“I also want to thank all our shareholders, who have been amazing supporters of this project, with whom we couldn’t do it,” Rush told the crowd. “The days of government funding are gone. It really needs to be a private enterprise, just as exploration was at the turn of the last century, where people with means make the exploration possible.”Now, five years after that event, Titan is missing at sea with five people aboard after the submersible lost contact during a dive to the Titanic, the flagship destination for OceanGate's curious mix of startup adventure tourism and nominally scientific documentation of the degrading wreck. They are adventurer Hamish Harding; Paul-Henri Nargeolet, an explorer and director of underwater research for the company that owns salvage rights to Titanic; businessman Shahzada Dawood and his teenage son Suleman; and Rush himself. If they are alive, they have mere hours of air left as crews of highly-skilled experts and military vehicles search for signs of the craft and its occupants 400 miles south of St. John's, Newfoundland.
“It is a huge, vast opportunity.”
OceanGate christened its first Cyclops vessel in March 2015. The company started construction of Cyclops 2, which would become Titan, in 2017. In April 2018, OceanGate sought deep sea certification for the vessel in the Bahamas, before planning to dive to the Titanic shipwreck in June that year. OceanGate has since made multiple successful trips to the site. In a YouTube video, OceanGate said the company made a dive in April 2019 to 3,760 meters with 4 people inside. The company said this marked “the first time a non-military manned submersible has taken more than 3 people to nearly 2.34 miles below the sea surface.”
Commercial dive trips, the kind you’d do on a holiday after a few short lessons at a resort, typically don’t go deeper than 20 or 30 feet. Beginner wrecks in shallow water sit at around 100 feet. Even these "safer" wrecks are risky and it’s easy to become disoriented. “You’ve got limited visibility,” Andy Ogburn, a wreck diver, told Motherboard. “You’ve got air bubbles that will dislodge sediment from the ceiling, which may be a wall or a floor depending on the orientation of the wreck.”“You have people that will go hiking at the state park versus going up to the Appalachian Trail to going to Mount Everest,” Ogburn said. If diving in the Bahamas is like a state park, then visiting something like the Andrea Doria, a wreck off the coast of Long Island which sits at 200 feet, is like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Diving the Lusitania would be like climbing Everest.
“It's not a ride at Disney. There's a lot of real risk involved. There's a lot of challenges.”
Promotional materials posted on YouTube by OceanGate emphasize to potential customers how safe the dives down to the Titanic supposedly are. "OceanGate Expeditions offers you the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a specially-trained crew member safely diving to the Titanic wreckage site," an ad for the 2023 Titanic expedition intones. "Get ready for what Jules Verne could only imagine: a 12,500-foot journey to the bottom of the sea!"A testimonial in the ad features Chelsea Kellogg, OceanGate's master chef, describing how safe diving in the company's submersible is. "Not one second of me experiencing anything from OceanGate have I ever felt unsafe," she said. Another portion of the video explains how dive day begins with a round of safety checks, and when the submersible surfaces after a dive, more safety checks are performed for the next team. Despite this focus on safety, some portions of the ad betray an element of inherent danger. "It's not a ride at Disney. There's a lot of real risk involved. There's a lot of challenges," Aaron Newman, a software security expert, said. “Every time you take to the sea, there's so many things that have to go right," Scott Parazynski, a former NASA astronaut who is on OceanGate's board of directors, says in the ad. "All the electrical systems and navigation systems that have to check out… This is a very complex vehicle."
Whatever the involvement of outside experts, it doesn’t seem that the Titan’s experimental hull ever was, or even could be, properly tested for safety. David Lochridge, OceanGates’s former director of marine operations, claimed in court filings that he was wrongly fired after raising concerns about the testing of the hull—among them, specifically, was that certain testing wasn’t done at all."Lochridge was repeatedly told that no scan of the hull or Bond Line could be done to check for delaminations, porosity and voids of sufficient adhesion of the glue being used due to the thickness of the hull,” according to the filing. “Lochridge was told that no form of equipment existed to perform such a test." Risk-averse navies do things differently, Ballantyne said. "Any welds created in a military submarine hull have to be perfect, are carried out by highly skilled shipyard workers and are X-rayed to make sure there are no defects that could cause structural failure,” Ballantyne explained. “Military submarines are constantly monitored and receive major dockyard refits to ensure they can continue to operate safely for decades. All vessels have shelf life and there is an increasing need to make sure the hull integrity is safe and sound as time goes on, and so refits take longer and cost more.”
"Lochridge was repeatedly told that no scan of the hull or Bond Line could be done to check for delaminations, porosity and voids of sufficient adhesion of the glue being used due to the thickness of the hull. Lochridge was told that no form of equipment existed to perform such a test."
After his speech in front of the crowd in April 2018, Rush turned to Tony Nissen, OceanGate’s director of engineering, who stood behind him. Nissen looked at the bottle in his hands, and froze in place for a second longer than seemed natural. After the hesitation, he said “and with this, I hereby christen Titan.” Nissen slammed the bottle against Titan, and the bottle shattered. The crowd watching cheered, clapped, and walloped. As the description on the YouTube video showing the christening said, “This maritime tradition is believed to bring good luck and safe travel to the vessel.”