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March 25, 2012 

James Cameron's Deep Sea Challenge: a scientific milestone or rich guy's junket?

Dr. Al Dove
Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium

This post is co-authored by Al Dove and Craig McClain via Deep Sea News 

In the 1989 James Cameron sci-fi movie The Abyss, there’s a scene when Ed Harris’ character dons a special environmental suit that allows him to breathe an oxygen-laden liquid.  Thus protected from the risks of crushing deep-sea pressures (no air = no voids to collapse), he drops from a deep submerged research facility into the inky depths of an abyssal canyon to find and disarm a lost weapon.  During the descent, robbed of speech by the liquid he’s breathing, he’s forced to communicate with his colleagues on the base using text messages tapped out on a forearm console.  What ensues is one of the more tense scenes in sci-fi history as Harris suffers first the effects of pressure, then tackles the errant weapon, and eventually stumbles upon a remarkable submarine alien race in the movie’s climax, all communicated piecemeal to his colleagues on the base in choppy text speech.  Rarely have little green letters appearing on black screen carried so much drama.  Have some new friends down here. Guess they’ve been here awhile…

The whole scene has an eerily prophetic feel in light of exciting news that James Cameron has, himself, made a historic descent in a new submersible beyond the abyssal depths, to the hadal reaches of the deepest part of the world’s oceans: the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, south of Guam in the west Pacific.  This event marks the first occasion that a manned vehicle has been to Challenger Deep since the first and only time it ever happened when, in 1960, Don Wash and Jacques Piccard descended in the bathyscaphe Trieste.  That storied 1960 mission occurred during the heyday of modern US exploration when, fueled by the intense international competition and brinksmanship of the Cold War, Americans could and did tackle any challenge: space, speed, altitude and depth.  In the wake of the Trieste effort, the submersible Alvin was built 4 years later and became the flagship deep sea vehicle for the US and arguably the world, for the next 40 years, even though it has never had the capability of returning to Challenger Deep.

Times change.  The motivations for exploration are different these days and we think it’s fair to say diminished somewhat.  Space folks are experiencing much the same effect, most recently epitomized by the cancellation of the space shuttle project without a viable replacement vehicle for near-earth operations.  Yes, marine science, engineering technology and the motivation for exploratory missions have all changed in the interceding 52 years since Trieste and Deep Challenger.  One constant is that Alvin is still with us; indeed, Alvin is the only human occupied vehicle (HOV) left for deep-sea research in the US.  Think about that for a second: the only vessel that can take humans to the deep sea in America is 48 years old.  The same age as this:

Of course we’re being hyperbolic; Alvin is no way a rusted hooptie.  It has been completely renovated and refitted several times and is still a very advanced research tool.  Our point is more that the original design is pretty long in the tooth and you have to wonder if starting from scratch using current design principles we might be able to devise a better tool.  The same has of course been said many times for the space shuttle.

Not that deep sea research has waned for lack of manned research tools; far from it.  Advances in remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology have seen a veritable explosion of deep sea research and some remarkable discoveries that are still occurring at a rapid rate today.  The discoveries of these remote controlled robot explorers have included the hydrothermal vent communities, the exploration of mid ocean ridges, the census of marine life and discovery of deep reefs, brine pools, cold seeps and other extraordinary habitats that prove that the deep sea is anything but a cold lifeless desert.  HOV’s have been used for some of these missions too, but ROV’s certainly seem to be the tool of choice these days.  Why is that? The answer is basically pragmatism.  There are incredible challenges to sending people into the abyssal depths and beyond.  The pressures can exceed a thousand atmospheres, which has been described as equivalent to inverting the Eifel Tower and resting its point on your big toe.  That kind of pressure means that a titanium sphere is about the only object that can maintain a 1 atmosphere internal environment.  By contrast, no passenger means no need for air spaces at all, so ROV’s can be built more cheaply and easily, and without the need for complex life support systems that can ensure the safety of the vehicles occupant(s).  An ROV can allow for longer bottom times not constrained by tired pilots or scientists with small bladders.  ROV’s allow for a whole array of scientists to participate in the dive, all sitting in the same control center in the mother ship watching HD monitors.  Opposed to the 1-2 that can fit into a submersible.  The rise of the ROV is therefore rational, sensible, effective and … boring.

Boring? BORING??  Yes, boring.  We say that because we think it’s largely those in the business of researching the deep sea who can look past the removal of the human element and derive deep satisfaction from ROV operations, by focusing instead on the substantive returns on the topic of their research.  Often times they are able to do this out of the luxury of having at least tasted the 1st hand HOV experience themselves.  They know what it looks like out the porthole, so can better relate to what shows on the video feed coming back from an ROV.  Other times it’s a purely rationalist thing: scientists know that they’re going to get more bang for their research buck from an ROV, so that’s where they invest their efforts, research funds and emotional energy.

It’s a reasonable question to ask then: What is the value of the HOV in modern deep sea research? We have to give a slightly disappointing answer here, which is that we don’t really know.  If one applies that purely pragmatic approach, then ROV’s will probably win every time.  That’s a pity, because to do so is to overlook the inspirational and aspirational elements of the HOV approach.  One does not have to have been to a hydrothermal vent in Alvin to appreciate HOV’s anymore than one has to have been to the moon on Apollo 11 to appreciate Armstrong and Aldrin.  Our position is this: the idea of humans traveling to extreme environments, challenging and overcoming technical and engineering obstacles to do things not yet done, that’s the stuff that’s going to inspire kids to a career in science, not an economically rationalist analysis of research ROI that favors a robotic approach.

As we sat on our respective couches tonight hanging on to every tweet from Cameron and crew (‘cos hell knows, the mainstream media didn’t cover it much, but that’s another post for another day), we felt that we were participants.  When Cameron launched, we launched with him.  As he descended, we waited patiently for each update on his depth and progress (thanks @PaulGAllen!).  When, near the end, 30 minutes went by without any word, we were filled with anxiety and consternation.  And finally, when that silence broke with the statement that Cameron had reached the bottom, we sighed with relief and cheered for his success!  We celebrated because we understand that this represents a profound moment in our history.  From thousands of kilometers away, we participated.  We are reminded of our friends cheering for teams in the current NCAA tournament.  Why not just let robot play?  Why do we need humans?  Because human involvement allows us all to participate.
Photo by (c)Mark Thiessen/National Geographic. Deep Sea Challenge

All of which brings us back to James Cameron (@jimcameron).  Here we have a wealthy individual who has had phenomenal success in another sphere of human endeavor and has then chosen to spend some of his wealth to do something done only once before, and do it a new way for the first time in half a century.  It’s not like he just decided to do this yesterday; Cameron has been doing deep sea dives for years and has over 70 under his belt, which is more than many scientists.  He is often quoted as saying that he makes blockbuster movies to support his real passion for deep-sea exploration.  How do we get aboard that gravy train?! You need only look at the aforementioned scene from The Abyss, or perhaps at the rainforest flora of Avatar’s megadiverse planet of Pandora (all of which look remarkably like benthic invertebrates of various flavors), to see that the ocean and the life within it have influenced him deeply.

We are not afraid to say that we are inspired by his commitment and his willingness to put his money and effort where his mouth is, by pushing the envelope of human exploration.  And yes, even we, with our charismatic marine biology research, aspire to his achievements, too: We would love to be in that little sphere and to peer out that fist-sized porthole and see things never seen by anyone before.

The question that remains unanswered is: “Is it science”?  We would argue emphatically YES.  Cameron’s team did equip their sub with a manipulator arm and suction sampler and they plan to return with specimens from the Challenger Deep, which Trieste could not, although a few ROV’s have done so in the interceding period.  Of course, we hope that this will only be the first of many dives, that Alvin has a new stable mate and the world has a new full-depth-capable research submersible.   The team also had many technological challenges to overcome in the construction of the Deep Challenger submersible, so it’s science from an engineering perspective too.  Doubtless they will gather abundant amounts of video data that can be used to answer scientific questions, just as it can be used to make compelling National Geographic shows.  And the whole endeavor is exploratory in nature, and ocean exploration is and always has been the realm of science.  Observation is, after all, the first step of the scientific method!

Why, then, might some people dismiss the Deep Challenger mission as a rich guy’s boondoggle?   It’s partly the person doing it.   Cameron is not a scientist by training and will likely not turn the results of this expedition into, say, peer-reviewed papers, so perhaps it’s considered pseudo-scientific, but we think this is a dour view that does little justice to the motivations of Deep Challenger and the societal values of this and all explorations.  Even if you put aside any and all pretense to science in this mission (which would be unfair), then simply by virtue of the attention that Cameron’s success will bring to deep-sea research, the mission will have been an unmitigated success.  Indeed, one only need look at the media excitement over the perceived “race to the bottom” (in which Cameron, Richard Branson and Sylvia Earle were supposedly competing to be the first back to Challenger Deep) to see the power of HOV exploration to raise the profile of deep sea research.  In this “race to the bottom” story, however manufactured, we see the media reaching for the kind of compelling conflict that motivated the space race in the 60’s, drama that ultimately shaped the nation’s perceptions of science and engineering for two generations.  Doesn’t that tell you something about the extraordinary potential value of exploratory science?

There’s a great opportunity offset here, too: every column inch spent talking about the wonders and challenges of deep sea exploration is one less inch spent on the latest overpaid celebrity without any real accomplishments or why this pair of pants is must-get for 2012.  Plug in a new name or a new designer and it is the same regurgitated news from last year.  By contrast, every deep dive reveals something new and exciting in the oceans.  Why then is the entire annual ocean exploration budget just a fraction of our national science budget (which is in turn an undersized slice of the federal budget)?  And why has NOAA just zeroed out the budget for the National Undersea Research Program?  Cameron has described this development as “piss-poor” and we definitely agree.

For all these reasons we think it’s time for marine biologists to proudly step into the spotlight offered by the fantastic achievements of the Deep Challenger team.  We need to seize this opportunity to show the public that there is still so much yet to learn in the deep, and that exploration, far from being remote and esoteric, is possible and still inspiring, right here, right now, on this planet.  We should admire the adventurous spirit of James Cameron and to embrace him as a new and legitimate celebrity advocate with tremendous capacity to advance the cause of the marine sciences.  Who knows, by so doing, we might well be able to secure a better funding future for other deep sea research programs and thereby advance science, however you want to define it.  In short, when Cameron succeeds, we all succeed.

Photo by (c)Charlie Arneson/National Geographic. Deep Sea Challenge

Marine biologist Dr. Alistair Dove is the Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium as well as a contributor for the blog Deep Sea News. Learn more about Dr. Dove here.