anniversary of Cameron’s trip to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts announced that it is forming a partnership with Cameron and that he is donating his submersible and associated technology to the research centre.

The submersible, which reached a depth of 10,900 metres, is the only one capable of ferrying a human to the lower third of the ocean’s full range. The next deepest-diving submersible, China’s Jiaolong, just passed the 7,000-metre mark during dives last year.

“The DSC’s unique capabilities are highly valued,” says engineer Andy Bowen, director of the National Deep Submergence Facility at Woods Hole. “Having spent some time looking at the submersible, it’s impossible to come away unimpressed by the quality of the engineering and technical achievement embodied in the submersible itself and the various subsystems.”

Researchers at Woods Hole plan to start using some components of the DSC almost immediately. Chris German, a marine geochemist, hopes to use the camera systems from the submersible during dives with a remote-controlled vehicle this summer into the Cayman Trough. Although the vehicle, called Nereus, has its own cameras and lighting systems, the ones from the DSC are thought to be superior.

Scientists seeking to conduct dives with the DSC itself will need to raise the necessary funds to support a field programme, says Bowen. And the vehicle has not yet passed the kinds of certification tests typically required of research submersibles. “One of the early steps we’ll be undertaking is to look at what needs to be done to bring it into compliance with certification,” he says. But Bowen did not hesitate when asked whether he would take the DSC on a trip more than 10 kilometres down. “It’s an extremely well-designed submersible and there’s been a tremendous attention to safety.”

This will be a big year for deep-diving activities at Woods Hole. The centre is finishing up a US$40-million rebuild of the Alvin submersible, a three-person craft capable of diving to 4,500 metres. Alvin has been the workhorse of US oceanography for the past 5 decades, but it has been out of commission since 2010. The refurbished submersible will undergo field trials in late spring, says Bowen.


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