Remember When James Cameron Went to the Bottom of the Ocean?

A titanic achievement

Remember When

Before launching themselves into the atmosphere on their private spaceships, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson both waxed poetic about their childhood dreams of exploring the final frontier. This is a common desire among children who look to the stars and wonder what’s out there; it’s basically a cliché for a kid to say that they want to be an astronaut when they grow up. It’s an almost comically masculine desire, to build and put yourself in a giant phallus that blasts itself into the unknown. But it’s time we give it up for the true freaks.

Only a true freak would gaze into the ocean and wonder if he could make it to the bottom, the metaphorical womb from whence we all came. Only a true freak would pour unknown millions of dollars into creating a deep-diving submersible able to reach the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the sea. Only a true freak would make Avatar. That freak is, of course, James Cameron.

On March 26, 2012, Cameron piloted only the second-manned dive to the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Mariana Trench, and the one made by a lone man. Prior to that, Challenger Deep had only been reached by Jacques Picard and Don Walsh in 1960, making Cameron the person to ever touch down 35,787 feet below the surface.

Cameron executive produced a documentary about his expedition, called Deepsea Challenge 3D (Deepsea Challenge is the name of his submersible). It is the portrait of an absolute madman. Less than ten minutes into its runtime, John Garvin, a life-support supervisor on the crew, tells the camera, “When you dive to the bottom of the ocean you have to face the fact that there are hundreds of horrible ways to die.”

He then goes on to explain several of those ways. The force of any water entering the submersible would be strong enough to cut a man in half. If you got carbon dioxide poisoning, your own exhalation would force you to eventually pass out and die in a coffin that you made yourself. There could also be a fire, which is described as “Jim’s personal nightmare.” Why that specifically is his nightmare as opposed to the other myriad ways to die is not made clear, but we do see him run a fire drill and give himself a 50 percent chance of survival based on his reaction time.

Despite knowing all of this, Cameron, a self-described “curious monkey,” was still determined to make the voyage in the name of exploration. Did two of his crew members and dear friends die in a helicopter crash in the lead up to the dive? Yes. But Cameron said that he believed that “the way to give the situation meaning was not to walk away and have it have been for nothing.”

Considering that the submersible cost $10 million and the actual cost of the expedition, according to Deep Sea News, was more than $5 million, you could be forgiven for thinking Cameron had other reasons for continuing on in his mission.

Cynicism to rich mens’ flights of fancy aside, I do respect Cameron’s dogged determination to get to the bottom of the ocean. So many rich men do outlandish things like buy Willie Nelson’s braids and wear Off-White just for fun, or to flaunt the fact that they can, but Cameron’s insanity seems to come from a true passion for exploration rather than a boner for going somewhere a Dutch teenager definitely jacked off. There is no jacking off at the bottom of the world.

There’s a part in Deepsea Challenge 3D where you see a couple crucial things go wrong right before the Challenger Deep makes its ultimate journey down into the trench. Due to weather, they’re forced to do the expedition in the dark of night in rough water, which they had never trained for. A crucial safety system, the soft ballast, deploys before the vessel is underwater. They’re supposed to take everything out of the water and put it back so that in case of emergency you can use the soft ballast to ascend back to the surface, but Cameron instructs them to just cut it off. It’s harrowing.

Cameron’s wife, Suzy Amis Cameron (AKA Rose’s hot granddaughter from Titanic), says to the camera on the verge of tears, “There’s of course an element of fear in it, because it’s a risk. But if you don’t go out and do something in life, nothing happens.”

That’s a very sunny attitude toward the idea that your husband and the father of your children might be hours away from dying at the bottom of the ocean. But I think what it is really is the knowledge that there is no stopping Cameron.

The man does exactly what he wants, when he wants to do it. He wanted to be the first person in over 50 years to reach the bottom of the Challenger Deep, so that’s what he did. And at the bottom of the ocean, cramped into a cabin so small he couldn’t extend his arms, Cameron found a “flat and featureless” expanse and experienced the sense that he’d dived “deeper than the limits of life itself.” A man less dedicated to the pursuit of science might be dismayed by the emptiness found at the bottom of the ocean, but if we know one thing it’s that Cameron is dedicated to the pursuit of science. He was overjoyed to be collecting sediment samples and looking out of the window to “bare witness to the things that have never been seen.” Real nerd shit, but that’s how you know it’s real.

As some of you might know, Cameron did not die (Avatar 2 coming to a theater near you on December 16, 2022) and in fact did everything he set out to do. Not only did the Deepsea Challenge discover 68 new species, it captured high-definition footage from a part of the world no human was ever supposed to see.

At the end of Deepsea Challenge 3D, Cameron narrates, “I think every explorer has the same thing inside. They know that the risk is worth it because they’re widening the pool of knowledge.” Not to be entirely cringe, but it’s a moving sentiment.

Idiot billionaires would love to cast themselves as “explorers” for making their way to space, if you consider the top of the atmosphere to be space. If anyone truly deserves the title of Wealthy Gentleman Explorer for the Good of Humankind, it’s Cameron. Like all the great explorers, he’s a true kook who refused to let danger, death, and the mysteries that lie at the bottom of the ocean stop him from achieving his dream. In fact, all those things made him want to venture into the unknown even more.

Cameron has since donated his submersible to the non-profit Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and his exploring days have been put on the back burner. But I hope that he continues on. He’s only 67 years old, and based on everything I’ve learned about him, he will not let the earthly constraints of age stop him from exploring the places we have long believed to be unexplorable. You will all laugh when he says he wants to go on a manned trip to the the center of a volcano, but I will be here, rubbing my little paws together and cheering him on.

“Remember When?” is a series in which we remember things long forgotten. Previously: Remember When 9/11 Inspired Paul Bettany to Propose to Jennifer Connelley?