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Extreme Dive: 7 Miles Under Water With James Cameron

Aired March 17, 2012 - 22:30   ET


JASON CARROLL, CNN HOST: Thank you for joining us. It's one of the most dangerous and remote places on earth. It's also the deepest.

And in the coming days, Hollywood director, James Cameron, will attempt to get here. Cameron invited us along to show us how he intends to do it. So we went to the south pacific where Cameron has been test diving a high tech submersible design to take him on this unique voyage.

In this report, you will learn why he is doing it and you will see what he discovers as we take you on an expedition seven miles under water.


CARROLL (voice-over): Exploration. We always seem to be looking up for re-inspiration. To the moon --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's one small step for man --

CARROLL: To other planets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lift off of the "Atlas 5."

CARROLL: Carrying the latest rover to Mars. Even when we fantasize about exploring the final frontier, it's out there somewhere in a galaxy far away. In reality, when you look down at our planet, it co-signals us to another frontier closer to home.

We live on a blue planet nearly 70 percent of the earth's surface is water. The oceans have been mapped, tides measured, sea life recorded.

But there is one place and for the most part, remains a mystery. It is the deepest known point on our planet, challenger deep. Located in a jagged scar carved in the Mariana trench in the western Pacific near Guam. It's nearly seven miles down, 36,000 feet deep.

Need perspective? Mt. Everest, the tallest point on earth, could fit in the trench with 7,000 feet to spare. It's the last place most people would expect to see a legendary film director leading a major scientific expedition.

JAMES CAMERON, EXPLORER, DIRECTOR: I want to get down here and look around and image use this 3D cameras and bring it all back so people can see what's there.

CARROLL: To begin our journey, Cameron invited us on board a ship previously used for inspecting oil rigs. I want to talk about the ship we're on board, the mermaid sapphire. It was made of the staff and crew of 60 people that includes Cameron's team, obviously of the submarine engineers, Cameron. So, if you see behind me, scientist, physicist.

CAMERON: Let's walk this way. I'll show you. I will give you the whole lab.

CARROLL: The ship has been retro fitted into a deep sea expedition vessel that on this day sits in the Solomon Sea. On board, Cameron is a deep sea explorer.

Back in Los Angeles, he is a Hollywood heavyweight. Director of the two highest grossing films of all time. Taking audiences to a distant planet in "Avatar" or telling the story of star crossed lovers on "the Titanic."

Cameron's passion for the sea began long before he made movies, when he was just 11 years old he was already making submersibles. He sent the one in this photo into 20 feet of water with a mouse on board. The mouse survived.

CAMERON: it started when I was a kid. And I was just fascinated by the deep ocean and always wondered, you know, what was deeper than where people were already going already. And you know, Crystal was on scuba then they had to do stuffs. And you're, you know, sort of childhood imagination if you're a science fiction geek like me and I think you are too, right?


CAMERON: You imagine what's down there.

CARROLL: Challenger deep is pitch black, at depths with immense pressure, eight tons per square inch. A hostile environment with untold possibilities.

If you are able to bring back certain organisms, it will not only show what exists at those depths but it also might help us understand how forms of life can live in extreme environments in other places another planet.

CAMERON: Men, you are up to speed on this. At these extreme depths, if you give them an energy source, they'll adapt to the intense pressure. They can live without sunlight. They look completely differently than we look. So this is a glimpse to what alien life forms line like really be like.

CARROLL: Alien likes life forms here at home, more on that later.

CAMERON: Close it up.

CARROLL: Cameron will draw on all his experience for the challenger deep dive.

CAMERON: And there it is.

CARROLL: And though his movie fans may not know it, he has plenty of it. More than 30 dives to the "Titanic." In his 2005 documentary, "aliens of the deep" a two-mile dive down to volcanic scenes on the sea floor. There was the expedition to the German battleship Bismarck.

And back in 2010, Cameron topped to his experienced to help solve a crisis at sea.

CAMERON: I love the ocean. As I do, as I got to be touched. You know, heart broken by what's happening down there.

CARROLL: He was called on to make recommendations to the EPA on capping the gulf oil spill.

CAMERON: He said our goals are so far beyond and then we really thought about it.

CARROLL: Cameron says it's taken 15 years of experience to build credibility with the scientific community.

CAMERON: I always have no problem attracting interest of the science community to participate in these projects. Because they get publishable science out of my projects. This isn't like some rich guy building a balloon to fly around the world.

CARROLL: Cameron, like any experienced explorer, knows risks come with the territory, and he's well aware of the dangers of those who have gone before him faced.

In 1960, Jacque Picard, Swiss oceanographer and Don Walsh, a U.S. Navy lieutenant did reach challenger deep as documented by National Geographic. But on the way down, the Plexiglas pane in their submersible cracked.

With pressure at 16,000 pounds per square inch, they feared their end was near. But they continued their descent. Their submersible landed but hard on the sea floor, stirring up silt that blocked the view.

CAMERON: Soon, they were kind of stuck and they were afraid that they weren't going to be able to get out of the vehicle once they got back to the surface.

CARROLL: The crew of the 3S spent 20 minutes on the sea floor. Cameron plans to spend at least six hours.

CAMERON: So you want to see how we're going to do it?

CARROLL: Yes, let's do it.

CAMERON: You want to see the vehicle?

CARROLL: Yes, let's see it.

CAMERON: The sub actually becomes off the deck in this position, goes out, sits in the water, rotates like that and then goes like a shot toward the bottom. Gets down quick, work long on the bottom and comes up quick.

CARROLL: Cameron calls his submersible deep sea challenger. It took a team of scientists and the national geographic society more than seven years to build a vehicle able to withstand the trench's extreme pressure.

CAMERON: I think we were most surprised, we thought well, there are a lot of theories here. A lot of hypothesis. Maybe this is going to be a pig on the bottom, you know what I mean? But it's not. It dances. It dances beautifully. And you'll see it all operate.


CAMERON: We're going to see that it loaded on and get ready for that - to dive. We are going to 26,000 feet. We, meaning me and the sub, tomorrow afternoon. You're not coming. It's a one seater.

CARROLL: Up next, Cameron takes us inside Deep Sea Challenger as he heads out on a crucial test dive.

CAMERON: It's really getting the sub in and out of the water is the part that everyone is always the most afraid of.

CARROLL: It's the dive that will test his years of experience.




CARROLL: Director James Cameron is on a mission to dive to the deepest point on the planet. Challenger deep. Seven miles straight down into the Mariana trench.

Cameron and a team of scientists specializing in deep dives, along with national geographic, have built an advanced submersible called Deep Sea Challenger to get him there.

I want to tell you a little bit more about Deep Sea Challenger as it's dock and resting and being worked on here. It weighs 12 tons. And even though it's on its side, it's actually 24 feet high. It's powered by these especially created lithium batteries and its body is made of synthetic foam that was developed by Cameron and his team of scientist. And the color that you see there, Cameron calls that Kawasaki green.

CAMERON: So, if you want to jump off first.


CAMERON: Find the leather and step over on to this platform.

CARROLL: There is a steel sphere inside where Cameron will pilot the sub.

CAMERON: So this is my window right here.

CARROLL: And it's designed to withstand the depth's intense pressure and keep Cameron alive.

CAMERON: I basically have a fully redundant, independent life support system. I can live on either side for about 25 hours or combined 50 hours, which is pretty darn good. It is a lot longer than I would want to be in this little tiny tank.

CARROLL: But its instrument test out shows how Deep Sea Challenger will move on the ocean floor, take images.

CAMERON: There's a camera move on that side. It's got a camera that I can move way out from the sub.

CARROLL: How do you get a camera at that depth to operate? I mean, I don't know if (INAUDIBLE)

CAMERON: These two right here. These are - there is still a bit finicky. There is still kind of like nervous nerve brain design all to board sports, designed the titanium housing sport and design all that.

CARROLL: Do you have a name for them?

CAMERON: We call them the mini cams. Real clever, huh?

CARROLL: Do you strap yourself in when you go down?

CAMERON: No. It's not like you're in a jet where you're getting slammed around. I'm pretty used to climbing around in this thing.

CARROLL: But it is like a jet and that Deep Sea Challenger's cockpit is very small.

CAMERON: Once we get all the gear inside, we have to figure out how to get ourselves in the diving position. I'm going to show you what it takes to get into the actual diving position.


CAMERON: So, it's a whole process you have to go through. That's it. Now I'm home.

CARROLL: That is your position that you have to maintain?


CARROLL: For several hours?

CAMERON: Yes. I'm pretty much like this for about ten hours. CARROLL: It's no wonder Cameron has to keep that position. The sphere's internal diameter, just 43 inches. Every inch accounted for.

CAMERON: More oxygen back here. These are life support controls here and here.

CARROLL: The tour ends so Cameron can rest and prepare for a crucial test dive to 26,000 deep, about five miles down.

Now meet some of the team who will help him get there.

DAVID WOTHERSPOON, PROJECT MANAGER: That's phenomenal pressure. But we have a good team of people.


CARROLL: Also on board, Mike and Andrew, two Landers, unmanned vehicles that get pictures and collect samples. They'll join Cameron on the dive. They're named in memory of pre-eminent underwater photographer Mike deGruy and Australian film maker Andrew White. Both were killed when their helicopter crashed during a test dive in Australia.

ERIKA MONTAGUE, OCEAN TECHNOLOGIST: Mike deGruy, the person who this is named after, told me when he was bringing on the project, Erica, you've never seen a submersible like this in your life.

I'm very excited and now we'll be able to film 3D in the deep sea, hopefully all the way down to the Mariana Trench. And we'll be able to see those animals coming right at us.

CARROLL: The team didn't have to wait long to see what the deep sea had to offer.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's amazing.

CARROLL: From 26,000 feet down, Mike hauled in a hand full of large shrimp like arthropods with alabaster exteriors and yellow eyes. It could be an entirely new species.

Cameron Look what he does here. He says oh, hey, check you out.

CARROLL: These images were shot by the Landers. But Cameron gets behind the lens, as well.

CAMERON: Very intense. Sure. I want to get the shot.

CARROLL: And given what he's seen so far --

CAMERON: He just comes by with his little bristles swarming. And tentacles. Some worms don't normally have tentacles. So, I still try and check down what he is. CARROLL: Expectations for the challenger deep dive are high. The crew has been pulling long hours for weeks. Fatigue, tough to avoid.

Valuable commodity here getting some sleep.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They will run a subscription plan. We miss any - it's mailed to us later.

CARROLL: The crew soldiers through it all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ready to dock. That was the last of the preflight checks.

CARROLL: But the test dive would have to wait.

There were some issues with the Landers, sort of delayed things going on out here with the dive. So, tell me what's happening?

ROBBIE SCID, LANDER ASSOCIATES: We just had trouble communicating with it basically like an underwater telephone. It sends a signal; wish he get one back but (INAUDIBLE).

CARROLL: Minutes turn to hours. Night into day.

LARRY HERBST, IMAGING SPECIALIST: I worry about these kind of like the way you would a teenager, when they learn to drive. Most of the time there's nothing to worry about. And in this case, I don't think there's anything to worry about. But in the back of your mind, you keep thinking, what is that one time in a million.

CARROLL: The crew fixed the Lander's communication system. The other problem, someone simply forgot to turn on the 3D camera.

CAMERON: OK. Let's get going.

CARROLL: Few were looking forward to the morning briefing.

CAMERON: The highest priority today is to dive a submersible. We're going to get the Landers back on board. Erica, you guys just jump out right now and get on that.

CARROLL: The meeting ends without a public reprimand.

CAMERON: An these people are self-motivating to a point where they know if they've screwed up and in this case it was just because of fatigue. You know, there's nothing I can say to them that's going to make them feel any worse or be any better the next time that the way they already feel. And that's that thing that takes a while to learn. Inside, I might be like, what the --


CARROLL: Up next, Cameron's test dive finally gets under way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The challenger is requesting permission to ascend.

CARROLL: But he runs into a crisis, 20,000 feet down.




CARROLL: A dive to the deepest place on earth. You know, the seven miles down to challenger deep in the Mariana Trench does not come without risks.

CAMERON: Now, my mom doesn't like it. Every time she sees me, honey, I don't want you to do this dive.

CARROLL: Or rewards. In a series of test dives, each one deeper than the last, Director James Cameron has seen both.

CAMERON: You know, sometimes the crew gets disheartened when things fail or they don't perform well, then I supposed to say, guys, this is the test phase. Almost everything we build ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cameron's technologically advanced submersible, years in the making, is ready. And he prepares a crucial test dive.

CAMERON: First, let's see where we are with everything.

CARROLL: Right now we're looking at a daily briefing that's taking place this morning. This one is especially critical, because this is the day that Cameron will take a dive down to 26,000 feet. This will be the deepest test five that he's done before the deep dive. Right now he's just trying to make sure that all systems are in place.

CAMERON: All right, let's get to it.

CARROLL: Once the briefing ends, the crew readies the sub. Cameron anticipates what lies below.

CAMERON: So, imagine landing a helicopter with the canopy painted black in the mountains at night, just on instruments. So you've got to come down quite slowly.

CARROLL: Prelaunch preps are under way. A meticulous process. Covering a 70-point checklist. Cameron's project manager, David Wotherspoon.

WOTHERSPOON: We all had a hand in building this submersible, so we all feel responsible for this sub engine.

CARROLL: Talking to Cameron there is John Garvin, another project manager.

The sub is fully pulled out, airbags attached to keep it in position once in the water.

What you are seeing is, the hatch has been lowered and Cameron is literally going to be bolted into the deep sea challenger before he makes his descent.

Garvin and diver, Simon Cristidis narrates the launch.

JOHN GARVIN, PROJECT MANAGER: The crane attaches to the lifting point in the middle of the sub. And there are number of tag lines on the very high tension in addition to the crane to stop the sub from moving and swinging. When you see the sub first hit the water, the divers will come in and their first job is to uncouple the crane.

SIMON CRISTIDIS, DIVER: You have to make sure the sub doesn't rotate around quickly. It's really about not getting injured. That's the overall thing as sight as you possibly can veil.

CARROLL: When the last airbag is removed, Cameron and Deep Sea Challenger begin the descent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Deep sea challenger, do you copy?

CARROLL: Inside the control room, there's a problem. Communication malfunction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you copy us?

CAMERON: Copy you loud and clear.

CARROLL: Cameron descends for an hour. Then there's another malfunction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Deep sea challenger advises that he has thruster failure, over.

CARROLL: Cameron continues on. Then at about 24,000 feet, comes the call no one expects.

CAMERON: Deep sea challenger is requesting permission to ascend, over.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please proceed.

CARROLL: Cameron aborts the dive. The team readies for him to resurface.

Divers have attached airbags on to the Deep Sea Challenger to try to ease it into the correct position. Then that crane that you see over there will get a hold of it and lift it back on board.

Cameron made it to 23,813 feet, a record for a solo manned dive. That is the good news.

CAMERON: Never saw the bottom. Not about five meters (INAUDIBLE) that prevented me from going on.

CARROLL: What would you say the next step now? I mean, where do you take from this? A lot of this is trial and error.

CAMERON: Well, I think we've got a sound ship. I don't think we should do anything differently. What we have to do is go to the tape and see exactly, what the natures of failures are. These guys were affecting now but I don't.

CARROLL: It will be a night of rest. And for Cameron, also reflection on himself and his ultimate goal, challenger deep.

CAMERON: Am I an explorer who does films on the side or a film maker who does exploration on the side? To me the rubber meets the road is where it's not scripted. You know, the ocean doesn't read the script. It doesn't show up and do its lines. You know, you have to adapt and adjust and be prepared and be prepared to see something new and unknown and react to that.


CARROLL: Some final notes, Cameron and his team tried again and reached 26,791 feet or a little more than 8,000 meters. A new record for a Solo man dive.

Cameron along with national geographic is shooting the entire expedition. Eventually, they'll release a 3D film and documentary.

Now that test dives are done, Cameron and his team can focus on challenger deep. That dive, weather permits, is expected to be attempted within a week.

Thank you for joining us. I'm Jason Carroll.