Seeing The Trees For the Forest

Shannon Switzer is an award-winning photographer, published
writer, and National Geographic Young Explorer whose work focuses on
ocean conservation.

As I’ve been poring over the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE reports from Dr. Joe Macinnis aboard Mermaid Sapphire, the ship serving as the expedition team’s home base, I keep swinging back and forth between wishing I was there, and being thankful I am not. Because if I was, I’d be responsible for helping make the mission happen. So much is riding on each crewmember’s specific skills and talents, as well as on Mother Nature’s whim. Each day there are hundreds of opportunities for error to sneak in, and according to the accounts, it does over and over again. As an outsider, I’m amazed that any of it works in the end.


DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, the submersible designed by explorer and filmmaker James Cameron and his engineering team to travel to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, is lowered into the water for testing off the coast of Australia. The vessel is the centerpiece of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific project by Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research.
Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

This week, as I was reading through each entry, I was struck with the realization that, in this current world in which we are constantly assailed with outrageous headlines from media outlets vying for our attention, all of the little steps leading up to the headline get swept under the rug of “Man Goes It Alone to Deepest Part of Ocean.” It’s easy to imagine that the man, in this case James Cameron, is just going to hop into a sub he found somewhere and zip on down to the bottom. The many little steps, setbacks, bleeding wounds, liters of sweat, and lives lost get blurred into the back story–when in fact they are the story. The final descent is merely the last page of the book, the culmination of all of those small, painstaking efforts and sacrifices.


satellite map image of Hurricane Frances was used by meteorologists to
show temperature variation in the 2004 storm. The DEEPSEA CHALLENGE
expedition is under constant threat of poor weather and rough seas
preventing the dive from happening.
Photo courtesy Naval Atlantic Meteorology and Oceanography Center

In reality, Cameron and his team, including engineer Ron Allum, have
been designing the sub and planning the dive to Challenger Deep in the
Mariana Trench for the past seven+ years. The team of twenty-eight
includes mechanical, electrical, and computer engineers; filmmakers;
scuba diving experts; biologists; and oceanographers–not to mention
those in charge of all the logistical planning, and the regular crew of
Mermaid Sapphire. Having combined their genius to create the sub,
nicknamed the “Green Machine,” and put all the pieces in place to
complete the mission, they began testing the sub and its various
instruments and media capturing components in February.
Of the twenty-eight crew members aboard, two are women. As a female who
has organized several of my own expeditions–which seem like teatime at
high noon compared to the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE–I have the utmost
admiration and respect for these women who know how to get the job done
alongside the big boys. In 1960 there were no women performing key roles
in the deep-water Trieste expedition; it’s encouraging to see that this
isn’t the case in 2012. Dr. Erika Montague, who earned her PhD in
oceanography from John Hopkins University and now focuses on creating
sampling technology that uses non-destructive methods, as well as
observing fauna in extreme environments, is a key team member working on
the robotics for the project, analyzing data collected, and identifying
species found. The other female holding down the fort is Maria Whilhem,
Cameron’s public relations and communication guru. According to Dr. Joe
Macinnis, they are both unstoppable forces.
Despite the efforts of these talented women, combined with the skills of
the rest of the crew, Macinnis reported that when they first began
running through trial dives, it took Cameron and team five hours just to
complete the pre-dive checklist. They trimmed this down after a few
repetitions and, to date, have completed a total of four practice dives
to increasing depths, the latest to the bottom of the 8,000 meter New
Britain Trench. During each dive, they have learned something new. They
finessed the wiring, replaced low-density foam with high-density foam,
practiced deploying the sub faster, fixed an oil leak on the
battery-switching box, and tested methods for reducing the heat of the
electrical components so that Cameron wouldn’t fry in the driver’s seat.
During each dive they encountered a problem and worked out a solution
that they then put into practice. So now, a combined total of 20,109
meters (~66,000 feet) of deep-sea exploration later, they are on target
for the final page: Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench.


Explorer and filmmaker James Cameron talks with his crew in front of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER following testing of the submersible in Jervis Bay, south of Sydney, Australia. In the coming weeks, the vessel will travel to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and is the centerpiece of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific project by Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research. Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

Like many a good book, when the final chapter is completed it won’t be
the end of the story. It will just be the end of one book in a series
that will continue indefinitely, because all a good story needs to
remain alive is an interested audience–and the mystery of the ocean
will always provide that. Also, like many stories passed down through
generations, there are lessons to be learned and shared from this
expedition: the values of teamwork, perseverance, tackling challenges,
having humility, and of always holding onto that childlike sense of
wonder and curiosity. These are invaluable lessons to share with our
family and with students in the classroom.

For more information about the team, the sub, and the science, visit the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE expedition website.

–By Shannon Switzer

Critical Links
1. (Main National Geographic site for the expedition)
2. (National Geographic Education site for the expedition)
3. Expedition Journal (The official blog from the deck of Mermaid Sapphire,
James Cameron’s mother ship. Our Education bloggers are using this
blog, as well as the main website, to inform their
writing about the expedition)

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