Research Highlight: Scripps Delivers Science to James Cameron's Historic Dive into the Abyss


Doug Bartlett was there to explore an alien world, possibly filled with unknown marine life. Kevin Hardy was there to fulfill a lifelong dream of developing instruments he designed to reach the world’s deepest point. After years of meticulous preparations they waited. Finally, they were part of a team that made history.

Launched in a submarine roughly 200 miles southwest of Guam, filmmaker James Cameron touched the depths of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the world, at 2:52 p.m. (PDT) on March 25, marking humanity’s first return to the storied location in more than 50 years.

Inside Deepsea Challenger, his specially designed submersible, Cameron descended 35,756 feet (6.77 miles) in two hours and 36 minutes to become the first solo diver in history to reach the Pacific Ocean’s “Challenger Deep.”

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has been the Deepsea Challenge’s primary science collaborator, culminating nearly a decade of interaction with Cameron in developing new ways to explore and study the deepest parts of the oceans.

“The Deepsea Challenge expedition is highlighting in stunning and dramatic fashion the alien-like environments that exist at great depth,” said Bartlett, a Scripps marine microbiologist and chief scientist of the voyage. “Hadal (existing at depths greater than 20,000 feet) life forms are the part of the earth’s biology that are least understood.”

After leaving the team to attend the London premiere of “Titanic 3D,” Cameron intends to rejoin the expedition and continue diving in the Mariana Trench, a location where one of the planet’s massive tectonic plates is moving under, or “subducting,” another. The team hopes the upcoming dives will return with bounties of samples and extractions for Bartlett and other scientists to study.

Scripps’ history in exploring the deepest regions of the ocean go back to the 1950s and ‘60s, when Scripps research geologist Robert Fisher meticulously mapped the Mariana Trench’s deepest points. He employed innovative sounding techniques to firmly establish that Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is the deepest point in the world’s oceans. In 1952 Fisher identified Horizon Deep in the Tonga Trench as the second-deepest point in the oceans and the deepest spot in the Southern Hemisphere.

This work set the stage for Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh’s famous dive aboard the bathyscaphe Trieste in the first manned voyage to the bottom of Challenger Deep on January 23, 1960.

Also aboard the Deepsea Challenge expedition is Kevin Hardy, a Scripps engineer who has developed Deep Ocean Vehicles (DOVs) with a capability to probe the deepest portions of the ocean and retrieve new information for science and society. DOVs, also known as “landers” because they descend from the surface to land upright on the seafloor, are scheduled to be deployed in Cameron’s upcoming dives.

In collaboration with Cameron’s project, Scripps scientists will obtain seawater, sediment cores, and deep-sea animals, in many cases collected by deep-sea landers. These samples will enable scientists to identify new life forms. Scripps microbiologists will investigate the DNA of the samples to help understand how life evolves and adapts in the punishing extremes of the deep, as well as ascertain whether such microbes could be sources of novel natural products with potential biomedical value.

“The dark, high pressure, low temperature, and altered nutrient conditions of deep-sea environments have influenced the evolution and distribution of life in profound ways that we have yet to fully discern,” said Bartlett. “We now have the tools and technology, manned and unmanned, for in-depth studies of deep life for the benefit of basic and applied science.”

DOVs with sensors are equipped to collect pressure, temperature, salinity, and other physical and chemical measurements. Sampling devices can be employed to physically collect water, sediment, and marine animals. They can operate as seafloor factories, filtering water for microbes, or incubating bacterial cultures. DOVs also act as valuable testing platforms to qualify new technologies and investigate new scientific questions, carrying assorted payloads—including cameras and data loggers—quickly, inexpensively, and reliably to any place within the ocean’s great volume.

A version of a DOV lander is now on display in a new exhibit, “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,” at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Another is scheduled for display in the Monaco Pavilion at the upcoming Expo 2012 Yeosu Korea international exposition.

The Deepsea Challenge is a joint scientific expedition by Cameron, National Geographic, and Rolex.

Related videos:

In the 1950s and ‘60s, when Scripps research geologist Robert Fisher meticulously mapped the Mariana Trench’s deepest points.

Scripps engeineer Kevin Hardy has developed Deep Ocean Vehicles (DOVs) with a capability to probe the deepest portions of the ocean and retrieve new information for science and society.

Related Video: Voyage to the Mariana Trench

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