Science & Tech

Inside Titanic director James Cameron's obsession with the deep ocean

Inside Titanic director James Cameron's obsession with the deep ocean
Titanic director James Cameron felt 'in his bones' tourist submersible was lost

Public interest in the deep ocean went into a frenzy this week as the search for the doomed Titan submarine played out – and Oscar-winning film director James Cameron has made no secret of the fact that he is obsessed with the subject.

Since it emerged on 22 June that the Titan was destroyed in what US authorities called a “catastrophic implosion”, Cameron has been telling media outlets that he knew what the five-man crew’s fate was since Monday, four days earlier.

After calling up his “contacts in the deep submersible community” Cameron said he had already ascertained that the vessel had been destroyed in an implosion. “I felt in my bones what had happened.”

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But why does Cameron know so much about the ocean depths?

Titanic, Avatar and The Abyss

First of all, Cameron has made a lot of films about the bottom of the sea. His 1997 film, Titanic, won 11 Oscars and was the first movie to earn more than $1bn worldwide, and Cameron went deep on his research – literally.

The filmmaker has visited the real-life wreck of the Titanic 33 times, making his first trip in 1995 to shoot footage for the film. One of those dives even involved getting trapped with the wreck for 16 hours, with currents of water holding the director’s submarine at the bottom of the ocean.

He has even written a book about his experiences, Exploring The Deep, which includes details of his dive journey, photos and maps from his own explorations of the wreck. He told ABC News: “I actually calculated [that] I've spent more time on the ship than the captain did back in the day.”

Long before Titanic, Cameron directed The Abyss in 1989. The premise of the film is that an American submarine sinks in the Caribbean – sound familiar? That prompts a search and recovery team to race against Soviet vessels to recover the boat.

Meanwhile, the last movie in Cameron’s famous Avatar franchise, The Way of Water, is set on the aquatic ecosystems of a world 25 trillion miles from Earth.

"Some people think of me as a Hollywood guy … (but) I make 'Avatar' to make money to do explorations," Cameron told The Telegraph.

Going even deeper

In 2012, Cameron went a step further, plunging nearly 11km down to the deepest place in the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. The filmmaker made the solo descent in a submarine called the Deepsea Challenger, and it took more than two hours to reach the bottom.

The submarine he used was years in the making, designed by Cameron himself with a team of engineers. The trip was only the second manned expedition to the Mariana Trench. The first was in 1960, when US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard descended to the ocean floor.

“It was absolutely the most remote, isolated place on the planet,” Cameron said in a later interview. “I really feel like in one day I've been to another planet and come back.”

He was even underwater when 9/11 happened

His obsession with the ocean goes back to age 17, he told the New York Times, when he learned to scuba dive, when he said he felt like he had discovered the "keys to another world”.

And between making Titanic in 1997 and Avatar in 2009 Cameron didn’t make a feature film. But he did make documentaries about sea exploration.

One of those, 2003’s Ghosts of the Abyss, showed Cameron's travels to the Titanic, while the other, 2005’s Aliens of the Deep, saw Cameron team up with NASA scientists to explore the sea creatures of mid-ocean ridges.

Cameron’s fascination even meant he was inside a submersible vessel exploring the Titanic on 11 September 2001, when terrorists flew two passenger jets into the World Trade Centre. It was only after the now-68-year-old director and his crew finished their expedition and returned to the main ship that Cameron learned what had happened.

“What is this thing that’s going on?” Cameron asked the late actor Bill Paxton, who played treasure hunter Brock Lovett in the film.

“The worst terrorist attack in history, Jim,” Paxton said.

Cameron realised he “was presumably the last man in the Western Hemisphere to learn about what had happened,” he told Spiegel in 2012.

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