Saturday, March 31, 2012

Deepsea Challenger: a milestone event shortchanged by the media?

If you are a lover of all things oceanic, unless you have been at sea without any communication to the outside world, you have probably heard of James Cameron's successful dive to Challenger Deep, the lowest point on the seafloor in the Marianas Trench.

But perhaps not. It was a bit surprising and disappointing to see the low level of media coverage the event received. To recap, in a bit of a race with several other submersible operators, James Cameron and his crew, with the support of the National Geographic Society and Rolex, made a successful attempt on March 25th to reach of the bottom of the Marinas Trench at nearly seven miles down. Surrounded by over 8 tons of water pressure per square inch, renown filmmaker and amateur cum serious explorer spent 6 hours on the bottom in the vertical cylinder-shaped, one-man submersible Deepsea Challenger.

Rather than recite the details one more time, you can learn much more from National Geographic's own in-depth coverage on their website.

Man has not reached this depth in over 50 years, since the bathyscaphe Trieste first did it in 1960, and yet the accomplishment garnered minimal reporting in the press. The NBC Evening News made mention of it in the last few minutes of its broadcast and the latest issue of TIME magazine relegated it to a brief column in their Milestones page along with the obituaries. What were they thinking? Is the media perception that of a technological stunt that doesn't really advance the boundaries of science? Did they look at the event as simply Cameron spending some of his millions from successful films like Titanic and Avatar on something that will end up in his next film production?

TIME started their coverage with "Scorcese and Spielberg may never go to Saturn, but on March 25, director James Cameron...took a whole other kind of crazy ride..."

Or was the dive just not sexy enough compared to, say, a five-day journey to the moon funded directly by taxpayer's dollars? Perhaps it's an indication of the times we live in. We're living in somewhat more inward-oriented times, thanks to a struggling economy and daily pressing issues like mortgage payments and the next foreboding trip to the gas pump. Maybe Cameron should have worn a hoodie or recorded the entire dive on an Etch A Sketch. At the very least, it was an opportunity for the media to grasp something beyond the mundane, to stimulate the imagination and say there is something inspiring out there in regions yet to explore - not on some distant planet, but right here beneath the waves of planet Earth.

However, the media perhaps is not totally to blame. The dive itself defused some of its own media hype potential. With the exception of some issues with the hydraulic arms that prevented some rock samples from being taken, the well-planned and executed technology that went into the submersible made the dive seem, dare I say, almost routine. Given that the slightest technical malfunction could have resulted in Cameron being squished like a bug under your shoe, that predictability is by no means a criticism but a compliment to everyone involved. But it does expose the expedition to some of the same attitudes expressed by the public with the last few trips to the moon. The race to the moon was over, the flights were becoming routine and, it seemed, America was moving on.

Add to that the fact that the Marianas Trench is a desolate place, as Cameron described it, reminiscent of Buzz Aldrin's description of the lunar surface as "magnificent desolation." No thriving species, no sea monsters - only, perhaps, the possibility that locations this deep are beyond the limitations of any kind of life. Now, that may not turn out to be the case; bacteria and other small life forms may exist down there. But there initially appear to be no surprises like those found around deep sea thermal vents.

Returning to the Marianas Trench was pitched as an event that would turn our attention to the importance and value of ocean exploration, rather than spending money on moon colonies and trips to Mars. But for some reason it did not catch the attention of the media the way I would have liked to have seen it. The general public was not paying attention like it should. There are benefits to deep sea exploration: benefits in technology and in a greater understanding of the oceans which are now being bombarded with new influences ranging from climate change to pollution to overfishing - all of which will have a profound impact on our lives long before the first man steps on the surface of some far away planet.

Perhaps when James Cameron and National Geographic come out with their planned 3-D documentary of the dives (there are more dives planned), people will be mesmerized by a new aquatic world totally unknown to them. Perhaps, over a tub of popcorn and an overpriced soft drink, they will see there are frontiers that need to be explored not simply "because it's there." Perhaps they will see that our future depends on it.

Source: Nat Geo's

No comments: