Monday, October 24, 2022

Hans GIFsdorf


Hans GIFsdorf

The Feud Between James Cameron and Victor Vescovo




...or is it Rolex vs. Omega?

By Capt. Danny Crivello

In April of 2019, a former Naval officer and rich investor from Texas, Victor L. Vescovo (above), piloted a submersible into the Challenger Deep, the deepest point known on Earth. 

It was the same Deep visited by James Cameron in 2012 and Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard in 1960.

Don Walsh and James Cameron posing with the Rolex that went to the Challenger Deep on their respective dive.

But Mr. Vescovo declared his dive the deepest ever by a human, 52 more feet than Mr. Cameron's. Global headlines followed. The Guinness Book of World Records acknowledged the achievement. The record depth was given “10,925 m (35,843 ft), with a standard deviation of 4.1 m.” 

CEO of Omega Raynald Aeschlimann with Victor Vescovo.

And Omega, which had strapped a watch to Mr. Vescovo’s submersible, now claimed to have built the timepiece that has gone the deepest, taking the record away from Rolex.

Hearing about Mr. Vescovo's new record, James Cameron called The New York Times from New Zealand, where he was filming an “Avatar” sequel. He asked to be interviewed. According to the Times, the initial email from Mr. Cameron read, “Request to Speak.”

Mr. Cameron told the Times the Challenger Deep is “flat and featureless.” 

“[Mr. Vescovo's] gauge may read differently from mine, but he can’t say he’s gone deeper.” 

Mr. Cameron says it's like an Everest climber claiming to have gone higher than another mountaineer even though both reached the same summit. 

In 2009, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution sent down a robot to explore the Challenger Deep. The leader of the robot team, Andy Bowen, would later confirm Mr. Cameron's assertion: “It was like being on the Bonneville Salt Flats,” Mr. Bowen said.

"I put my hand up when I saw it becoming a matter of public fact without discussion in the media or science community," Mr. Cameron told Newsweek in Sept. 2019. "But what Mr Vescovo's group reported and what I witnessed in 2012, are two different things. He says he found a deeper hole in the bottom of the ocean. I say it's flat down there, impossible to dive deeper."

So for Mr. Cameron the question is not who went the deepest but who measured it more accurately. 

To give an idea of just how deep this region of the seafloor is, if Mount Everest were picked up and placed in the Challenger Deep, the summit of the world’s highest mountain would still sit more than 2 km (1.3 mi) beneath the ocean surface. When Mr. Vescovo made his expedition, he was just the fourth man to do so. Fewer people had gone to the Challenger Deep than to the Moon.

In my research for this story, I found a May 2019 interview with Newsweek in which Mr. Vescovo mentions the flatness of the Challenger Deep: "The bottom was a flat, beige basin of sorts with a very thick layer of silt," Mr. Voscovo said. "There were some small, translucent animals that gently undulate to move about—but there was definitely life at the very bottom of the ocean, it was not dead by any means." 

Working out precise ocean depths is never easy. The Challenger Deep is too deep for any kind of GPS signal to be received. Depth readings are calculated from special sensors that measure factors such as water pressure, salinity and temperature. 

But to convert pressure to depth, you need to know the water density over the full water column and also the local value of gravity, which varies by about half a percent over the surface of the Earth, according to scientists

Picture from Victor Vescovo's Twitter showing the flat bottom of Challenger Deep.

The other way to measure depth is using sonar, but that comes with its own complications: The idea is to ping the sea floor with sound while timing how long it takes for the signal to get back to the boat. You have to know the temperature along the path to get an accurate reading, because sound travels faster through warmer water. The path to the Challenger Deep, by one measure, goes from warm to icy to warm again. The ping would also have to go through many layers of seawater of differing composition.

The instruments being used to take measurements are constantly evolving; technology has come a long way since 1960, and in some aspects, even since James Cameron's dive in 2012. 

In 2014, four scientists at the University of New Hampshire reported on a Challenger Deep measurement. They put the margin at plus or minus 25 meters, a total range of 164 feet. Each depth measurement, they added, represents “at best an estimate.” 

Finally, Mr. Vescovo was interviewed by The New York Times. He first praised Mr. Cameron as “a visionary pioneer of deep exploration.” He also said his own team had adopted some of Mr. Cameron’s technical innovations.

“I have enormous respect for him,” Mr. Vescovo said. “On this point, however, I scientifically disagree.” While Mr. Vescovo’s gear was far newer and more accurate at gauging oceanic depths, he said he had also identified a slightly deeper area.

Who is right? And is Rolex okay with the claim it was bested in the world's deepest dive? We might never know. But the financial support traditional watchmakers have made to explorations through the years—whether for the sake of discovery or to find ways to better conserve the planet—that alone is enough to be lauded.