Hollywood legend James Cameron tells Stewart Campbell about his deep desire to discover more about life at the bottom of the ocean
There have been far greater tragedies at sea. There have been shipwrecks where many more lives have been lost. There have even been much more dramatic sinkings. So what is it about the Titanic that is so irresistible to James Cameron?
“I think it’s about the fact that it sank slowly. There was time for people to face their fate and to make the difficult decisions – fathers saying goodbye to their children, husbands saying goodbye to their wives and stepping back from boats that they felt were too crowded. The point is: what was going through the minds of everyone in those last moments? Who were the heroes? Who saw their duty in self-sacrifice?”
This kind of examination is manna to one of the world’s greatest storytellers. His 1997 film about the Titanic’s sinking remains the fourth-highest-grossing movie of all time. He’s got another two in the all-time top five: 2009’s Avatar and its sequel, The Way of Water, released last year. That’s around $7.5 billion (£5.8bn) in tickets sold for those three films alone.
The Canadian film-maker first dived the Titanic in 1995 – another 32 trips to the bottom followed – and remembers it like it was yesterday.
“We were coming in tangentially to the bow and the first thing I saw was some mounded-up bottom clay. It actually looked like it had been ploughed up. I understood what it was before the pilot did. I said, ‘This is the bow. This is where it hit the bottom. Go forward very slowly and just rise up.’ And there it was, right in front of us, this wall of steel, this big, black wall.”
He likes to say he has spent more time on the wreck than its captain, but his initial inspiration for dropping 4,000 metres to the bottom of the Atlantic wasn’t the eventual movie. That’s what people get wrong.
“There’s an incorrect connection of dots that goes like this, ‘Oh Cameron’s a movie maker so he’s just going to look in the ocean to give himself ideas for his next movie.’ Are you kidding me? I’ve got lots of ideas. I don’t need to go into the ocean to get ideas. I go into the ocean to find out what’s there and to satisfy my curiosity. It’s not doing the expeditions to facilitate better movie-making, it’s doing the movie- making to facilitate the science and exploration.”
It’s a remarkable thought, that film-making is merely the day job for one of the world’s best film-makers; a means to an end, a way to pay the bills. The truth is he’s an explorer at heart: “I go out and satisfy myself artistically and I make some money with the movies and then I come back to satisfy my curiosity and actually invest my time and energy and capital into building vehicles, building lights, building subs, to really find out what’s going on.”
We’re talking a few months before the OceanGate implosion that dominated the world’s media in June. Speaking in interviews after the tragedy that saw all five passengers on the Titan submersible lose their lives on the descent to the Titanic, Cameron was candid: “I wouldn’t have gotten in that sub,” he told the BBC.
Part of Cameron’s exasperation with the OceanGate disaster was that he – and other members of the tight-knit deep-sea exploration community – saw it coming. “I was very suspect of the technology that they were using,” he said. “They didn’t get certified because they knew they wouldn’t pass.”
He’s a commentator with some authority. In 2012, he took his one-person submersible, Deepsea Challenger, 11 kilometres down to the deepest point of any ocean, Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, becoming the first human to make the dive solo. He more recently buffed his deep-sea bona fides by investing in Triton Submarines.Read More/OceanXplorer: Inside the unique expedition yacht unlike anything else afloat
Triton is a familiar name in the superyacht arena, with many of the world’s best-known explorer yachts carrying one of its subs, but the company also makes custom submersibles like Limiting Factor, which in 2019 took explorer Victor Vescovo to the bottom of Challenger Deep. Cameron made the investment alongside billionaire Ray Dalio, owner of the 87-metre expedition vessel OceanXplorer.
Dalio’s foundation, OceanX, has a mission “to explore the ocean and bring it back to the world” through media productions filmed and produced on board. Cameron and Dalio became friends “six or seven years ago” and the director played a key role in the boat’s Hollywood-worthy media set-up. “[Dalio] allowed me to bring in production designers and really just kind of fit out the interior to be very camera-friendly. We even put in a HoloLens lab where we can visually interact with acoustic and photographic data that has been captured,” he says.
OceanXplorer also carries, crucially, a pair of Triton submersibles, which will gather footage to inspire audiences globally. “We are both really passionate about the same things. I think a lot of people get into subs and expedition ships because they want to have it all and that’s fine, but I think in Ray’s case, and others like Paul Allen and Eric Schmidt, people I’ve met and who are passionate about the oceans, it’s a genuine desire to understand and want to put resources into the ocean to find answers and, of course, that’s really talking my language.”
Together, Dalio and Cameron have added significant financial punch to Triton and share a desire to make the deep ocean more accessible, safely.
“These products are very reliable, very well-proven and they’re all fully registered and certified, and the registration company goes through the engineering chapter and verse,” he says. “It’s certainly safer than owning your own airplane or your own helicopter, I would say, probably by an order of magnitude.”
Cameron has known Triton’s founder, Patrick Lahey, for many years and together they make a formidable team: the visionary and the engineer. “The two of us together are a powerhouse,” Cameron says. “Patrick and I will take an hour at the end of a meeting and say, ‘What do we want to do that’s fun, that nobody’s done?’ My goal is always to expand the scope of human knowledge and science and exploration.
“I think that there’s going to be a requirement on a lot of these proposed yacht projects for subs that not only can take in the wonder at shallow depths, but actually go and see things that the average sub explorer is not able to see. And that’s a very fun prospect. So we’re looking at how to go deeper, cheaper. We’re looking at how to do better lighting. How to do better cameras so we can record what’s seen. Better battery systems, longer life.”
Cameron can’t pinpoint the precise moment the ocean became a singular obsession, but remembers poring over National Geographics in his youth, 600 kilometres from the sea, in deep Canada. “The 1960s, when I was a kid, was a time of such amazing promise. We were going to the moon, we were diving into the ocean, everything seemed like science... science fiction stories were happening all around me, for real. And I so wanted to be a part of that.”
He learned to scuba dive as soon as he could, “and every time I saw something that amazed me, I wanted to see more”, which led him to operating ROVs and recording what he discovered. “The thing that I love about the deep ocean is that every time you dive, every single time, you see something you’ve never seen. And every once in a while you’re going to see something that nobody has ever seen.”
The first successful dive to Challenger Deep was back in 1960, when Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard broke a new depth record in their bathyscaphe Trieste, dropping 10,916 metres to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Cameron was next down, hitting a similar depth in Deepsea Challenger in 2012. The only passenger, Cameron was more distant from the rest of humanity than anyone else on earth.
“It’s just very quiet and you’re more alone than you can imagine being and then to see that sea floor starting to become visible in your lights, you realise you have done it. The entire tactical team behind me had done it. I was there. And then it’s just curiosity – like, what’s here? So you start to drive around, trying to understand the geology and look for small animals. In the course of our expedition, we discovered around the order of 100 new species. It was a very emotional experience.”
He’s got more deep wrecks to discover – the big capital ships that went down during the Battle of Midway in 1942 sit at the top of the list – but his real mission is to learn more about the biology of the deep ocean, especially around hydrothermal vents, where jets of geothermally heated water bring up nutrients to sustain a “mind-boggling” array of life, Cameron says. “You can see acres and acres and acres just teeming with mussels or shrimp or tube worms. It’s really like going to another planet.”
That’s the real deep sea frontier, “the most hostile environment for human machinery that one could imagine”, Cameron says. “Every single hydrothermal vent community that I went to around the world was different and so how many such communities are there? Who’s really gone down and looked at these places? I’d be estimating, off the top of my head, that 70 to 80 per cent of it nobody’s even looked at and yet every single place we look we find new species and different animals and varied ecosystems. So there is so much more to be discovered.”
With the Triton investment, Cameron hopes to improve the viewing experience for passengers at these depths. Instead of peering through a tiny viewport, he imagines sending subs with big spheres to the deep. “People want that unrestricted view. It’s better for the actual scientific observation and it’s certainly better if you’re just going for the awe and wonder.”
It’s all technically possible, he adds – “there is so much more new technology around”. And he hasn’t forgotten the Titanic, which remains an obsession. “We’ve spent probably way too many hours to be truly healthy on figuring out exactly what happened. The one thing we’ve never seen is the actual damage from the iceberg because it’s been overwritten so much. It’s like looking for a scrape on a Toyota that’s subsequently gone off a cliff and rolled 300ft down the cliff and then hit the ocean.”
While Titanic 2: The Return might be off the cards, there is more to come in the shape of an academic paper covering everything Cameron and his team have discovered over the last 27 years. For this endlessly curious creative, the work doesn’t stop, not that he sees it as work.
“It’s an almost a spiritual quest for me in many ways. That’s my sacred time, that’s my church down there.”