Adventure

LIVE FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA

Director James Cameron is making a daring, risky, high-tech expedition to the ruins of RMS Titanic

DR. JOE MACINNIS July 4 2005
Adventure

LIVE FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA

Director James Cameron is making a daring, risky, high-tech expedition to the ruins of RMS Titanic

DR. JOE MACINNIS July 4 2005

LIVE FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA

Adventure

Director James Cameron is making a daring, risky, high-tech expedition to the ruins of RMS Titanic

DR. JOE MACINNIS

ON JUNE 28, the Akademik Keldysh, the world’s biggest research ship, will slow her engines and come to a stop in the North Atlantic Ocean, 600 km southeast of St. John’s, Nfld. She will rest some 4,000 m above the rusting ruins of RMS Titanic, the fabled liner that struck an iceberg and sank in 1912, taking more than 1,500 souls with her.

During the following four weeks, the Keldysh, operated by the Russian Academy of Sciences, will launch two US$20-million research subs that will make six tandem dives and

spend more than 100 hours exploring and filming the wreck. Technically, the dives will be among the most daring ever conducted in the deep ocean. After landing on Titanic’s bow, pilots inside the subs will fly mini-robots through open cargo hatches and stairwells and attempt to reach the last unseen spaces of the “ship of dreams.” Sixteen video cameras mounted on the subs and the robots will record the dives and send a constant stream of images to the surface. The video and acoustic data will travel up through a pair of fiber-optic cables at the speed of light. The last dive, scheduled for July 24, will include a two-hour live broadcast to be shown on the Discovery Channel.

The man behind the project is Kapuskasing, Ont.-born director James Cameron. Known for his blockbuster movies Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator and the Academy Award-winning Titanic, Cameron is also a serious deep-sea explorer. Since 1995, he has organized expeditions to document the sunken German battleship Bismarck and deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He’s made 24 dives to the Titanic, spent more time on the ship than the passengers and seen more of her interior than Captain E.J. Smith, who went down with his ship. So why, 10 years after he first

laid eyes on her, is he going back? There are many reasons, but the most important is that exploration—raw, uncut and risky—is a passion Cameron wants to share.

“It’s one thing to put together a project where science and technology lead to new discoveries,” he says. “It’s quite another to do it live in front of millions of people. During our first dives to Titanic in 1995, we didn’t have the right tools and only scratched the surface. In 2001, we didn’t have the experience and did the easy stuff. Now, we’ve got the right tools and the experience to explore the innermost Titanic.”

Last December, the Discovery Channel in Washington approached Cameron through his documentary film company Earthship Productions and asked if he was interested in a project to celebrate the broadcaster’s 20th anniversary. Cameron was reluctant at first because he was working on his coming feature film, Battle Angel. However, he knew that corrosion was disfiguring Titanic’s huge steel hull and this might be a final chance to record her once opulent interior. He also felt a responsibility to the ship that changed his life. Cameron finally agreed, but only if he could do something no one had ever attempted—a live broadcast from the bottom of the North Atlantic.

For Cameron, “going live” meant designing and building a new sea floor-to-surface communication system more than 8,000 m in length. Its central feature is a pair of fibre optic cables, each as thin as a human hair, connecting each sub to the Keldysh. The big challenge in making this complex electronic grid work is that ocean waves and contrary currents will keep the research ship and the subs in constant motion, especially when the subs are making their 4,000-m descents. The cable must be maintained at just the right tension or it will break. There is also the risk of entangling the subs. From the

time the subs leave the surface, the success of each dive hangs on two glass threads.

Cameron is willing to take the risk. He is planning to co-host the broadcast from a sub parked on the Titanic’s boat deck as he pilots one of the mini-robots down the Grand Staircase into unexplored rooms. If his

speed-of-light system works, he will be able to apply it anywhere in the ocean on future projects. He also knows that somewhere deep inside the wreckage of RMS Titanic, a ruined universe of rusting steel plates, bulkheads and beams, something incredible is waiting to be seen. “It would be fantastic to fly down the elevator shafts all the way to F-deck,” he says, “or to try and find Molly Brown’s cabin and the crew berthing spaces. Maybe we should take a run at the Renault in the second cargo hold. This time we have a smaller robot and it might be possible to find it.”

To help tell the story, Cameron has assembled a 50-person team that includes Titanic historians, marine engineers and robot pilots. If successful, the two-hour live broadcast will give viewers a grand tour of Titanic, including the pilothouse, the boat deck and

IN 2001 we didn’t

have the experience. Now we’ve got the right tools and experience to explore the innermost wreck.’

the Marconi Room and then, for the first time, take them into the far reaches of her interior. The program will be supported with vivid computer graphics, 1912 re-enactments and scenes from Cameron’s Hollywood movie.

In 1912, Titanic was a black and white monolith, 269 m long, 11 storeys high and as wide as a four-lane highway. Today, her miles of corridors and hundreds of rooms are forever dark, her sweeping escarpments of steel and portholes covered with streams of rust that look like dirty icicles. Scientists estimate that within decades, bacteria-driven corrosion will turn her vast iron skeleton into something no longer recognizable as a shipwreck. Even if the fibre optic links fail, what Cameron and his team see on the six tandem dives will be preserved on recorders inside the subs. They may give us our last intimate look at the Mount Everest of shipwrecks. 171

Dr. Joe Maclnnis is a physician, scientist and author who is accompanying the Discovery Channel expedition to report on James Cameron’s latest deep-sea adventure.