Travel Magazine

Into the Wild: Race to the Bottom of the Ocean

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

Something exciting is happening in the world of exploration and it’s happening today! Amazingly, the deepest part of our world’s oceans has only ever been reached by humans once. Even more amazingly, this incredible feat was achieved way back in 1960 and hasn’t even been attempted since. However, things are about to change as 4 teams are battling it out in what has been dubbed the ‘Race to the Bottom of the Ocean’.

Into the Wild: Race to the Bottom of the Ocean

Virgin's Deep Flight Challenger

Challenger Deep sits in the Mariana Trench to the east of the Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific Ocean. At approximately 11km (7 miles) deep, reaching this extremity requires highly specialised equipment and a lot of planning. The only people in history to have been down to this point are Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in a Swiss-built deep-sea submersible by the name of Trieste. Despite the successful completion of their descent after nearly 5 hours, a window crack and zero visibility caused by disturbed silt forced their return after only about 20 minutes.

Into the Wild: Race to the Bottom of the Ocean

Image courtesy of Kmusser

Today sees Hollywood film director James Cameron set out to become the first person since Piccard and Walsh to descend to these depths. However, the technology being used by Cameron is far more advanced than that of the pioneering Trieste, meaning that high quality footage and exploration will be possible. Kitted out with 3D cameras, the footage will be made into a documentary on the trip. It will take him an estimated 120 minutes to make the full descent, with only enough space to accommodate the director himself.

Cameron’s passion regarding the ocean is no secret. Whilst directing The Abyss he developed new underwater filming techniques and went to great length to record authentic footage of the sunken Titanic for the blockbuster by the same name.

About his upcoming trip, Cameron said: “If we knew what was there, we wouldn’t have to go”. This concisely sums up the view of marine scientists for whom deep trenches such as this are becoming more and more important. For geologists, these seismically active areas are thought to play a key role in major earthquakes, so understanding them is vital. Similarly, biologists are only now beginning to explore these extreme depths, with recent discoveries including “supergiant” amphipods and brightly coloured gelatinous fish. Research into how these creatures survive under such extreme pressures, which is around 1,000 times greater than at the surface.

It is not just James Cameron who has been busy developing the technology to take on this exciting adventure. So who are the other teams:


  • Based in Florida
  • Have reached a depth of 1km (0.6 miles)
  • Prototype being built to reach Challenger Deep
  • Estimated time to reach bottom: 120 mins
  • ETA: 2 years 
  • Capacity: 3 people
  • Design built around a 15cm glass sphere for 360-degree viewing. 
  • Company wants to charge tourists $250,000 for experience.

Virgin (Deep Flight Challenger)

  • Originally built for billionaire adventurer Steve Fossett before he was killed in a plane crash in 2007.
  • Estimated time to reach bottom: 140 mins
  • ETA: Later this year
  • Capacity: 1 person
  • Design based on that of a plane (enabling significant exploration)
  • Plan to reach deepest point in the world’s 5 oceans.

DOER (Deep Ocean Exploration and Research)

Into the Wild: Race to the Bottom of the Ocean

  • Backed by Google
  • Taking a slow-and-steady approach to ensure maximum benefit to science (not interested in race aspect)
  • Designed through process of peer review
  • Includes lots of technology (robotic arm for sample collecting)
  • Estimated time to reach bottom: 90 mins
  • ETA: Some years off first dive (still in design stage)
  • Capacity: 2-3 people  

You can find out more information on the Race to the Bottom of the Ocean on the BBC website, including some great graphics and interactive features. We wish Mr Cameron the best of luck in his adventure. Updates can be seen on the National Geographic Deep Sea Challenge website. If you’re interested in some underwater adventures of your own, check out the many marine conservation and volunteer abroad opportunities available with Frontier.  

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