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James Cameron Given Scripps Prize For Deep Sea Exploration

May 30, 2013 12:44 p.m.


Dr. Doug Bartlett is a marine microbiologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the chief scientist of James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge expedition...

Related Story: James Cameron Given Scripps Prize For Deep Sea Exploration


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: One of the world's most famous movie directors is being honored this week at Scripps center of oceanography. But James Cameron will be honored for his contributions to science in the public interest. Last year, he headed the deep sea challenge expedition, and became the first person to complete a solo dive to the world's deepest point. Joining me to discuss that achievement and what it means to marine science is my guest, doctor Doug Bartlett. A Scripps marine microbiologist and the chief scientist of James Cameron's deepsea expedition.

BARTLETT: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Scripps is awarding the Nuremburg award to James Cameron. Why would you say this is science that benefits the public?

BARTLETT: This award is really for people who have a sustained impact on the public's perception of science in the natural world. And although James isn't so well known for that part of his life, he's very passionate about exploration. And in fact, he has been a national geographic explorer for a number of years, exploring the ocean in submersibles for a very long time. And his impact through previous adventures and this expedition have been really profound in how the public views the Marine environment.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the deepsea challenge. When did it begin, what was its goal?

BARTLETT: Well, the expedition itself began last year, 2012, in February. The goal was to develop a manned submersible that could go to the deepest ocean depth and be used repeatedly for scientific purposes.

CAVANAUGH: Where is the deepest part of the ocean?

BARTLETT: It's the challenger deep, which is located southwest of the island of Guam in the federated states of Micronesia. And it's an area that's divided into three different sections, ponds as they're called. It goes down as deep as about 11 kilometers in the deepest part of the ponds. That's over 6 miles, almost 7 miles.

CAVANAUGH: How did you become involved in this expedition?

BARTLETT: Well, over the year, James has had a relationship with Scripps. He's had some issues come up working with remote operated vehicles in the past, and so there were some contacts with people in his group and with Scripps. So as he was developing the sub, he contacted some of us at Scripps, and we went from there, we developed some meetings, had a chance to interact with some of the different deepsea scientists. He learned about what his capabilities were. He learned about what we could do with landers. And he realized that that would be a really powerful compliment to what he would be doing with the manned exploration. For the first leg of the expedition, and for the second language in the challenger deep.

CAVANAUGH: You used a term, landers. What is that?

BARTLETT: A lander is an antonymous instrument. It's tethered from the ship. It drops down into the ocean, releases its ballast, and comes back to the surface. It sounds simple. But to do that at great ocean depth is really challenging. Special materials are needed. The landers that were developed in a very short period of time were devices that could be followed acoustically. They obtained high definition images. We got some stunning images of life in the deep ocean. They also have stereo scopic cameras to take 3D images. We could collect water samples, they had some sensors on them. When the landers got to the surface, we could follow them with a radio beacon and strobe light and GPS.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you what lives at this depth. But which comes first? Is it a chicken and egg situation with James Cameron? Was he interested in the ocean before he made his most famous movie, titanic? Or did he get involved with the ocean because of titanic?

BARTLETT: He was involved with the ocean before titanic, even as a young boy of 11 years old or so, he became very interested in ocean exploration and met some key people, Joe McGinnis was one person who was really instrumental in steering him down this path. And he heard about the Triest, which was the gap used in 1960 to go to the challenger deep. There's only been three people who have gone down to the deepest part of earth in contrast to man's presence on the moon. So Jim was very fascinated with the Triest expedition. As he matured as a boy, he was thinking about the ocean environment. And I think the movies that he's made, the Abyss and Titanic and so on reflect that passion.

CAVANAUGH: When you talk about going down so deep into the ocean and the kind of weight that you have to deal with, gravity becomes something that you really have to deal with because of the weight of all of that water on top of you. What is it like to submerge to a depth like that?

BARTLETT: Well, it depends on the vehicle. The deepsea challenge is this bright green vertical torpedo that just rockets down and comes back even faster. But all during the test dives in Papua New Guinea, the dives were quite fast vertically. Going down to the challenger deep, it's 7 miles down and 7 miles back. So it was a long way down. And that was the only sub mission that James was involved with where he really had time on his hands. Other than that, he was always busy with the sub and making sure everything was okay. But that's a long trip. It took him a few hours which is still remarkably fast. And it's a tribute to the engineers who built the sub.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of risks and dangers are involved with this? People who just dive at normal depths have to be so careful. What are the gradations that he had to deal with in order to be able to survive at such a depth?

BARTLETT: Well, first is the pressure and the risk of implosion. With all that metal between him and the outside, at that great depth, there still is a risk of implosion, of some catastrophic pressure failure brought on. The steel cylinder was connected to a syntactic foam structure by polyester straps. Even though that was made in such a way to withstand super-high pressures, it still had to shrink 2.5 inches result of pressure during the deepest dive. So even with great engineers and good testing, things can go wrong. During the first time, the temperature inside the cylinder went up to 103 degrees or something. He almost passed out. During the second dive, a shot like a 22 rifle went off behind his head. At the time he was really caught up filming the deepsea octopus, and he just went on filming. There wasn't anything he could do. He appreciated the fact if there was anything that was going to do terribly wrong, there wasn't going to be much he could do about it. So temperature control, pressure failure is a risk. The sphere itself was really, really tiny. So he was really squeezed in his. His legs couldn't be extended. So for all those hours on the sea floor he was balled up with his legs folded, and I just can't imagine doing that myself.

CAVANAUGH: That sounds very uncomfortable. All of this effort, all of this discomfort that he had to go through, all of this danger, what did he discover? What do we know now that we didn't know before he did this?

BARTLETT: Well, there were hours and hours of video obtained from the mission generated by the sub and the landers. And biologists at Scripps have been pouring over those videos and seeing new kinds of life forms that they haven't seen before. New species of sea cucumbers. I'm a microbiologist, but I have to say looking at these images, I was really interested. Papua New Guinea was really a rich environment, and there were acorn worms, and the challenger deep by contrast was this alien-like environment, very foreboding, gray, green silky sediment with very little to see. There were a few large xenophyophores, one of the largest single-celled organisms we saw. He saw some large sea cucumbers. Some amphipods, new species. And he was able to collect them and bring them back. One of the things that was interesting from what Jim brought and what we got with the landers is that these amphipods have an organic molecule in them, scyllo-inositol that one of the people on the mission identified, and that's actually a drug that is being used to treat Alzheimer's today. And that was really unexpected to find that in some of the deepest parts of the ocean. So that's a benefit. We collected thousands of microbes that we're working on, are lots of genome consequences coming in. We'll see what we can make out of that. We have microbes that we're growing in pressurized cylinders that grow at 15,000. So there's lots of microbial lifeforms that we'll be interrogating for years to come.

CAVANAUGH: And is that just about all that can survive at that depth?

BARTLETT: Well, we had the microbes and then some invertebrates. You're not going to find vertebrate life, although in the challenger deep there was the remains of some vertebrate of 2 meters or so in length which was really interesting. If Jim had only come perhaps a few months earlier, who knows what we would have seen there? But it's not an environment for vertebrates. That's certainly true. But there are some invertebrates even in the deepest ocean trench.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the landers, did that go down even deeper?

BARTLETT: No, they were at about the same depth. So the idea with the landers in part was we can have those guys baited down on the sea floor for many years before Jim is down on the bottom. We can attract what life is there. Because there are some amazing scavenger that will smell out this bait that we use. So instead of coming on a desert landscape, he can come upon an environment where we've attracted all of this fauna, and it should be spectacular, and it was spectacular.

CAVANAUGH: James Cameron is going to, I believe, donate the lander to Scripps for further study, for the use in other expeditions. How important is that for Scripps to be able to have that equipment?

BARTLETT: That's really a wonderful, generous contribution. We'll be able to continue both with the lander that was used during the expedition, and with all of the equipment and tools that comes with that system. All of the parts. We'll be able to continue and explore at full depth the diversity of life and the properties of the water column there. The hadal environment, those are the trench environments, and they started about 4 miles down and go on from there to almost 7 miles down. This is a relatively small part of the surface area of the ocean as a whole. Just 5%. But still very significant. This is 1.8 times the area of the entire United States. And this is this relatively dark continent, if you will, that is still largely unexplored. So these will help us to explore it.

CAVANAUGH: As a marine microbiologist, you seem to be completely well suited for the types of organisms that an adventure like this discovers. What differences do you expect? Do you expect more of that, or just the kind of accumulation of knowledge that will have some benefit in the future?

BARTLETT: It seems like every time a lander is used in a deepsea trench, it comes back with some new information. So we're far from reaching anything like saturation. I think there'll be many interesting discoveries about how life can exist in that alien-like environment that exists beneath us. We'll learn more about adaptations, biochemistry, different ways of getting energy, how carbon gets sequestered in deep ocean places, the impact of man even in these environments and things like that. So from climate change studies to ocean circulation to understanding sound propagation at great depth and its influence on life. There's just so much to learn.

CAVANAUGH: I want everyone to know that even though it is a sold-out event, James Cameron will be receiving this award tomorrow at UC San Diego.