The National Geographic's cafeteria was transformed into an underwater fantasy for Thursday's "Evening of Exploration: Oceans" gala. (Rebecca Hale/ National Geographic)

It’s great to win an Oscar, but plenty of people get those. Becoming a National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence: Now that’s cool.

“I’m not worthy,” said a humble James Cameron, director of “Titanic” and “Avatar,” the two highest-grossing films of all time. “Everyone sort of sees me as a Hollywood guy, but that’s not how I see myself. When I was a teenager in the ’60s, my heroes were the explorers.”

It’s a rare honor, so Cameron was genuinely thrilled to be included in Thursday’s “Evening of Exploration: Oceans” gala at the institution’s D.C. headquarters. He’s had a lifelong interest in ocean exploration and conservation; “Titanic” was inspired by his obsession with the legendary wreck. But, despite his celebrity, Cameron took a back seat to the real stars of the night: renowned explorers such as Robert Ballard, Wade Davis, Sylvia Earle and Dereck and Beverly Joubert, and the 2011 “Emerging Explorers” — young scientists following in their footsteps.

“They’re modern-day Jacques Cousteaus,” said co-chair Wayne Reynolds. “I wouldn’t have the guts to do what they do in a million years.”

Explorer Wade Davis, director James Cameron, and Terri Skiles, widow of National Geographic photographer Wes Skiles. (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)

The inaugural gala dinner, which raised $1.5 million, was conceived by Reynolds and his wife, Catherine, as a way to highlight the work of these low-key heroes. The institution’s cafeteria was transformed into an underwater extravaganza: Guests walked a blue carpet, then found themselves surrounded by coral and seaweed draped from the ceiling and scenes of marine life swimming on the walls. “I feel as if I should be here in my scuba gear,” said Roger Sant. “It’s really amazing.”

The ocean theme was woven through the night: Environmental anthropologist Kenny Broad and photographer Wes Skiles were named Explorers of the Year (Skiles died shortly after the two completed an expedition to the Bahamas’ underwater caves last year). Chef Barton Seaver, a National Geographic Fellow, created a menu of sustainable food and wine; musician and environmentalist Jack Johnson sang for the crowd, and scientists from the International Space Station sent a personal shout-out for their astronauts’ view of the world’s oceans, which cover 70 percent of the earth.

Cameron’s next project is to man a small submarine that can dive 36,000 feet in the Pacific Ocean and explore parts never seen by human eyes. “That feeds my soul in a way none of the Hollywood stuff can do,” he told the crowd. “When you’re making a movie, everybody’s read the script and they know what’s going to happen next. When you’re on an expedition, Nature hasn’t read the script, the ocean hasn’t read the script, and no one knows what’s going to happen next.”