Revisit James Cameron’s landmark Titanic expeditions with Bill Paxton in “Exploring the Deep”

Review by C.J. Bunce

With the regenerated interest this week in the Titanic undersea expeditions with the missing submersible Titan, we’re returning to one of the best firsthand accounts of these perilous journeys, by none other than James Cameron and the late Bill Paxton, who recalled the dangers and risks to himself and his family in the book Exploring the Deep, reviewed below. 

One of the high points from a scientific standpoint in 2017 was the discovery of the USS Indianapolis on the floor of the Pacific Ocean by undersea adventurer and billionaire Paul Allen, more than 70 years after it was sunk during World War II, and thirty-two years after undersea explorer Robert Ballard first discovered the location of the wreckage of the most well-known maritime disaster, the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  In 1995, 2001, and 2005, director James Cameron, well-known already for Aliens, the first two Terminator movies, and True Lies, would take knowledge he learned filming The Abyss to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming an undersea explorer in Ballard’s and Jacques Cousteau’s footsteps.  Ultimately Cameron would make thirty dives on the site of the wrecked RMS Titanic, more than anyone, first for footage for his film Titanic (which would win 11 Academy Awards), and later purely for scientific knowledge and exploration.  Cameron documented his expeditions in his book Exploring the Deep: The Titanic Expeditions, available here in a paperback edition from Insight Editions.

One of the low points of the year was the death of beloved actor Bill Paxton.  What many people may not know is the role Paxton (known for dozens of films including Edge of Tomorrow, True Lies, Aliens, and Tombstone) played in the exploration of the real Titanic after starring in Cameron’s film Titanic.   He accompanied Cameron on four deep-sea dives, documenting his experiences and serving as narrator on one of Cameron’s documentaries, the 2003 film Ghosts of the Abyss.  In his foreword to Exploring the Deep: The Titanic Expeditions, Paxton notes his reservations of traveling to the ocean floor.  “At the time, because I had young children at home, I felt it was more risk than I should be taking,” he said.  He spoke highly of Cameron: “He is someone who values his friendships and has a deep appreciation of just how brief our time on earth is–and he’s determined to make the most of it.”  The feeling was mutual.  Of Paxton, Cameron wrote, “Bill has become the pitch-perfect explorer.  He acquired the clipped tone of a test pilot when he played Fred Haise in Apollo 13, and of course he played treasure hunter Brock Lovett in the Titanic movie, but if he’s playing a part now, it’s merged so perfectly with reality that there is no difference.  He’s now a real explorer, and this is a real mission, two and a half miles down.”  Indeed, half the fun of Exploring the Deep is following Paxton via his words and photographs in his adventure, adding his own insights and bits of humor along the way.

James Cameron and Bill Paxton exploring the remains of the Titanic two and a half miles down on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean in Exploring the Deep: The Titanic Expeditions.

But it’s the knowledge learned by Cameron one hundred years after the Titanic sank that makes the book compelling and thrilling and even chilling at times.  Cameron, along with the other leading experts in Titanic history–Dan Lynch, Ken Marschall, and Parks Stephenson–lay out each expedition step by step, including development of the technological tools created by Cameron to be able to film the ship and eventually more easily maneuver the rooms inside the ship’s remains, something no one else had yet done.  The book includes a detailed log written by Cameron for the fifth dive in September 2001, including recollections of his historical research as he observed actual locations on the ship tied to known events and passengers, some famous, some members of the crew.  He uses photographs of the Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic, to highlight identical artifacts inside the ship.  Many artifacts surprisingly are still intact, like mirrors, windows, glassware, and dishes–and equipment in the Marconi Wireless Telegraph rooms, which were instrumental in saving the 706 survivors.  Where possible he includes rare photographs taken the day of or just before the Titanic went to sea on its maiden and only voyage, and otherwise he incorporates for reference Ken Marschall’s detailed paintings, Parks Stephenson’s computer-generated simulations, and his own recreations used in his film Titanic–all with an eye toward conveying to readers what Titanic looked like in 1912.

The final chapter of the book Cameron recounts a roundtable discussion put together just before the centennial anniversary of the disaster, where Cameron’s seventeen years of research established more than a dozen updates to what we thought about the causes and nature of the sinking of the ship.

A great addition to the collective knowledge of undersea archaeology and maritime history, a must for fans of James Cameron and Bill Paxton, and for anyone who ever marveled at the exploration of Jacques Cousteau, Exploring the Deep: The Titanic Expeditions will be an absorbing read.  Exploring the Deep: The Titanic Expeditions is available this month in paperback, and you can order it now here at Amazon.  The hardcover edition is also still in print and available here.

For anyone whose interest in underwater archaeology and undersea exploration is piqued by this week’s events, check out these excellent books:  The Discovery of the Titanic, by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, Robert Ballard’s BismarckRobert Ballard’s Lusitania, Ballard’s Collision With History: The Search for John F. Kennedy’s PT-109, Ballard’s Return to Midwayand Curt Newport’s Lost Spacecraft: The Search for Liberty Bell 7For further works on the Indianapolis, check out Doug Stanton’s book In Harm’s Way, Edgar Harrell’s Out of the Depths, and Richard F. Newcomb’s Abandon Ship!  Also look for the documentary USS Indianapolis: The Legacy.

Finally, I tie all the above together, plus Jaws and space travel in my discussion of Paul Allen’s explorations here at borg.

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