Filmmaker James Cameron announced Thursday he will attempt a potentially perilous dive to the deepest point in Earth’s oceans, the Challenger Deep near the U.S. territory of Guam.
It would be a daring expedition, but if successful, Cameron will not be the first to touch down in the black depths of the nearly 7-mile-deep trench. The U.S. Navy holds that title. It sent the first and only manned exploration there 52 years ago and set a world record that still stands.
Lt. Don Walsh and a Swiss scientist named Jacques Piccard made the harrowing journey in a free-diving, deep-sea submersible called the Trieste in 1960, years before U.S. astronauts landed on the moon.
In later interviews, Walsh recounted the cramped, freezing space of the bathyscaphe and a loud bang during the descent when part of the vessel cracked under the intense pressure.
The Navy reported his experience in a press release sent out in February 1960:
“There was light outside the Trieste until about 800 feet, according to Lt. Walsh. At about 6,000 feet, the chill from the water forced both men to don warmer clothing. The entire descent required 4 hours and 48 minutes. Once done, about 20 minutes was spent on the bottom making observations and recording data.”
The team believed another mission would be sent down within a few years, but the Navy has never returned.
The Challenger Deep reaches to the bottom of a trench that is itself deeper than Lower Midnight, an abyssal ocean environment where no sunlight can reach and water temperatures hover just above freezing.
Little is known about ocean life at such depths beyond some photos and video of pale eel-like fish and crustaceans taken by unmanned submersibles. Walsh had said the Navy team could only remain for a matter of minutes and had difficulty observing the area due to seafloor sediment kicked up by the landing of the bathyscaphe.
According to a National Geographic press release, Cameron will make his dive in the coming weeks.