Tuesday, March 27, 2012


James Cameron - yes, that James Cameron - did something unprecedented yesterday: descended alone to the deepest point on earth. Like Richard Branson, he can afford to indulge his passions and where Branson has gone skyward, Cameron has spent the last 7 years developing a submersible called the Deepsea Challenger which can be used to explore the Challenger Deep, located within the Mariana Trench* roughly 200 mi (322km) southwest of Guam and nearly 7 mi (11km) beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The s0-called "vertical torpedo" took Cameron down in 2 1/2 hours and he describes what he saw at the very bottom of the sea: "I landed on a very soft, almost gelatinous flat plain. Once I got my bearings, I drove across it for quite a distance...and finally worked my way up the slope. The only free swimmers I saw were small amphipods. When I was in the New Britain Trench a couple weeks ago, the bottom was covered in the tracks of small animals, which gave it an eggshell appearance. But when I came to Challenger Deep, the bottom was completely featureless. The impression to me was it's very lunar, very isolated. I felt as if, in the space of one day, I'd gone to another planet and come back." The sub brought him back up in a mere 70 minutes after a problem with the hydraulics cut his planned 6-hour mission short by half. Before the fluid coated the windshield, Cameron had partially retrieved a core sample of the sediment and captured some video (National Geographicscreen grab below, see clip here in which he mentions bioluminescense), but had not been able to take full advantage of the bells and whistles on board, including temperature, salinity, and pressure gauges; a sediment sampler; a robotic claw; and multiple 3D cameras. "...I was unable to use the manipulator arm. It's a prototype vehicle, so it's gonna take time to iron out the bugs. The important thing is that we have a vehicle that's a robust platform—it gets us there safely, the lights work, the cameras work, and hopefully next time the hydraulics will work. I see this as the beginning...of opening up this frontier to science and really understanding these deep places....I call this dive just the first phase. We prove that the vehicle works, and hopefully bring some real science back." Biological oceanographer Lisa Levin considers Cameron to be doing for the trenches what Jacques Cousteau did for the ocean many decades ago. The Daily Beast goes even further, writing that "...it might just rank alongside Neil Armstrong’s 'one small step.'”

NOTE: Bioluminescence [bahy-oh-loo-muh-nes'-uhns] The emission of light by living organisms, such as fireflies, glowworms, and certain fish, jellyfish, plankton, fungi, and bacteria. It occurs when a pigment (usually luciferin) is oxidized without giving off heat. Its function, other than its involvement in animal communication, is not yet understood. Origin: 1915–20; bio- + luminescence]. bi·o·lu·mi·nes·cent, adjective. An example appears above, in which clusters and filaments of glowing phytoplankton wash ashore on the Lakshadweep Islands off India.
*When I mentioned to my Mom that today's post involved the Mariana Trench, she thought it was either a new designer garment or a trendy new gardening technique!

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