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James Cameron and the Deepsea Challenge

This post could be about a couple of different things. It could be a movie review of Deepsea Challenge 3D, a 2014 documentary about filmmaker James Cameron’s diving expedition to the deepest point of the deepest trench in the ocean – the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.

Or it could be about the Rolex-sponsored mission itself. Cameron soloed on the trip, piloting from within a 43” sphere built into the vessel. Ever try holding a squat for four and a half hours?

Or it could be about the Deepsea Challenger, the revolutionary lighter-than-water submersible Cameron and his team developed in secrecy in a Sydney, Australia suburb in order to assault the deep. The Deepsea Challenger is a story on its own, having been built of a unique structural foam composed of very small hollow glass spheres suspended in an epoxy resin, comprising about 70% of the submersible’s volume (sorry… my inner nerd made me throw that factoid in).

Or this post could be about the watch Cameron buckled to one of the robotic arms of the Deepsea Challenger, the Rolex Deepsea Challenge.

Let’s choose Door Number Four.

The Rolex Deepsea Challenge is a specially designed and purpose-built watch meant for one thing: to accompany James Cameron as he piloted the Deepsea Challenger on his epic journey to the deepest part of the known ocean. In raw numbers, that’s a depth of around 36,000 feet – seven miles. Its predecessor was the Deepsea Special, also built by Rolex for a similar expedition lead by explorer Jacques Piccard in 1960.

For the new endeavor, Rolex watchmakers started with the dimensions of the movement (calibre 3135) and dial of the standard Rolex SeaDweller Deepsea. They then designed a case around those dimensions which would tolerate the pressures found at a depth of 15,000 meters. To give an idea of the forces involved, the pressure on the crystal exerts a total force of about 17 tons. The back, which is larger in area than the crystal, sees almost 23 tons.

Now, if engineers ruled the world and were given those design criteria, the watch would be a spherical hulk. Instead, one Rolex designer was given the sole task of making the thing look like a wrist watch. This was largely an exercise in refining the dimensions to more pleasant proportions while keeping the required wall thicknesses. Even the proportions of the crown were adjusted.

The result was a watch that, to the naked eye, looked much like the standard Rolex SeaDweller Deepsea. However, the thing is 51.4mm in diameter and 28.5mm thick. I couldn’t find the weight anywhere, but I think you’re going to have back problems if you wear one of these on your own wrist.

And to finish the story, the watch is waterproof to a depth of 12,000 meters or 39,370 feet. The test chamber was built with the help of (who else?) COMEX, the French underwater engineering company with which Rolex has had a well-known and long-standing relationship.

Finally, on March 26, 2012, Mr. Cameron strapped the Deepsea Challenge on the robotic arm of the Deepsea Challenger (and strapped a SeaDweller Deepsea on his own wrist). He clambered into the vessel and spent the next five and a half hours descending to the bottom and exploring the Challenger Deep. When he was done looking around, he took another nearly two hours to ascend to the surface.

The max depth recorded during the dive was 10,908 meters (35,787 ft.), just short of the record set by the Trieste in 1960. The Deepsea Challenge kept ticking without incident the whole time. No word yet on whether this unique 51mm Rolex will ever be made available in a serially produced version. Over at Rolex Passion Report, they were interested in a grass roots effort, and claimed it could be done for a retail price of around €25,000.

Ready to get in line for one?

 

-Ed Estlow

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