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Water, Water Everywhere
By Christopher A. Debiec
Photos by Andrew Wright

"Two ships, four manned submersibles, 40 dives at 10 sites in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans … I like big operations, but this one was off the hook.”

Yeah, tell me about it.

Russian MIR "Cowboy” disconnecting a submersible "umbilical cord.”
That was James Cameron’s quote regarding Aliens of the Deep, one of the four ocean documentaries his company Earthship Productions produced from 2000 to 2005 — you know, the time between Titanic and Avatar. It’s funny how many people asked me during that time, "So, when is Jim going to do another film?” (Hmmm, I thought we were doing two films… Aren’t documentaries for the big screen considered films these days?)

Cameron developed the cameras used for Avatar on these projects. He partnered with underwater 3D camera specialist Vincent Pace to perfect what he envisions as "the holy grail of cameras” — a high-definition rig that is maneuverable, digital, high- resolution, 3D and won’t give viewers a headache.

As his associate producer/production manager for those five years, I had to build a whole new skill set for what lay ahead. Before Ghosts of the Abyss, the only water-based show I had worked on was a really bad German soap opera in the Florida Keys, so when I signed on to work with Earthship, my idea of working on water was about to take a whole new direction.

A MIR launch at sea.

My aqua education began when producer and PGA member Peter Barnett hired me to production manage the BTS footage for Ghosts of the Abyss. I hadn’t been back a week from shooting a film in Cambodia, City of Ghosts with Matt Dillon, when I and six crew guys were put on a flight to St. John’s, Newfoundland. All I knew was that we needed to install about a dozen surveillance cameras on the Russian ship Akademik Keldysh, the same ship used in Titanic. Upon arriving at the ship there was a problem with the local longshoreman. They refused to unload any of the 10 shipping containers and four trucks waiting on the dock until a deal point was resolved. So, without knowing the full situation, my crew and I took the initiative and spent the next several hours unloading the trucks and containers ourselves. That was a huge no-no. When you arrive into a port of call, don’t touch anything until you know what’s going on. You can get into a lot of trouble with the locals if you load even one case without approval from the longshoremen. Luckily for us, Cameron saw it as a big help regardless of the fine they paid.

Another lesson learned: Your crew should be prepared to wear many hats. No matter how big or small your budget, having a smaller, more elite team of multifaceted professionals willing to do anything for success should be a necessary requirement, especially if you happen to be working for a demanding visionary like Cameron. Also remember, when you make crew deals, they’re on a boat, so days off and hours worked should be flexible, if possible. (No one will be heading into town for dinner, if you catch my drift.)


James Cameron (left) with brother and safety officer, John David Cameron.
Just as in any form of production, safety and communications are extremely important, but when working on the water, it can literally mean life or death. Our entire production depended on us coming up with a system that worked. Our Russian ship’s crew that "wrangle” the MIR submersibles surface recovery are nicknamed "cowboys” — when you watch them do their thing, you’ll understand why. One night, the seas were so rough, they had a major problem attaching the "umbilical cord” to one of the MIRs; if it weren’t for the safety officer implementing their marine recovery protocols, the cowboy easily could have drowned. On all our expeditions, we hired a surface and safety coordinator that was also a six-year marine and Iraq war veteran, who just happened to be Jim Cameron’s brother, JD (John David Cameron). Trust me, nepotism had nothing to do with it. Each mobilization was run like a full-blown military campaign and the ocean was our enemy to conquer. JD and Jim drafted a set of safety procedures that contained all "in case of emergency” scenarios we could possibly conceive. Inevitably, it was the one they didn’t think of that sneaked up and bit us in the ass.

On Aliens of the Deep, our A-frame launching crane had a cylinder breakdown and we couldn’t launch our subs in the conventional method. As Jim observed, "We can’t just call ‘Cranes R Us’ and have this thing fixed. We’re 300 miles at sea, for fuck’s sake.” So minutes after the breakdown, Jim, JD and our ship’s captain focused on an alternative solution. Several hours and 40 pages of diagrams later, they devised a way to launch the subs by cutting away one side of the ship and sliding them into the water by using the ship’s smaller crane. Lesson No. 2: Thinking outside of the box will always save your ass out on the high seas. Marine walkies are standard for ship-to-ship communications. Most show walkies should work on board, but it would be a good idea to test them prior to setting sail. The Keldysh had extremely thick steel walls that occasionally interfered with our walkies. As you might imagine, a few crew members blamed the walkies for being crap and thought nothing of hurling them overboard. Lesson No. 3: A hair dryer, cotton swabs and alcohol will never really repair the damage, but can temporarily fool the vendor in thinking it was a manufacturer malfunction. You’ll still have to pay for it in the long run, so make sure you have the proper insurance.

Testing the submersibles in Miami, Florida

One of the many responsibilities I had was to oversee the inventory, packing and shipping of all the equipment used at sea. As Cameron told me, "Bring two of everything, because it’s that one, five-dollar part we miss that can shut us down.” Talk about stress… On Aliens of the Deep I shipped one flat rack, with two submersibles and two 40-foot shipping containers to Miami, Florida, to meet with our sister ship the EDT Ares, and four 40-foot trucks convoying up to Newfoundland to meet with the Keldysh. Once the trucks to Canada left our headquarters, they had to be sealed for customs and security purposes, so at that stage, whatever we forgot was going in our own luggage — and be careful about what you try to stow in your carry-on.


Customs brokers and ship’s agents are your best contacts when working in ports and overseas. At the very least, there’s no one better to have in your corner if you’re being detained in a customs holding area in Marseilles, France. In 2002, Cameron sent me to France on what JD explained as "a black ops mission on a need-to-know basis.” I wasn’t told what I was going to be doing in France until I arrived in Marseilles. It was surreal. My taxi driver couldn’t find the address I had, so I called JD in Malibu explaining where I was; he said, "Sit tight. Jim will be there in five.” All I was thinking was, yeah, right. I’m in a little town in the south of France with no landmarks. How will he find me?

A-frame launching crane with submersible
on the vessel Ares.

Of course, five minutes later a silver van pulled up and there was Cameron and his whole family. Still not knowing what I was doing, Jim, like an excited kid on Christmas, nudged me: "Wait ’til you see, wait ’til you see…” By this time, I was three years into working with Earthship Productions, so nothing surprised me anymore.

We arrived at a nondescript building behind a feed mill. Our French driver got out and started to open the padlocked door; all the time, Jim was nudging me, "wait ’til you see, wait ’til you see…” The door swung open to reveal a giant warehouse filled with every piece of marine expedition equipment you can imagine, including a pair of two-man submersibles weighing six tons each, standing 15 feet high and 12 feet wide. These were the submarines we would use for Aliens of the Deep. Cameron turned to me and asked, "So, how long will it take for you to photograph, inventory, pack and ship all of this to my ranch in Santa Barbara?”

Now mind you, this was the first time I was told why I was in France, so my first thought was to laugh, then cry. Knowing that neither would fly with Jim, I put hand to chin, walked around the warehouse and with Cameron staring intently at me, ultimately blurted out, "Eight weeks.”

"Eight weeks?!” he screamed. "You’re fucking kidding me! You have four.”

About 3½ weeks later — don’t ask me how; some secrets should be taken to the grave — I was at the Marseilles airport, with the operating manuals to the submersibles in my carry- on luggage. It was 2002 and the world still had 9/11 fresh in its collective mind. So when my customs agent asked me what the manuals were for, I responded, "These books tell you how to operate a submarine.”

I guess that was the wrong answer, because they escorted me to a backroom with no windows and started to interrogate. Luckily, I had the business card to my local shipping agent who explained the whole thing; since I wasn’t an authorized shipper of such material, they needed more details from a reliable source. After five hours, I was free, but missed my flight. Several months later, two military intelligence guys showed up at our Malibu office asking for me. JD took care of that one. But the experience left me something else to remember it by: From now on, I always have to go through an extended search whenever I fly. So again… be careful about what you put in your carry-on.

RV Akademik Mstislav Keldysh (Russia), at dock in St. Johns, Newfoundland.

But France was a walk in the park compared to what happened to us Mexico. At the end of our shoot we demobilized in Guaymas, Mexico, and even though we had all the proper paperwork, I was stuck for two weeks while the Mexican customs officials tore through our trucks. Guaymas is generally a mineral and grain port, so when we pulled the 400-foot Russian behemoth to the dock, it might as well been an alien spaceship landing. The customs agents, puzzled, pulled out numerous items and quizzed me every day on them. Not only did we have cameras, lights, and miscellaneous production gear, we also had scientific apparatus from NASA. I didn’t know exactly what every piece of gear was used for, so I had to improvise a description for any item I didn’t know. It was like being on the old game show Liars Club, if that show had been produced by the Mexican government. By the time I was done, I could identify and describe every piece in all four of our trucks, at least, according to my own half-invented account of what they were.


During every expedition, Cameron would write on the white board in our mission control the following statements, which we all tried to live by:


Any type of photography on the water is difficult and expensive. Give yourself enough prep time, always plan for the unexpected, budget 15% more then what you had and above all, have a good attitude, because the ship gets real small, real fast.