People & Culture

“Mentorship is magical”: James Cameron, Joe MacInnis celebrate exploration, friendship at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society

Canadian-born filmmaker and deep-sea explorer James Cameron helped celebrate his lifelong friend and mentor Dr. Joe MacInnis with a day of events at Canada’s Centre for Geography and Exploration

  • Published Jul 19, 2023
  • Updated Aug 16
  • 1,138 words
  • 5 minutes
Canadian-born deep-sea explorer and filmmaker James Cameron, left, chatted about leadership and exploration with his lifelong mentor Joe MacInnis at a daylong celebration of MacInnis hosted by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society July 18. (Photo: Melody Maloney/Can Geo)
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It was a day all about friendship. A day about mentorship. It was a day to honour the long and storied career of acclaimed Canadian physician-scientist and deep-sea explorer Dr. Joe MacInnis.

In a wide-ranging hourlong conversation that was broadcast live on CTV News’ website, Cameron and MacInnis discussed the beginning of their friendship, the importance of encouraging youth to pursue their curiosity, and the future of ocean exploration. (Photo: Melody Maloney/Can Geo)
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MacInnis was joined by his most famous protégé — fellow undersea explorer James Cameron — for a daylong program of events at Canada’s Centre for Geography and Exploration, headquarters of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Cameron, who is internationally renowned for his blockbuster films but also for his feats of exploration and advocacy for the environment, travelled to Ottawa to honour the mentor who encouraged him to pursue his fascination with the deep sea.

The celebration kicked off with an hourlong fireside chat, which was streamed live online by CTV News. MacInnis and Cameron were joined by Vassy Kapelos, host of CTV’s Question Period and CTV News Channel’s Power Play, who moderated a lively discussion on the theme “the magic of mentoring.”

The duo began by talking about how they first struck up a correspondence in 1969 when 14-year-old Cameron visited Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, which was at the time featuring Sublimnos, an undersea research station MacInnis had designed. The teenaged Cameron sent a sketch of Sublimnos to MacInnis, asking for the blueprints so he could build his own submersible. To Cameron’s amazement, the busy physician and diver — who he regarded as “Canada’s Jacques Cousteau” — wrote back, encouraging him to go ahead with his project. (Cameron would go on to build his own model submersible, put a mouse inside, and lower it deep into a nearby river. The mouse survived.) A friendship, and a mentorship, was born.

“Mentorship is magical,” said MacInnis as Cameron finished his story, “because it moves information from one generation to the next. And it’s reciprocal because there is a lovely exchange between two paired minds trying to overcome obstacles.” 

Cameron agreed, noting that the very fact that MacInnis wrote back to him made him feel empowered to believe that it was possible to try that first big experiment. “When you have that moment of empowerment — when someone believes in you — all of a sudden a switch is thrown in your head and you believe it’s possible.”

Left to right: Joe MacInnis, James Cameron and RCGS CEO John Geiger take part in a press conference inside the Alex Trebek Theatre at 50 Sussex Drive, where Cameron’s DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible is being exhibited. (Photo: Melody Maloney/Can Geo)
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James Cameron speaks to media in front of DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, the cutting-edge submersible he helped design and then piloted to the deepest known point in the ocean in 2012. (Photo: Melody Maloney/Can Geo)
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“Mentorship is magical because it moves information from one generation to the next. There is a lovely exchange between two paired minds trying to overcome obstacles.” 

Joe MacInnis

The rest, as they say, is history; Cameron went on to become an Academy Award-winning director whose films broke new ground in the realm of cinematography and special effects, and who undertook a series of deep ocean expeditions, including 33 dives to the wreck of Titanic and his history-making solo dive to the Challenger Deep in 2012. Those accomplishments, and the inherent dangers of exploring the deep, were very much on everyone’s mind just a month after the catastrophic implosion of the Titan, a private submersible that was carrying five passengers to the Titanic wreck. (MacInnis opened the discussion by acknowledging the families of the five souls lost in that accident).

RCGS Honorary President Perry Bellegarde, right, and President Lois Mitchell, left, presented Cameron with the Society’s Gold Medal, which recognizes outstanding achievements in the fields of geography and exploration. (Photo: Melody Maloney/Can Geo)
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Both Cameron and MacInnis agreed that future ocean exploration must be undertaken with humility and a spirit of respect for the planet and the global ocean. “If we’re going to have a conversation with the ocean through science and engineering, it has to be done with reverence. It has to be done with great love,” MacInnis said. 

Following the inspiring discussion, Royal Canadian Geographical Society CEO John Geiger took the stage alongside Honorary President Perry Bellegarde and President Lois Mitchell to award Cameron the Society’s Gold Medal, honouring his achievements in deep ocean exploration and his ongoing commitment to environmental sustainability. (MacInnis received the prestigious medal in 2022 and serves as Honorary Vice-President of the Society.) 

Cameron said it meant a lot to him to be honoured in his homeland of Canada, but added, “We don’t [explore] for medals or honours or for moments like this. We do it because of a burning curiosity to go and see.

“I call it bearing witness,” he said. “It’s the difference between imagining — doing science in a lab — and feeling compelled to just go and look.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embraces Joe MacInnis outside 50 Sussex. Trudeau said MacInnis, who was close friends with his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was a constant presence throughout his childhood — “a guide, a counsel, a friend.” (Photo: Melody Maloney/Can Geo)
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau salutes MacInnis: “A guide, a counsel, a friend”

A cocktail reception in MacInnis’ honour followed the fireside chat, emceed by former federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna. McKenna led the room in a champagne toast to “a great Canadian, a wonderful, lifelong mentor, a great ocean explorer, and someone who understands the incredible importance of protecting the only planet we have.” 

At the official opening of Canada’s Centre for Geography and Exploration in 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised MacInnis as a mentor, saying “He taught me to explore. He taught me to dream. He taught me to test my limits.” The Prime Minister was once again on hand to honour MacInnis on this star-studded evening. In a stirring speech, Trudeau said MacInnis was one of few friends his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, welcomed into his inner circle. 

James Cameron poses with Prime MInister Justin Trudeau and RCGS CEO John Geiger at a reception honouring Joe MacInnis, a lifelong mentor to both Cameron and Trudeau. (Photo: Melody Maloney/Can Geo)
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“Joe was always there,” he recalled, often spending hours talking with the elder Trudeau about diving and ocean science. Throughout the Trudeau children’s lives, MacInnis was “a presence, a guide, a counsel, a friend” who had a special ability to live in the moment and encouraged those around him to do the same. 

“Everyone who has been impacted by Joe knows it, feels it, and is transformed by it,” Trudeau said. 

Cameron once again paid tribute to his mentor, noting MacInnis’ listening skills and keen ability to discern the needs of a team working in a high-risk situation like a deep-sea expedition. “Whenever I went into a hard project, I would ask his advice, and I would listen to what he said about the psychological dynamics of the team.” 

To commemorate their crowning achievement, the 2012 Deepsea Challenge, Cameron presented MacInnis with a signed block of syntactic foam that travelled to the bottom of the Mariana Trench on DEEPSEA CHALLENGER

Ultimately, it was MacInnis who had the last word, quipping that “it’s amazing to be present at your own eulogy.” 

After thanking his family and friends, who he said have made him “the luckiest guy in the world,” he ended with a final thought that drew enormous laughter and applause: “If I’d known that my heart attack and my stroke would have led to this moment, I would have had them much sooner.” 

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