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Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

A Submariner’s Toast to James Cameron

Lisa T. E. Sonne last went underwater for Intelligent Travel in Palau for “Joy of Jellies.” Now she salutes the man so many are talking about, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron, in the wake of his recent milestone in the deepest reaches of the ocean — and the intrepid underwater explorers that came before him. 

This week, a man whose movies have set top box-office scored new records – at the bottom of the ocean. Sitting inside a novel “vertical torpedo” sub of his own creation, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron became the first person to travel to the deepest realms on Earth since humans first reached it more than a half century ago — the Mariana Trench. And he’s the first one to do it alone.

The submariner’s classic toast is, “May your ascents equal your descents.” And Cameron did it under extreme circumstances, reaching a depth greater than the height of Mt. Everest — a dark, alien abyss where the pressure is a thousand times greater than topside. He stayed down there for hours in a cramped position, gathering samples and recording his observations about what he encountered.

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The "vertical rocket" sub that took Cameron into the Challenger Deep. (Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)

I first heard that toast in 2003 while clinking glasses with three of the planet’s deepest men (if depth is determined by how far you’ve sunk in the ocean): Don Walsh, Fred McLaren, and Emory Kristof. All have all ventured down to thermal vents, and can tell firsthand tales of the Titanic and Bismarck wrecks.

Walsh is half of the two-person team (along with the late Jacques Piccard) that made it to the Mariana Trench first in 1960, and the last until Cameron. McLaren spent years in submarines under Arctic ice as a commander during the Cold War and still pilots submersibles. And, if you know anyone who knows anything about underwater photography, you’ve probably heard a great story about Emory Kristof.

Just a few days earlier I had answered a call from a senior producer from National Geographic Explorer, who asked: “Can you be in the North Sea by Monday?” They were sending Mir subs down to the Bismarck wreck for the first time, and wanted to profile Emory Kristof in action. “Well, sure,” I said. “I’ll drink to that!”

We all did a little drinking portside in Ireland (outside a restaurant that faithfully recreated parts of the Titanic) before boarding the Russian Keldysh, the mother ship for the MIR submersibles. It turned out we all knew “Jim.” My memories went back to working with him on his breakthrough box office success, The Terminator, two decades earlier.

I wonder how different our conversations would have been then if we could have traveled back from the future, like the Terminator and John Connor. Though there were lots of clues that Jim’s intensity and talent would catapult him to cinematic heights, there were no obvious pointers to the depths of the seas in the “T1” days.

A few years after the MIR-Bismarck expedition, McLaren called me about ”the world’s first underwater flight school” being held in the Bahamas by the sub’s inventor, Graham Hawkes, and his wife Karen. Fortunately, National Geographic’s TODAY show wanted the story, and I headed to Stuart’s Cove, where the school was just starting. I was fortunate to become, per Graham, “the first woman to fly underwater.”

My experiences that day gave me only a glimpse at what Jim’s adventure must have been like descending into “the unknown.” Although my “cockpit” was tight, I was sitting upright with legs outstretched and had 360 degrees of visibility for my two-hour voyage. I had been given quick instructions about how to operate the CO2 scrubber and monitor the pressurization levels in case anything happened to the inventor in his independent “pod” in front of me.

I was excited and nervous when they closed the hatch above my head and we started going down “the Tongue of the Sea.” I knew I couldn’t survive the water pressure if anything broke. The craft was still in the experimental stages, with only a half dozen flights. But like Jim and so many others, I had a passion for ocean exploration that began from growing up on Cousteau, and was thrilled to be heading down there despite the risks.

The pioneering deep-flight vessel was designed more like a fighter jet than the hot-air-balloon-like functionality of most submersibles. The lights weren’t even mounted yet, so our dive was limited to 300 feet, but we visited wrecks, surprised a shark, and did maneuvers Graham said hadn’t yet been done. The potential for ocean exploration in small submersibles was tantalizing. Now, with the leaps in designs that Jim has made, the possibilities for exploration in the vast uncharted waters of our biosphere are even greater.

I look forward to learning more about the samples Jim brought up from his incredible journey and hearing his human impressions of what he found there. After all, that is the unique treasure he brings back – something that could have never been collected by a robot.

When it comes to visiting the deep and deepest, I’m betting on sequels. My guess is that Jim will deliver on his now-famous line from Terminator — “I’ll be back.” And so will others.

After a 50-year gap between Walsh’s and Cameron’s visits to the deepest place in the ocean, may there now be many more opportunities to toast with the
heartfelt wish — “May your ascents equal your descents.”

Visit www.deepseachallenge.org to learn more about National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron’s historic journey to the Mariana Trench.