On March 16, The Explorers Club, an organization headquartered in New York City and dedicated to preserving humanity's instinct to explore, awarded filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron their highest honor—the Explorers Club Medal.
Honored for the cutting-edge submersible technology that took him to the bottom of the Mariana Trench—nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) below the surface of the sea—Cameron joins a list that includes astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, polar explorer Roald Amundsen, and primatologist Jane Goodall (former National Geographic explorer-in-residence).
Nearly a year after Cameron's historic dive, he spoke with National Geographic News on what drives him to explore.
Filmmakers explore fictional worlds on screen, yet you don't see many of them out exploring like you have done. Why are you different?
You have to go back to when I was a kid. I loved science fiction and exploring unknown worlds. I loved the things that were happening in the real world in terms of exploration at that time—this would have been in the '60s. The U.S. space program, the Russian space program, and all the various undersea stuff including Jacques Cousteau ...
When I became a filmmaker, my third movie, The Abyss, allowed me to bring together my love of film and diving.
From making The Abyss, I came into contact with the real deep-ocean community and I started to realize that this was something I could do.
When I started to make Titanic, we did our first expedition to film the wreck in 1995, and after that I was hooked.
Would you film The Abyss differently now that you've seen the actual abyss?
It's interesting—I made a lot of mistakes in terms of the accuracy in that film. I bent the facts to fit the story. I wouldn't do that now. I'd make it adhere more to how actual deep-sea work is done.
I was much more of a filmmaker then. I wanted to make a dive movie that looked like a space movie. I wouldn't do that now.
I've been to the real abyss, and it's much cooler than what we saw in that film. Abyssal depths only go down to about 6,000 meters [19,600 feet]. DEEPSEA CHALLENGER was designed to explore hadal depths, [which are deeper].
Why does the ocean fascinate you? Why not outer space?
They both do. I love space exploration as well. But the difference between space exploration and ocean exploration—whether it's the shallow diving on scuba or deep-diving stuff I do now—ocean exploration is something I can do.
There's not a firm line between science fiction and reality [for me]—it's a continuum. The more I can step over that line and see the alien world that we have on Earth, the more exciting it is.
Did you ever want to become a scientist or engineer when you were younger? Or has your interest in these fields come later in life?
When I was in college, I saw myself on a science track. I started out in marine biology then switched to astrophysics—but my math wasn't strong enough. I eventually wound up drifting into storytelling.
As a filmmaker, it was a really technical medium, and it really satisfied my desires to work with technology. But the one thing it didn't satisfy was my desire to explore the natural world. Ultimately, that bubbled up to the surface in later years.
What are your plans for the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible? Do you want it used in academic research?
That's my desire. I want to make the sub available to the ocean research community, as well as the technology that was developed for the sub, which I think is even more important.
The cameras, the lights, the syntactic foam, that could be advantageous to other exploration platforms—AUVs [autonomous underwater vehicles] or ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] or piloted subs—whatever the research community needs.
We spent seven years creating ahead-of-the-curve materials and new photographic systems. What I hope to do in the near future is to get that all under the umbrella of researchers who can use it.
Do you want to do more dives in the sub yourself?
Very much so. Phase one was sea trials and proving the sub could dive to the deepest ocean depths. And we wanted to do some science along the way, and we enlisted several organizations to help us.
The second phase was to broaden the scope of our investigations—to bring on more instruments and capabilities. Phase two is still under discussion—we're looking for funding.
Will we see things based on deep-sea animals in forthcoming Avatar movies?
It's a possibility.