It’s fair to say that Ron Allum has not been touched by the Hollywood stick. The 63-year-old former ABC technician from Sydney – who designed the world’s biggest submersible, which Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron in March took to the bottom of the ocean – remains modest, soft-spoken and devoid of any creative flourishes.
Indeed, sitting in the Sydney headquarters of his new business, Ron Allum Deep Sea Services (RADDS), you have to sit pretty close just to hear what he’s saying.
Allum is reflecting on Cameron’s 11-kilometre solo dive in a lime-green sub named Deepsea Challenger, weighing 12 tonnes and made using rock-hard flotation foam.
When Cameron touched the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean – having spent seven years and about $30 million of his estimated $700 million fortune to get there – he tweeted: “Hitting bottom never felt so good. Can’t wait to share what I’m seeing w/you.”
Allum, on board the ship from which the sub was launched, took it in his stride. “It was pretty ordinary, really,” he says. “It was bound to happen.”
But then he concedes there was “great excitement”.
“I suppose the most nervous point is just getting to that point where the sub’s been launched and you’re doing the final equipment checks. Once he’s on his way … it’s just a matter of time before he gets to the bottom.
“As soon as he started his descent, that was the biggest relief for me; I knew he was on his way and would achieve the objective.”
The expedition will have practical applications for years and wasn’t just a one-off adventure.
“We built up quite a lot of technology in building the submersible and we – that’s Jim Cameron and myself – wanted to make it available to other users, scientists, industries such as oil and gas, defence,” he says.
“Jim’s always been an advocate for science, particularly science about the bottom of the ocean or the outer frontiers of space. If you wanted to plant a flag, we could have done that much quicker and much cheaper.”
How did Allum feel when Cameron reported that what he’d seen was “a desolate lunar plain”, pretty much just a lot of sand?
“I think that’s what we expected. All along, for seven years we were thinking, ‘What’s there to film on the bottom of the ocean?’ It’s a flat sediment pond.
“But the scientists and the geologists and the people studying the plates and everything (are interested) … They were interested in, if you landed, would any methanes or gases that had liquefied come to the surface?”
The world’s media descended on Cameron, who, a day after emerging from the sub, was at an awards ceremony in London.
Allum knew his seven-year adventure was over, but he knows his name will always be associated with it.
“I was just as happy that I’d built the vehicle that did it,” he says. “People remember who designed the Australian boat that won the America’s Cup (Ben Lexcen). He had a car named after him … From that perspective … it was a pretty big accolade for me as well.”
For someone with no formal engineering training (“my study was done at the ABC”), anyone but the phlegmatic Allum might be worried about the safety of the submersible’s solo passenger.
But Allum knew everything was OK. The pressure at the depth to which Cameron descended can shrink steel. I asked Allum if he ever worried about Cameron’s safety. “No. We had done our maths and engineering pretty well. I didn’t go to university. I (consider) myself as a jack of all trades. When it came to sphere engineering, we had (experts in their field).”
Was Cameron relieved it was over because of the risk? “He had more doubt than I did because I was involved in the engineering at a very close level. He was very interested in the facts and the figures. It wasn’t just, ‘Did an engineer sign off, yes, no’?”
Ron Allum’s interest in adventure and fascination with the deep began in his early 20s when he joined caving and diving clubs at the University of New South Wales.
CHINAFOTOPRESS VIA GETTY IMAGES
Apart from the sheer thrill of discovering new worlds below, Allum was also attracted to the scientific element. “There’s always somebody doing some sort of research in a university, doing water studies or they want samples of the mud at the bottom of a cave system,” he says.
“Part of my adventure has always been to collect science.”
He juggled his adventures with work as an engineer at the ABC. He was a project manager for the “Ultimo project” – combining all the ABC’s Sydney buildings into one. He was project manager for “quite a few acoustic areas, current affairs, news, rural”.
In the late 1980s, he followed his dream in making documentary adventure films. The first, called Nullarbor Dreaming, he made with his friend and fellow cave diver Andrew Wight at the Pannikin Plains cave under the Nullarbor Plain.
“It was really so we could fund a cave-diving expedition in the Nullarbor Plain,” he says. “A lot more equipment than any of us could afford.
“After all,” he says, smiling, “I was just a tech with the ABC.”
He and Wight wanted to make more films, so Allum quit the ABC and travelled the world on a boat called the Quest.
“We went all around the southern oceans of Australia up to the Gulf of Carpentaria filming crocodiles and sharks, Barrier Reef to Alaska, through the Caribbean, Panama, Galapagos,” he says. “So we had quite a good time.”
Wight was headhunted by James Cameron to make a series of documentaries underwater. In 2000, Wight helped film a documentary on the wreck of the Titanic, which led to him working on Cameron’s underwater adventure Ghosts of the Abyss.
Allum’s expertise with 3D camera systems so impressed Cameron that he brought Allum on board for some further documentaries, including Expedition: Bismarck and Aliens of the Deep.
Allum was retained by Cameron to help in the technical side of his film projects. It’s been a fascinating and fruitful relationship.
“He definitely knows what he wants, what’s possible,” Allum says of Cameron. “He appreciates that things are sometimes hard to deliver, but as long as he knows – if it’s going to take two weeks you tell him … don’t tell him two days and string him out otherwise, yeah, he gets a bit stroppy.”
Cameron’s passion for knowledge and adventure is boundless, Allum says.
“The reason he made Titanic was so he could dive on it,” Allum says. “He pitched it to Fox and said, ‘I’ve got to go and dive on it first’, which he did. I think he was a bit surprised when Fox said, ‘Yeah, OK’.”
It’s probably appropriate that meetings with the man who has made cinema’s most successful epics go on for a bit. “This is often how things start. I’ve had meetings that go for 12 hours, a lot of them in California. Start at 10 in the morning and you end up at a restaurant called Tony’s where you take your notepads and the meeting concludes at midnight.
“A lot of the ideas would literally be on napkins. Or on the ship if you’re sailing back and you’re talking round the dinner table … you tend to spin a few stories.”
Allum is now in demand for consultancy on anything to do with underwater. When you’ve built the world’s biggest submersible and it has gone to the bottom of the sea, people come knocking. And that’s why they came to Allum to see whether he could help stem the flow of last year’s tragic Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“I was very indirectly consulted,” he says. “Jim’s brother said to (Cameron), ‘If anyone can stop this oil spill, it’s you’.
“Jim pulled a taskforce together. I flew to the US – this was all I believe at Jim’s expense. He organised a big meeting at the EPA headquarters in Washington.
“He definitely knows what he wants, what’s possible”
- Allum on working with film
director james Cameron
“He brought together a lot of people with a lot of deep-sea engineering expertise – not oil and gas people – to put a different perspective on it.
“One of the recommendations that came out of this meeting was an idea that I presented and that was a modification … I could have diverted, with a small modification that’s inexpensive, I could have diverted that oil into another pipeline.
“When I was called over, I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’ve got to learn a lot about oil and gas’. So I spent three or four days studying it in a Sydney Uni library, downloaded a few books online. When I landed in the US, we flew over to a specialist in deep-sea welling and we were briefed by this chap in Oklahoma.
“By the time we got to this meeting in Washington, there were quite a lot of experts, really, applying our deep-sea knowledge into that field, trying to come up with ideas.”
He doesn’t know why they didn’t use the ideas. “In reality it might have been difficult if perhaps not possible to change a manifold. I did a drawing afterwards and said, ‘Look, if this modification could be incorporated, maybe if something like that happened again, this could be an advantage’.”
Back in his new Sydney factory, it’s bracingly cold. A poster for Ghosts of the Abyss is on the wall. His desk is what you’d call minimally decorated. Allum is settling into his new life as a design star.
He shows me moulds on which the sub was built and says the Deepsea Challenger is now in drydock in the United States.
“We’re trying to make the technology available to other scientists and users, whether that’s a manned or unmanned vehicle or autonomously operated vehicle, or even just provide components. I’d be pretty happy to assist and make those products and services available.”
There are many scientific questions that he believes he can help answer.
“I can make devices for scientists and it’s absolutely a buzz to do that,” he says. “There is lots more to explore. There are quite a few deep trenches in the world, other really deep spots.
“One of our dives off New Guinea, the New Britain Trench, is 8000 metres – that’s not to be sneezed at; that’s a long way down, and there’s so much we don’t know about it.”
Allum’s father was an engineer.
“I never followed in his footsteps but I think had he been alive to know that I built one of the world’s biggest diving submersibles and pressure vessel to hold the pilot, he probably would have been pretty proud of me.”
Allum has been married to Yvette for 14 years and has two daughters, Madeleine, 12, and Sophie, 11. Are they proud of their father’s achievement? “I’m sure they are.”
I suggest he’d be a hell of a guest for show and tell. “Oh yeah,” he says, smiling.