Touch down! (not “touchdown”)

Doug Levin is the Associate Director for the Center for
Environment and Society at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland,
and is an expert in underwater exploration technology, as well as
designing fun programs that teach complex engineering concepts.

In the narrative below, Doug imagines that he is James Cameron traveling to the bottom of  Challenger Deep, as the famous filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence did yesterday, Sunday,
March 25, 2012. See actual quotes from a press conference with James
Cameron following the successful dive on the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE and the National Geographic Education Twitter feeds.


Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron gives two thumbs-up as he emerges from the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible after his successful solo dive to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. The dive was part of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific expedition by Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research. Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

What did it feel like at touch down when Mr. Cameron finally settled into the fine muck at the true bottom of the sea? He landed at the point in the ocean where the drain that empties the world’s ocean could be installed. (Note that I didn’t put an “s” on the end of that [ocean], because all of the oceans are connected).  

So, imagine years of dreaming, designing, and building.  “Test” dives to depths deeper than anyone has ever gone.  Just read the email that Mr. Cameron sent to Don Walsh back on March 7, 2012, to really get a colorful flavor of the operation.  From all that I’ve read, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the euphoria of reaching these ocean depths will be tempered with flashbacks to all of the work and tests that preceded this monumental achievement.  Kind of like entering college in your freshman year, and the final celebration that ensues when you throw your mortarboard into the air at graduation.  The realization of the moment is short-lived, and then it’s time to “get to work.”

Here’s what I imagine from the comfort of my living room, thinking about this while sipping hot tea and looking out my back window. I–James Cameron–climb into the sub and am lowered into the water, sealed up so tightly that outside sounds cannot be heard directly.  Headphones transmit the “whirr” of the crane and the chatter between the crew and divers surrounding the sub, as it’s gently lowered into the water. I pass through the zone where the waves lap against my view to the outside.  The straps are released and I am cleared to descend.

Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron is congratulated by ocean explorer and U.S. Navy Capt. Don Walsh, right, after completing the first ever solo dive 35, 756 feet down to the “Challenger Deep,” the lowest part of the Mariana Trench. Walsh took the same journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench 52 years ago in the bathyscaphe Trieste, with Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard. Cameron’s dive in his specially designed submersible was part of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific expedition by Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research. Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

The water is crystal clear; sunlight probably penetrates to 100m.  I
repeat the check of all of the systems I checked just before I launched,
and then check them again. I then review, for the umpteenth time, what
I’m supposed to do when I get to the bottom.  Then, and only then, I
settle back and enjoy the ride to the bottom. It’s as dark as sitting in
a barrel of ink. I hear the creeks, cracks, and groans, uncomfortably
familiar from my test dives, as the pieces and parts adjust to the
ever-increasing pressure.  At some point, I settle into the darkness,
grab my iPad2, and play several rounds of Spelltower.  Perhaps a catnap,
a bite of a sandwich, a cup of coffee. And every now and again (if it
were me, I couldn’t resist), I flip the switch on the outside lights to
see what’s around.  

At some point, my altimeter (the sonar device that tells me how far off
the bottom I am) will alert me that it’s time to slow my descent. I want
to slow to a crawl before I land in order to minimize the disturbance
to the bottom.  So, the alarm sounds, and I am busier than a one-armed
paper hanger piloting the sub to its landing.  “Gentle, gentle” I say to myself.  And then I feel the sub settle and stop
on the ocean floor.  A heartfelt “Yahoo,” and open communications to
the surface.  “Congratulations to everyone, ” I say.

I state the date and the time, and then say
something like, “It’s been over 50 years since mankind has reached the
deepest part of the ocean. Now we can do more than touch the bottom
(Piccard and Walsh spent just 20 minutes at depth, stirring up a whole
lot of silt and seeing little else, before they started their ascent
back to the surface). Lets get to work.”  And in the back of my mind,
in the midst of enjoying this success, I’m thinking that the
true celebration will occur when the sub is recovered, the hatch is
“undogged,” and the fresh ocean air hits my face.

What would be your thought as you reached the greatest ocean depths known to man?

Have students pretend they are James Cameron and create their own narratives about reaching Challenger Deep. First, direct students to read previous posts on the Nat Geo Education Blog to learn more about the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE mission and the science behind it. Then, as they write their narratives, encourage them to describe what they are thinking, seeing, and feeling as they descend and ascend. When students are done, have them share their stories with each other and visit the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE website to see what James Cameron actually said about what he felt during and after the dive.

Critical Links
1. (Main National Geographic site for the expedition)
2. (National Geographic Education site for the expedition. Find activities, maps, multimedia, reference content, and more.)
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

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