SIO in La Jolla honors filmmaker James Cameron for support of deep sea exploration


By Lynne Friedmann

Filmmaker James Cameron stepped out from behind the camera and into the spotlight last week as recipient of the 2013 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest, bestowed by Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO).

Best known as the director of such box-office blockbusters as “Titanic” and “Avatar,” Cameron is also an ocean frontier explorer who last year achieved a record- breaking solo dive to the deepest part of the ocean aboard the 24- foot long submersible


, a vessel he helped design and develop in conjunction with SIO.

“When I got into the sub and they bolted it shut, I knew every part of it,” said Cameron.

The Deepsea Challenger

is a science platform with the ability to collect rock, sediment, and biology samples. It is also equipped with lights and a suite of wide-field and macro 3-D high-definition cameras. Privately funded, the top-secret design and construction took seven years to complete and includes a companion “lander” system, an unmanned sampling device that also acts as a baited lure to attract fish and other animals, concentrat- ing them for photography and behavioral studies.

Cameron’s descent to 11 kilome- ters (6.8 miles) took him to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, in the Pacific Ocean southwest of Guam. At this depth, equipment must withstand pressures of 16,300 pounds per square inch, the equivalent weight of “two Humvees on your thumbnail,” Cameron said. In addition to being a technological and engineering feat, the dive discovered new species and new insights into the essentially unexplored Hadal zone, named after Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. And, a mysterious realm it is, encompassing an area larger than the landmass of North America.

“We stumbled into the 21st century thinking we had explored the world only to find we’d missed an entire continent,” Cameron said. Cameron’s contribution to deep sea science continues with his donation of the sophisticated lander device, along with his $25,000 Nierenberg Prize money to kickstart operations of a new “Lander Lab” based at SIO.

“As a workhorse, you can’t beat the lander,” Cameron said.

Sampling components on the 14-foot, 1,000-pound lander can be configured in numerous ways to address various branches of ocean science, including biology, chemistry, geology and physics.

“Scripps Institution of Oceanography is extremely grateful to James Cameron for his generous lander gift, which not only holds historical value, but will prove to be a key resource for many significant deep-sea expeditions in the near future,” said Catherine Constable, interim director of Scripps. SIO plans to put the lander system back to work in the deep ocean as soon as this month.

Cameron is donating the Deepsea Challenger

submersible to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. Transporting it from California affords the opportunity for a “sub tour” of the United States in which school children will be able to get up close to the vessel and speak with marine researchers. Cameron hopes this fuels interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education.

“The true value of what we did was inspirational,” said Cameron, who as a child, had his own interest in science kindled by the work of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Joking that “I make movies to pay for the dives,” Cameron was asked whether the images he captured underwater will translate to the big screen in “Avatar 2” and “Avatar 3.”

“The videos go into the scientific archives. The images go into my imagination,” he said. “And, I’ve seen things in the deep ocean that will inspire me for the rest of my life.”

Cameron appears on the cover of the June issue of National Geographic and is profiled in the story: “The New Explorers: The Risks They Take.”

The Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest was awarded to Cameron on May 31. The prize is awarded annually by SIO, is named for the late William A. Nierenberg, a renowned national science leader who served as SIO director from 1965 to 1986. Past Nierenberg Prize winners include Jane Goodall, Sir David Attenborough, J. Craig Venter and Walter Cronkite.