Some PNG Thoughts on James Cameron’s Mariana Trench Adventure

James Cameron with Bev Martin of Rapopo Plantation Resort

Hollywood Director, Explorer and Environmentalist James Cameron and his crew are in PNG at the moment conducting test dives for a new undersea vehicle before heading to the Mariana Trench deep in the Pacific Ocean. The part of the trench known as Challenger Deep, north of PNG, is the deepest known point of the world’s oceans, reaching down to nearly 11,000 metres.

James will be testing his new Australian built undersea vehicle in the deep waters off Jacquinot Bay in Pomio, East New Britain. He has funded the development of the undersea vehicle for his Challenger Deep trip, which a documentary is expected to be made from and research will most likely influence his sequel to Avatar which is said to be set in the oceans of his fictional planet, Pandora. (You can read more about James’ Challenger Deep trip here and here.)

Now aside from all the glamour of James’ Hollywood career, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that James is essentially an explorer who uses his feature films and documentaries as a tool to document his fascination for nature, technology and extreme environments. This trip is no different and just like his previous documentaries Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep the journey to Challenger Deep will be just as fascinating as any exploration into the unknown.

This is not the first manned trip to the bottom of the Challenger Deep. The first successful trip in 1959 was conducted under Project Nekton and was crewed by Jacques Piccard (son of the boat’s designer Auguste Piccard) and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh. Project Nekton’s submarine bathyscaphe Trieste would obviously be of great interest to James for his recent trip and issues like how the Trieste suffered a cracked Plexiglas window pane at 9,000 metres will greatly influence the design of his new undersea vehicle.

As James plans his undersea adventure, you have to wonder why Man travelling to the moon was such a big deal while exploring the depths of our oceans has not received near the same attention, despite the fact that “even at the surface of the planet Venus, considered one of the most hostile environments in the solar system, ambient pressures are a mere sixteenth of those at the ­bottom of the Challenger Deep“. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle also adds,  that “…here we are at the beginning of the 21st Century, and we know more about other parts of the Solar System than we do our own ocean. We have better maps of the Moon, Mars and Jupiter than we do about our own ocean floor”.

James Cameron (left), His Excellency, Qui Pohua, Chinese Ambassador to Papua New Guinea (centre), Bev Martin (right) at Rapopo’s Verandah Restaurant.

To make things even more interesting, it also appears that James is not the only one planning to travel to the Challenger Deep. Is this a new space race like event? Google is funding a submarine called Doer, Richard Branson has his submarine and adventure tourism company ‘Triton Subs’ also has their submarine. I have no clue about the progress of these other teams, but looks like James Cameron is way ahead of everyone at the moment if it is indeed a race.

So fair enough, we have a bunch of explorers with deep enough pockets to make deep enough trips into the (largely) unknown for us, so what is the point for the rest of us? Well from our PNG perspective it would be great to see a huge public event like this raise awareness about marine conservation. Marine conservation awareness is extremely important for two of our star undersea issues, namely the planned undersea tailings dumping which will occur with Ramu Nico in Madang and the worlds first undersea mining operation by Nautilus Minerals in New Ireland.

The sad part about any attempted fight against these undersea mining operations is that the only data we would be able to get currently on potential environmental damage for those specific sites would be what the mining companies give us. Unlike land issues, the only way we can arm ourselves with the science to argue the dangers of these mining ventures is if we have enough money to finance our own findings. Sadly our government and courts have let these two mining operations through and the only way now that we will be able to measure any damage to the marine environment will be by how much destruction we will be able to document in the years to come.

So 3 simple questions:

1. Does the PNG Government know enough about our undersea marine life to have made the decisions they made to approve these undersea mining operations?, and

2. If PNG is to get a deposit of K100 Billion into our Sovereign Wealth Fund from one LNG Project alone, why do we even need to undertake such risky environmental ventures that have more chance of polluting our marine environment as opposed to giving us bumper profits?

3. Where is the ‘Precautionary Principle‘ in our policies to undersea mining?

Even all these billionaires with their submarines and equipment don’t know enough of what’s down there, that’s why they are going to such great lengths to illustrate the issues of marine conservation and scientific research.

Papua New Guinea has a vast and well documented history of natural resources, not only for business, but also for scientific research. It would seem that our country has had hundreds of years of scientific activity, however without a sizeable local scientific community and/or government policies to develop such a scientific community, PNG will forever continue to abuse itself without ever understanding in measurable terms the effects of the policies our Government creates.

In our case with marine conservation, this is not just an issue of jumping on a feel good bandwagon with greenies and celebrities, it is an issue of how we plan our development in PNG. The fact is with appropriate measures to allow full independent research to take place on all issues that involve our marine ecosystems we could better weigh up issues like whether in the long run the economic benefits of short terms gains are appropriate? To put it bluntly, is it worth our time and money right now? Or will we have larger bills to pay later because of these decisions today?

It can appear daunting and there are many good people like Wences Magun and Effery Dademo that are doing great things to bring attention to this cause.

So how do you get our people and leaders to connect with these two marine conservation issues? As James Cameron pointed out in an interview, before we can do anything, we need to make it a priority to get “educated and articulated about the issues” and of course it helps to watch a movie like Avatar to get emotionally connected as well. If it takes Hollywood to bring attention to what’s good for us, then maybe our NGO’s and interested persons should take a look at this option as well.

Maybe James Cameron should take some of these mining companies and politicians to where the sun doesn’t shine?



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