James Cameron says today's ocean exploration is “piss poor.” He's right.

James Cameron is unhappy with the present state of ocean exploration. He's so unhappy that he's taken it upon himself to spearhead an effort to return to Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in all the world's oceans. In fact, he's making the trip this week — and he's making it alone.

To clarify, Cameron will be making the dive alone, but plenty of others will be assisting the mission in other ways — after all, Cameron isn't the only one unhappy with the current state of ocean exploration; he's drummed up experts from all over the world to make this excursion a reality.

Cameron's descent will be made in a custom-built submersible that he had specially designed for the almost 11,000-meter dive into the most cavernous reaches of the Marianas Trench. Conditions permitting, Cameron hopes to be on the bottom of Challenger Deep by this Wednesday.

Should he succeed, Cameron will become the third person in history to visit the deepest point on Earth. Go ahead and let that figure sink in for a moment. More people have walked on the surface of the Moon than have visited the bottom of the Marianas Trench. We've even been to the Moon more recently than we have the very bottom of the sea — the last (and only) time somebody visited Challenger Deep in person was in 1960. The overwhelming majority of our planet is covered in oceans, and yet we still know so few of their deepest, darkest secrets.

With this in mind, Cameron is working with researchers from around the world to make the dive a scientifically meaningful one. His seven-meter-tall submersible (named the DeepSea Challenger, featured up top and in this video) is equipped with a water sampler, a sediment collector, a "slurp gun" for nabbing animals, a robotic manipulator arm, cameras, and — of course — lots and lots of lights. He'll be accompanied by a trio of unmanned "landers," equipped with even more gadgets, samplers, and baited animal traps.

What is most remarkable about Cameron's expedition is how much potential is has for expanding our limited knowledge of the oceans' depths. Consider, for example, that if the DeepSea Challenger (or one of the three landers) returns to the surface with even a single fish from below 4,000 meters, it will be an unprecedented scientific achievement.

The Death of Deep Sea Science

The lack of knowledge surrounding the oceans' depths isn't particularly surprising when you realize that funding for deep sea research has been dwindling for years. And according to Craig McClain — chief editor at Deep Sea News, and a deep sea researcher, himself — more cuts to deep sea funding are imminent. McClain says that John R. Smith, the Science Director at the Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory, recently sent out an email notifying the community that

NOAA has zeroed out funding for the Undersea Research Program (NURP) for FY13 beginning Oct 1, 2012, and put all the centers on life support funding (or less) for the current year. Many other NOAA programs, mostly extramural ones, have been cut to some level, though it appears only NURP and another have had their funding zeroed out completely.

James Cameron says today's ocean exploration is “piss poor.” He's right.

McClain says that what's especially striking about this "is that within the FY13 NOAA Budget, the Office of Ocean Exploration [the division that contains NURP] took the second biggest cut of all programs (-16.5%). Sadly, the biggest cut came to education programs (-55.1%)."

With any luck, Cameron's efforts will go a long way in piquing public interest in deep sea research. (We know, for example, that Pandora's oceans will feature prominently in the Avatar sequel, and that Cameron has even toyed with the idea of filming parts of the movie in the Marianas Trench.) Doug Bartlett, a marine microbiologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Cameron's chief scientist for the dive, thinks that the mission will help get kids "dreaming of the possibility of going into engineering and oceanography and all sorts of science fields." But Cameron says that reversing the decline of deep sea research will take more than his expedition, alone.

"I think we've got to do better," he told Nature News. "If it means getting private individuals together with institutions and bypassing the whole government paradigm, that's fine. Maybe that's what we need to do."

In the meantime, however, those interested in deep sea exploration would do well to fight for what little funding it has left. According to McClain, the best way to do that is to write a letter expressing support for deep sea research to Hawaii Senator Dan Inouye, with a copy to NOAA Director Jane Lubchenco. Their contact information is listed below, but you'll want to head over to Deep Sea News to learn more about the decline of deep sea science in the US.

The Honorable Dan Inouye
United States Senate
722 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-1102
DC Phone: 202-224-3934
DC Fax: 202-224-6747
Website with additional contact info.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, NOAA
1401 Constitution Avenue NW Room 5128
Washington DC 20230
Phone: 202-482-3436
Email: jane.lubchenco@noaa.gov
website: http://www.noaa.gov/lubchenco.html


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Top image via National Geographic