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Why James Cameron is arguing with a fellow millionaire about who dove to the deepest point in the ocean

Keipher McKennie / WireImage / Getty

Director James Cameron on stage with Deep sea Challenger at California Science Centre on June 1, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

  • In September, film director James Cameron contacted The New York Times, disgruntled by a declaration made by millionaire adventurer Victor Vescovo, that claimed he had completed the deepest submarine dive in history.

  • Vescovo had dived down to the Mariana Trench, off the coast of Guam – the same area Cameron had dived down to seven years earlier.

  • What irked Cameron was that the area is flat, according to what he and another expedition both saw, meaning it should have been impossible to go any deeper.

  • Yet Vescovo was claiming he’d gone 52 feet deeper. He also told Business Insider he’d be returning in 2020 to hopefully settle the dispute, once and for all.

  • Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.

Academy Award winning director James Cameron does not seem to like to be upstaged.

In September, Cameron took issue when fellow millionaire adventurer Victor Vescovo declared he had completed the deepest submarine dive in history.

The dive was down to a trough called Challenger Deep, which Cameron also dove down to seven years earlier. Cameron questioned Vescovo’s claim since he and earlier divers had found the area to be flat. He argued that this meant it should have been impossible to go any deeper. Yet Vescovo claimed he’d gone 52 feet further.

What followed, as the two wealthy men disagreed via the headlines of international media companies, is a little unusual.

Here’s what happened.

This strange argument between two wealthy “gentleman explorers” began when Cameron emailed The New York Times with the subject “Request to Speak.”

Sources: The New York Times, Vulture

Cameron is famous for directing box-office hits like “Titanic”, “The Terminator”, and “Avatar”. He’s also known for his environmental activism and deep sea diving.

Jon Furniss / WireImage / Getty

Director James Cameron attends the ‘Titanic 3D’ world premiere at the Royal Albert Hall on March 27, 2012 in London, England.

Sources: Popular Science, Vulture

Cameron has made several films and documentaries about the sea, as well as regularly deep-sea diving himself. He’s plunged two miles down to visit the wreck of the Titanic 33 times.

James Croucher / Newspix / Getty

Director James Cameron attends the ‘Challenging The Deep’ Exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, New South Wales.

Source: The New York Times

In 2012, Cameron descended almost 7 miles in a mini-submarine to touch down on Challenger Deep. His aim was to take photos and find samples of deep sea fauna.

Mark Thiessen / National Geographic

The DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible is the centrepiece of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific project by explorer and filmmaker James Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research.

Sources: Wired,The New York Times

Challenger Deep is a trough on the Mariana trench, which is the deepest part of the world’s oceans, located in the western Pacific off the coast of Guam.

Wikimedia

Mariana trench map.

Source: The New York Times

Cameron wasn’t the first to reach it. That was achieved in 1960, by Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard, two men in the US Navy. The pair spent 20 minutes down below, but couldn’t take any photos, as their submarine stirred up too much of the seafloor.

Bettmann / Getty

Lieutenant Larry Shumaker, Jacques Piccard, Dr. Andres B. Rechnitzer and Lieutenant Don Walsh with Charles Dail.

Sources: The Guardian, The New York Times

When Cameron went, he spent three hours exploring the trough. He said he was struck by how lunar the landscape was.

Visual China Group / Getty

A submersible works at a depth of 7,062 metres on June 27, 2012 in the western Pacific Ocean.

Sources: Wired,The New York Times

After his success, The New York Times’ William J. Broad wrote that his dive signalled “the rising importance of entrepreneurs in the global race to advance science and technology.”

Mark Thiessen/National Geographic/Handout

Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron emerges from the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible after his successful solo dive to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.

Sources: Wired,The New York Times

One of those entrepreneurs, on the other side of this public feud, is multi-millionaire Victor Vescovo. The Guardian described him as “desperate to prove himself as the world’s ‘ultimate explorer'”

Source: The Guardian

He’s climbed the highest peak on every continent, including Everest, and skied over the North and South poles. But this might be the first time he’s had a disagreement make international headlines.

Wikimedia

Victor Vescovo on Mt Everest.

Sources: The New York Times, Insight Equity

In April 2019, Vescovo also successfully completed a dive to Challenger Deep. He and his team dove down three times and spent 10 hours on the seafloor.

Reeve Jolliffe / Five Deep Expedition

Victor Vescovo.

Sources: Wired,The New York Times

The dive was part of a $US48 million attempt to dive to the deepest point in five oceans, which he’s since completed.

Five Deeps Expedition

Limiting Factor.

Source: The New York Times

After the dive, Vescovo’s press release had the headline, “Deepest Submarine Dive in History.”

Wikimedia

Victor Vescovo in 2019.

Sources: Five Deeps, The New York Times

What set Cameron on fire is that Vescovo said he descended 35,853 feet, which is 52 feet deeper than Cameron went in 2012.

Source: Wired,The New York Times

But Cameron said he couldn’t have gone deeper, because the bottom was “flat and featureless.” So even if Vescovo’s gauge was different from Cameron’s, the director said it wasn’t correct. “I question that result,” he told Wired. “I also question why nobody else has questioned that result.”

Sources: Wired,The New York Times

Cameron isn’t alone with this conclusion. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution also explored the area in 2009.

Sonya Senkowsky / AP

A Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution vessel.

Sources: The New York Times, Popular Science

The group sent down a robot, and Andy Bowen, who led the expedition, said it was like the Utah desert. He also said Vescovo’s claim of finding a deeper part was unlikely.

Five Deeps Expedition

A shot from Vescovo’s Five Deeps expedition.

Sources: The New York Times, Popular Science

Vescovo responded to Cameron’s questions by saying he had better, newer equipment that gave more accurate readings of the ocean’s depth.

Tamara Stubbs / Five Deeps Expedition

The Limiting Factor submarine.

Source: The New York Times

“I have enormous respect for him,” Vescovo told The Times. “On this point, however, I scientifically disagree.”

Tamara Stubbs / Limiting Factor

Victor Vescovo.

Source: The New York Times

It’s difficult to say for certain who is right, because it’s hard to measure an exact depth. Strong ocean currents mean traditional measuring by a cable is impossible.

Five Deeps Expedition

Above the Mariana Trench.

Instead it’s done by sound or pressure, taking into account things like gravity. But even with the best technology, there will be a margin of error.

Five Deeps Expedition

Victor piloting Limiting Factor on bottom of Mariana Trench.

Source: Wired

In September, Vescovo’s figure was lowered by 13 feet, to 35,840 feet. This still has Vescovo as having gone deeper.

Wikimedia

Victor Vescovo on board of his ship ”Pressure Drop”

Source: The New York Times

Vescovo’s crew also estimated the margin of error for his dive could be up to 70 feet.

Reeve Jolliffe / Five Deeps Expedition

Some of the crew on Vescovo’s expedition.

Source: The New York Times

Vescovo said the difference of 50 feet was “splitting hairs” when the real focus should have been about the fact they’d both descended down over 35,000 feet. But that’s easy for Vescovo to say, when he’s the one who’s recorded going deeper.

Wikimedia

Victor Vescovo laughing as he prepares to dive in his submersible, the Limiting Factor.

Source: Wired

And it clearly matters to Cameron. He told Popular Science, “At the risk of sounding like sour grapes, it’s important for the public to know that the one deepest point in our world’s oceans is a flat, featureless plain.”

Paul Morigi / Getty

James Cameron testifies at the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee Hearing.

Source: Popular Science

Regardless of who went deeper, as Mark Zumberge, a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told Popular Science, the answer isn’t a big deal for everyone. “There’s not a great scientific interest in how the ocean floor varies in a few meters,” he said.

Sources: The Guardian, Popular Science

Both men agree that the most important thing to take from all of this is that the ocean’s depths are under-appreciated, and scientists need more funding to be able to properly study them.

Five Deeps Expedition

The Limiting Factor.

Source: Wired

But Vescovo also told Business Insider he’d be returning to Challenger Deep in 2020 to dive several more times to hopefully resolve their disagreement, once and for all.

Five Deeps Expedition

Victor Vescovo

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