A Titanic Obsession

By William Bunch '81 / November / December 2004
June 14th, 2007

It’s hard to believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Peter Rona have anything in common. One, after all, is a big star, a governor of California, and a former cinematic cyborg, while the other is a lowly and obscure academic. What links them is filmmaker James Cameron, who helped make Arnold’s day by casting the then-unknown body builder in Terminator, and whose passion for all things oceanic prompted him to fund and help film Rona’s explorations of the deep-sea floor, making him an unlikely movie star at an age when many of his classmates are cashing in their retirement accounts.

A professor of marine geology and geophysics at Rutgers, Rona has taken what he calls “the ultimate trek” by traveling to the bottom of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, something he considers “safer than driving to work.” He has explored the continental shelf off the eastern coast of the United States, diving inside eleven of the world’s thirteen deep-sea submersible vessels. Along the way he has discovered and explored the world’s first “black smoker” hot springs—a kind of undersea volcano—and has located giant submerged mineral deposits two and a half times as large as the Houston Astrodome.

But what captured Cameron’s attention was the dogged pursuit by Rona and a paleontologist named Dolf Seilacher of a creature known as a paleodictyon nodosum, which may be a marine worm and which may or may not be extinct. Cameron was so taken by the search for the paleodictyon that he agreed to become the executive producer of an IMAX feature film called Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, which for the past year has been making the rounds of the country’s IMAX theaters and science museums. Narrated by Ed
Harris, the film follows Rona and Seilacher as they examine the fossilized hexagonal trails left by paleodictyons on the ocean floor. Although paleodictyons are supposed to have become extinct 50 million years ago, Rona’s study of the ocean floor has convinced him that the creatures might still exist.

In Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, the creature becomes something of a McGuffin, an excuse for Rona and his team of scientists and filmmakers to record spectacular footage, in both the Atlantic and Pacific, of hydrothermal vents that spew black smoke into the ocean and are surrounded by bizarre life-forms like ghostly white fish, blood-red tube worms, and a previously unknown breed of shrimp.

What makes Volcanoes of the Deep Sea so special is that director Stephen Low, who initially met Rona in a documentary on exploring the wreckage of Titanic, was willing to merge state-of-the-art film technology with basic science. Low’s use of a 4,400-watt undersea lighting system and a 200-pound, high-resolution IMAX camera made possible views of the ocean bottom that would have been unattainable for Rona and his colleagues from Rutgers’ Center for Deep Sea Ecology and Biotechnology. The movie required twenty-two dives in the submersible Alvin and cost $8 million.

“The science is good,” proclaims Rona, who speaks at great length and great enthusiasm, and in a rapid-fire style. Rona says that his quest for the paleodictyon dates all the way back to the mid-1970s; after Brown he’d started out in the oil business, but while studying for his PhD at Yale, he decided “the ocean was the last great frontier.”

Rona is already making plans to explore gas deposits in the deep continental shelf off New Jersey. Not only does he not plan to retire: he wouldn’t even confirm his age.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
November / December 2004