“Seven Miles Deep” by Tom Graham


On March 26, 2012, Canadian film director James Cameron made the first solo dive into Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the ocean. Even as the rescue operation was underway, William was thinking of the event as a screenplay in the vein of Apollo 13 (1995), documenting both the drama of the disaster and the world holding its breath to follow it. He had known Cameron for several years, ever since working in an uncredited fashion on the script for Avatar(2009).  He even had the fortune of being at the gala event, alongside such other luminaries as Ron Howard and Paul Allen, when Cameron announced his plans for the Challenger dive.  Though he was not quite close enough with Cameron to have been invited to join him either aboard the Mermaid Sapphire, or Paul Allen’s yacht Octopus for the respective pre and post parties.

Thus he was at an overpriced L.A. sushi bar, dunking the last of his ahi tuna in soy sauce and wasabi, when he received the fateful tweet. “Critical failure of ballast release, #JimCameron expedition in danger.”  He liked to think millions of phones erupted at that moment with the same message. He liked to think that everyone, decades from now, would remember where they were when they got the Cameron tweet, but as he looked around the news had gone unnoticed; no other phone received that crucial vibration. But five minutes later the plasma screen, hanging above the bar, promptly switched from a Law and Order rerun to Brian Williams soberly announcing the news that set the world watching.

The film would open aboard the Mermaid Sapphire. James Cameron standing aboard the ship like a postmodern Jacques Cousteau, wearing thermal underwear and a black synthetic wool cap, posing for pictures before his tiny one-man sub Deapsea Challenger, which would dive seven miles beneath the surface between the impossibly high walls of the Mariana Trench.  The shot peels back to reveal the cameras and microphones surrounding him where he’s delivering his departing speech and thoughtfully stroking his white goatee: “As a child I was obsessed with the ocean and to this day, it is the last frontier on earth, as mysterious as the surface of an alien planet.”  Of course, we all know what awaits him at the bottom of that trench, his wide gung-ho grin becoming all the more tragic.

Cut to the months of preparation. A montage glossing over news hysteria, complete with footage of the practice dives, the Rolex/National Geographic co-sponsorship, and the eerie dry-run in the New Britain Trench, where the ballast release fails, but the fail-safe rusts out as planned, returning a cramped Cameron to the surface.

William jotted down these notes into his iPhone. Just a few hours before he had watched the Deepsea Challenge iPhone app display a stylized map of the ocean floor, pointing out historic landmarks of depth as Cameron rushed past them in his three hour descent. Oddly, the most efficient means of communication with the sub was in the form of texts, which were then tweeted upon arrival.

1000 feet: The deepest dive using scuba equipment. “The boiling temperature of the surface is starting to fall away to cold now, marine life present but distorted through turbulence.”

3300 feet: The beginning of the “midnight zone,” where light from above can no longer penetrate into the depths. “Well there it goes, the rest of the trip is going to be a long dark ride until we hit bottom.”

2.5 miles: the resting place of the Titanic.Read my manometer. #Titanic, one of my favorite depths.”

6.5 miles: the depth that the Trieste (the only other manned vehicle to descend into the Deep), reached as a viewing window cracked and the walls trembled.

Just under seven miles: touchdown.  “I’ve hit bottom.”

Cameron had loaded the sub with three sets of cameras. One was on the inside, in order to keep a visual diary, and two were on the outside, in order to film the Deep in perfect 3D.

We see the reception of the text back on the Mermaid Sapphire, the crew huddling around the communications room. There are cheers and shouts of jubilation.

One anxious looking man in the corner asks, “But the Rolex, is the Rolex still functioning?”

The Rolex has been attached to one of the robotic arms of the submersible, as if the arm was in fact wearing the timepiece.  Cameron moves the arm in view from the window to deliver the stunning report: “The Rolex watch is functioning and keeping perfect time.”

On the boat the cheers are renewed and this time the anxious man joins in.

For the moment, Cameron is in a place outside the world. He checks in every hour with the Mermaid Sapphire, but we see that there’s something in the way of disappointment for Cameron. The abyss is after all, black and dead. The surface of the trench is simply silt, the lights from the sub barely illuminating the darkness. He can see the wall of the trench on his left, and he sends up some preliminary photos, as well as taking samples of the sediment around him.

* * *

Cameron decides to cut the expedition short. The left hydraulic arm has failed due to a pressurized leak, and the sonar for topographical mapping isn’t functioning either, but when he flips the large switch to engage the ballast release, the sub doesn’t move. After a two hour descent and three hours on the bottom, he is going to have to wait another five to six for the fail-safe to engage.

Here, we cut again to Cameron before the dive. He says, “Actually, the greater danger down there, somewhat counter-intuitively, isn’t asphyxiation but hypothermia.”  There’s no climate control in the sub. He has been provided with a sleeping bag should it get too cold.

Back on the sub Cameron is bundled up, more than eight hours under, and he’s shivering violently. He attempts to keep warm inside his sleeping bag. Unfortunately, condensation has been building up inside the sub, and the moisture adds to his discomfort.

* * *

Until this point, the crew of the Mermaid Sapphire had still been under the impression that the fail-safe ballast release would function as intended. Unfortunately, two, then three hours past the deadline for the fail-safe, the sub had not so much as budged from its resting place.

Thus came the second tweet, the second tweet William would remember along with, at least, the rest of Hollywood, certainly. “Fail-safe ballast release failure. #JimCameron safety in jeopardy.”  He nearly choked over his vodka-Redbull. Again he looked up at the television above the bar, and countless heads were swiveling at just that moment where the muted news was displaying: “Critical update in the James Cameron expedition.”

The girl sitting next to William at the bar said, “Who’s James Cameron, is he some explorer?”

For the first time we see panic aboard the Mermaid Sapphire. In the communications room the head sub technician, Ron Allum, known as “The Professor” is contacting Cameron via radio as a large group of the crew crowds around him. “Access the hatch below your left knee.  You should be able to reach the wiring on this side.”  Given the failure of the fail-safe they’re attempting to repair the conventional mechanism. The Professor gives Cameron a long set of instructions, cross certain wires, attempt to bypass whatever is causing the interference.

“Well,” Cameron says, “any change?”

“…no, no change…”

He takes his hand off the radio transmitter. The technique here would be to dramatize the situation, moving the camera shakily around the room as the group of scientists talk in somber tones. “Do we have any idea why the fail-safe mechanism failed?”

“I have a theory,” one will say, perhaps the small one with a tie-clip and unfashionable glasses, who will be set up in some previous scene as being somewhat of the underdog. He refers to some of the preliminary images that Cameron was able to transmit. “See these darker points along the trench walls here and here? I believe these are caused by a halocline, the same process that creates blue holes. I’m going to suggest, that perhaps one of the reasons Challenger Deep seems to be an outlier, even in terms of the Mariana Trench, is that its actually an extremely large and ancient underwater blue hole, boring down into the earth and thus fresh water, so the fail-safe wouldn’t rust out as intended.”

Silence falls over our group of scientists. One asks, “Will we be able to recover him?”

According to almost all sources the following line was never said, but one man in the room states, “Well. He is seven miles deep.

Meanwhile, we see Cameron anxiously awaiting any news from above.

“…Jim… this is the Mermaid Sapphire… do you read us…”

“Yeah,” he says, “What’s the story up there?”

We can barely make out the words through the static, “…we think the fail-safe, um, failed, due to a peculiarity of your depth. We think you’re in fresh water…”

“How is that possible?” he asks.

“…we think it might be an ancient aquifer, random chance, just bad luck…”

“What do we do?”

“…umm. Jim. We may not be able to recover you…”

The camera closes into Cameron’s face. We see conflicting emotions of anguish and disbelief.  He pounds his fists against the side of the sub.

Cut again to Cameron before the dive. “If something should go wrong,” he says, “if for some reason something prevents me from returning to the surface, it’ll be a slow death. It’ll be a race between freezing to death and asphyxiation, but I’ve got 60 hours worth of O2, so freezing wins.”

* * *

In his L.A. apartment, William was buzzed awake by a vibration on the table. “Rescue operation under way, #US Navy plans to use the 1960s DVS Trieste.”William immediately got up and turned on his 65 inch plasma.

He caught the tail end of the report, “Race against time. The Trieste will be in place for the dive in about five hours from now. Then it’s another five hours for the dive. By that time Cameron will have been in the sub for 37 hours. The Mermaid Sapphire is still receiving communication from Cameron, but have growing concerns over possible hypothermia. You can keep track of the status of the Trieste via the National Geographic DeepseaChallenger app.”

We see the Navy ship tie up to the Mermaid Sapphire. Its cargo is the now ancient bathyscaphe Trieste, the only other submersible that can achieve the depths of the trench. It will be manned by two SEALs. We can see as the Trieste is slowly lowered into the water, the large crack still present on the viewing window. (Of course this was long repaired, but it’ll be added in as a poignant image.)

As the Trieste descends, The Professor explains how the rescue operation will work.  “The Trieste was designed as a much larger craft. It measures out to be 150 tons as opposed to the Deepsea Challenger, which is just under 12. We’ve affixed a large electromagnet to the bottom of Trieste. They will locate Cameron via sonar. The hope is, that they will be able to snare his submersible with the electromagnet, and the buoyancy of the Trieste will be enough to carry them both to the surface.”

With the Trieste descending, we cut to Cameron as he delivers his last transmission. He appears exhausted, his face beginning to have splotches of red and black: the beginning of severe frost bite. He is engaging in paradoxical undressing (the hypothalamus beginning to misfire as the heat-loss is becoming particularly deadly.)  He has shed his sleeping bag. What we see now parallels the very first shot of Cameron, proud and stalwart. Here he is the same, but out of an increasing delusion.

“Do you read me Mermaid Sapphire,” he says.

“… we read you…”

“Is Ron there?”

There’s a shuffling on the end of the line.

“… Jim.  It’s Ron…”

“Hey Professor.”  His words are beginning to sound slurred, the cold slowing down his processing.

“…hey yourself, Jim…”

“I need you to do me a favor.”


“I think this is going to be my grave.”

“…James, we’re coming to rescue you…”

“No,” he says, “It won’t work. There’s something out there in the dark, looking at me.”

“…You know that’s impossible…”

We can’t know what is running through his mind here, maybe only drawing from his films. Perhaps, in order to deal with the impenetrable dark, he is creating an alien antagonist, residing in the comb-like holes in the trench’s wall.

“It’s out there,” he says, “The Trieste may find me, but I’ll already be dead. So you gotta do me a favor.”

“…okay, Jim, what?…”

“Destroy the footage of my cameras.  It’s crap anyway.  Nothing but darkness and diatomaceous ooze (this he didn’t actually say, it’s appropriated, instead, from the Trieste‘s 1960 dive).  It’s the abyss down here Ron, and you know what Nietzsche said about the abyss?”

“…What did he say?…”

“When you look into the abyss, it looks into you. We’re not meant to look into the abyss, Ron. To bring the footage back up would be to bring the abyss’s eye to the surface.”

“…that’s crazy talk, Jim…”

“Is it?”  He laughs. “Yeah, sure. I’m gonna rest now, the creature out there can take it or leave it.”

“…Jim?  Jim do you read me?  Respond…”

Cameron moves away from the radio.  He lies down as best he can within the cramped space. The radio still crackles in and out.

“…Jim?  Respond Jim…”

On the Mermaid Sapphire,The Professor repeatedly tries to reconnect with Cameron to no avail. Hours later he’s still making attempts every 15 minutes, greeted only with silence. As the Trieste falls into the sea, we hear a repeat of depths in military jargon, deadly serious, lacking the joviality of Cameron’s initial descent. The film has gone quiet, and we are in purgatory. We know outside this radio station, however, life continues. It’s as if Cameron has become a permanent fixture of the deep, a reminder to future explorers, like the frozen bodies of Everest: momentous and unrecoverable.

* * *

William received the tweet, “Contact made with #JimCameron, Trieste on the ascent,” nearly six hours before.  Now he was back at the same bar idly flirting with the bartender all the while keeping his iPhone before him with the app open and watching the ascent, excruciatingly slow with the added weight of Cameron’s sub.

Nobody knew what they would find when they sawed open the Deepsea Challenger. He had been out of contact for 9 hours. If the scrubbers behaved admirably, he should have had enough oxygen, but given his state in the last communication, it was unknown if the hypothermia had advanced too far.

Like Apollo 13, it only really got interesting when it failed. The world watched on the edge of their seats as the news camera zoomed in on the hull, sparks flying from the blowtorch.  Everyone in the bar was suddenly quiet; conversation and the clink of glasses ceased. The pressurization of the cabin popped as they removed the hatch. They reached in to find Cameron alive, but barely so.

The way he had imagined it, Cameron would pop back to life, exposed to the warm tropic air.  He wakes up and after a few minutes huddled in blankets, we see touches of black on his face, his hands are wrapped, but nonetheless it recalls the end of The Abyss (1989) where Bud strolls triumphantly out of the alien craft, despite his assumed death warrant at the bottom of the ocean. We see that same cocky grin, knowing that this isn’t the end of Cameron, but one insignificant trial in his career.

As he watched the footage of Cameron, however, William’s image of the return was quickly corrected. Instead, he was unclothed, though found lying underneath his layers, an unconscious attempt to re-heat. Cameron was loaded into a gurney. He was not Bud; he was someone on the brink of death, and the world was yet to know if he would survive, much less become stronger from the ordeal.

Cameron lost his feet and several fingers. He was left with some brain damage, which resulted in a severe stutter. He declined interviews. Incidentally, the sub’s Rolex was discovered to function perfectly.

It was almost a year later when William met Cameron again.  He had finished a script for Seven Miles Deep and Cameron had expressed interest. When he entered the study, Cameron was waiting for him. He wore a black turtle neck, matching the discoloration of his face, and two gleaming prosthetic feet were visible below his pant legs.

“I read your script,” he said.

“Yeah?” asked William, “What did you think?”

“The footage from the sub is unusable.”

Cameron pressed a remote, and a wooden panel slid away to reveal a television screen.

“Here,” he said. Bubbling underwater turbulence, blue giving way to black.

“Here,” again. Blackness all around, the distant image of what might be a rock face. The camera pans to the ground, a flat, apparently dusty surface, panning again to the Rolex.

“And here.” An ascent, turbulence again, only blackness to light.

“You see?” said Cameron.

There was no humor in his voice. William nodded.

“It’s unusable,” he said, “Not an ounce of material. Why bother to film black in 3D?”


“And the ending’s wrong,” he said.  “You have me returning. This line here, about the men trapped on Everest. That’s more like it.  Maybe that could be a film.”

William learned after his meeting that Cameron already had a film in the works. He had abandoned his previous pursuits; Avatar 2 and 3 were taken over by Lucas, and Cameron focused his attention on Hadopelagic. When it came out years later, the world had almost forgotten about Cameron. It was decidedly avant-garde. It depicted a man living in a Bathysphere, deep in the trench. He received shipments from above, but he was trapped, the darkness his only companion. Meanwhile, the world was increasingly shallow, an orgy ever ongoing on the yacht above. There were large portions of the film left black. The movie began and ended in a sort of stasis, never resolving the solitude of this man, and the world continued as though it always will. The movie flopped at the box office, but many hailed it his best work.

Tom Graham is a writer who lives and works in Seattle, WA.  He received his MA in English and creative writing at Western Washington University.

Read Tom Graham’s comments on Anthony Spaeth’s “Ilpohechatoka!”

Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
There are some stories that just leap off the page at you with their creativity and execution, and this was definitely one, for me. The melding of truth and fiction is executed seamlessly in a way that makes the situation that much more visceral, and the momentum of the action kept me hooked through the entire piece. That there’s plenty more going on herea fantastic use of twisted parody that plays on the power of celebrity, the dangers of obsession and the loneliness found in the sudden recognition of one’s mortalitymade this a story that we simply had to publish.
Comments on this story by Sam Grieve, author of “Blackwood”
“Seven Miles Deep” is an extremely thought provoking story. The writing is crisp and engaging, and the subject matter engrossing, with the author daringly re-imagining the historicity of a recent, and real, event—James Cameron’s solo descent into the deepest part of the ocean in 2012. We meet William a “friend” of James Cameron, transfixed by the tragedy unfolding before him but parasitically using it to fuel his own creative urges. This is not just an exercise in what-if, it is a complex metaphor on the ethics of creativity, the devolution of human emotion through our addiction to technology, and a dire warning on the monsters we may become. Ironic, beautifully timed and subtle, “Seven Miles Deep” is a must read that will keep you mulling for days. Loved it.

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