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"Titanic" Director Uncovers "Aliens of the Deep"

Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
March 1, 2005
 
Since making Titanic, director James Cameron has hardly left the ocean floor. For his latest underwater adventure, Aliens of the Deep, a large-format 3-D film, Cameron and his team went deeper than they've ever ventured before—to the ocean's volcanic hot springs, or hydrothermal vents.

In this extreme environment several miles below the ocean surface, an amazing array of animals live in a world of scorching heat, intense pressure, and absolute darkness. Some scientists believe this is where life on Earth began.

Cameron suggests that hydrothermal vents could provide clues for where to look for life in space. If life can survive in such an extreme environment on Earth, maybe the conditions to sustain life exist elsewhere in the universe.

National Geographic News spoke with Cameron in Los Angeles.

How do you see yourself—as a filmmaker or a scientist?

I'm not a scientist. I jokingly call myself a science groupie. But really, I'm a filmmaker. When you choose a subject, you become immersed in it. [This film] was about deep-ocean science, geology, and biology. And as expedition leader, I had to be conversant on those subjects.

So this was not just a film, but a real scientific research project. What did you set out to do?

The overarching mission was to tell the story of these deep environments in a new and exciting way, and interrelate that with the ideas about astrobiology [science of possible extraterrestrial life-forms] and the types of extremophile life [organisms that live under extreme environmental conditions] that we might find on other planets. We were not just taking ocean scientists on an ocean expedition, but space scientists on an ocean expedition. It seemed almost criminal to me to be going out with all these diving assets, with this big research vessel, and not doing research.

What were some of the logistical challenges?

Not only did I have my specific goals as a filmmaker on the dives, but I had to juggle a number of scientists who were competing with each other for real estate on the submersibles, in terms of the equipment they needed to take, time on the dives as observers, lab space on board the ship, and so on.

I felt like the ringmaster of a three-ring circus every single day. It was the biggest logistical job I've ever been involved with.

Ninety percent of the seafloor is unknown. The oceans really are uncharted territory, aren't they?

Absolutely. We were diving at sites that had already been discovered. But the possibility for discovering new species exists on almost any dive you make. These mid-ocean ridge systems run all over the planet. There are going to be a lot of interesting ecosystems that we haven't even dreamed of yet.

The problem is we have five vehicles in the world that can go to the depths that allow you to analyze these deep-ocean sites. The area down there that hasn't been explored is probably equivalent to all of the lands of the continents put together. That's like exploring all of the continents with five jeeps—and jeeps go faster. You can see further from a jeep than you can from a submersible.

Describe these hydrothermal vents. Why are they so fascinating?

You can vastly generalize and say they're underwater volcanoes. Every time two continents move apart … liquid rock, magma, comes up to the surface and forms new crust. When it hits the seawater, it freezes and becomes rock, and then that splits apart and more comes up. That goes on millennium after millennium, and that's how the continents move around.

So you have all these chemicals raining down on the bottom, and it's stuff that will kill you and me. But nature, in its ingenuity, has figured out a way to use this chemistry to sustain a completely different type of life than we experience here at the surface. That's what's fascinating to the astrobiology community.

They're saying, Wait a minute, if you've got chemically supported life down there, as opposed to life that relies on photosynthesis, then that's something that might theoretically be able to exist in an aquifer on the surface of Mars.

You show some amazing creatures in this film.

We saw a lot of invertebrates. An octopus with settling fins. Blind albino crabs, blind vent shrimp in their legion, these two-meter-long [six-feet-long] tube worms. What we said in the film is that if these things didn't exist, we couldn't imagine them. Scientists didn't imagine the existence of these kinds of animals until they were confronted with them.

And that's really, to me, the most exciting takeaway from this: Science is great at analyzing but not great at predicting. The only way to really know what's out there is to go and take a look.

The movie suggests that these hydrothermal vents could be where life on Earth began. Most scientists agree that they are central to the function of the Earth's system. But of course not everyone agrees that that's where life began.

No, there are a number of competing theories. But there are some things in favor of this theory. If life emerged in shallow, brackish seas—the warm-puddle theory—it would have been quickly destroyed during the heavy bombardment the early Earth suffered [from comets and asteroids]. Whereas, at the bottom of the ocean, several miles down, you'd be sheltered from these events.

Presumably the hydrothermal activity was there from the beginning of the oceans themselves. You've got basically a stable environment, you've got chemical energy available, and you've got all the building blocks necessary. So it seems inconceivable to me that it would not have been a viable place for life to emerge. But [the origin of life] is a great mystery. It's the greatest detective story out there.

And you're saying there's a correlation between the life we find deep in our oceans and the life that we might find in space.

If life exists elsewhere in our solar system, it's going to be something that we would classify as extremophile, something that's going to live at the very edge of conditions that are habitable.

By studying extremophile organisms here on Earth in the toughest environments we can identify, we can learn something about the limitations of genetics and biology in these environments. We're seeing an almost ubiquitous adaptation of life to the extreme environments.

Life needs to have energy. But it doesn't necessarily need to get it from oxygen, and it doesn't need to get it from the sun.

Do you think we're imaginative enough in our search for alien life? There seems to be a "follow the water" mantra. But what about the likelihood of, say, an ammonia-based life-form in space?

Just because we've never seen cryogenic [very cold temperature] life on this planet doesn't mean it can't exist. Look for life on Titan. Look for life in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter, in the upper atmosphere of Venus. We shouldn't rule out any environment.

If life is as tenacious and adaptable as it seems to be here on Earth, there's no reason why it couldn't exist in some of these other places.

How would you characterize the scientific era we're in right now?

Generally our society is turning its back on science and going to a more dogmatic view of the world, because people feel that science has not answered their fundamental questions.

We love all the benefits from basic research, which has yielded [things like] the semiconductor that have transformed the way we live our lives. Yet the funding for basic research is getting harder to get. We are putting less and less emphasis on understanding our environment at the same time that we are having a greater and greater impact on it.

Look at the response to rapid global climate change. You have an administration [in Washington] that says it's not happening—in absolute defiance of the science community.

I see this strange turn away from science at a critical moment in our history when we need it more than ever.

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