Long Beach, California (CNN) -- A lifelong fascination with science fiction and the ocean has driven "Avatar" director James Cameron's career, he told the TED2010 conference Saturday.
"The ocean is so rich with amazing life," he said beginning a session called "Wisdom," the final one of the conference. "Nature's imagination is so boundless compared to our own human imagination."
Cameron said some thought his filming of "Titanic" was about the opportunity to depict "Romeo and Juliet" on the doomed ship. In fact, he said, "Secretly I wanted to dive to the wreck of the Titanic."
He did wind up exploring the wreck and said he saw amazing forms of underwater life. Cameron was struck by the comparison between deep ocean exploration and space travel; in both cases there's a search for alien creatures and no hope of rescue if you can't get back yourself. "I completely closed the loop between being a science fiction fan as a kid and doing this stuff for real."
TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, is a nonprofit that hosts conferences which attract an influential audience and prominent speakers, including Bill Gates this year and last year. TED makes its talks available for free on the web.
Cameron's ground-breaking film, Avatar, has received nine Academy Award nominations and is the highest-grossing film ever (without taking inflation into account).
A late addition to the program, he told the audience of 1,500 and hundreds of others watching remotely that he decided in his teens to become a scuba diver but lived in a little village in Canada 600 miles from the ocean. He became certified as a diver in a YMCA pool across the border in Buffalo, N.Y., but didn't get to start exploring the ocean until he moved to California two years later.
In the past 40 years, Cameron has spent 3,000 hours underwater, with 500 of that in submersibles.
Cameron says he's learned a lot about science, but even more significantly he has learned lessons about leadership.
He says he asked himself why he tackled exploration. "You're doing it for the challenge, the thrill of discovery and the strange bond that happens when a small group of people form a team," Cameron said. "In that bond you realize the most important thing is the respect that you have for them and they have for you."
In the four years he spent making "Avatar," he said he tried to apply that same lesson.
"Curiosity is the most powerful thing you own," he said. "Don't put limitations on yourself. Other people will do that for you...failure has to be an option in art and exploration because it's a leap of faith.
"In whatever you're doing, failure is an option, but fear is not."