What we know about the missing Titanic tourist submersible

Titan submersible
Titan submersible by OceanGate. (Image Credit: OceanGate)

A privately-owned submersible watercraft with five people on board has been missing shortly after it set out to explore the site of the famed Titanic shipwreck in the North Atlantic.

The submersible craft called the Titan lost contact with the surface ship an hour and 45 minutes after it started to dive on June 18 (Sunday). The craft’s journey to the bottom of the ocean and back was supposed to take about eight hours.

The expedition to the Titanic wreck site was organized and led by the U.S. company OceanGate. Each participant on the sub paid US$250,000 for the eight-day trip.

Dwindling air supply: Rescue efforts began immediately, but the clock is ticking. The submersible had an oxygen supply to sustain its crew for 96 hours, dwindling by the hour.

Banging sounds heard: On Wednesday, U.S. Coast Guard officials said that airplanes participating in the search detected underwater noises in the North Atlantic. The information has been shared with experts from the US Navy as the search continues.

This infographic by Channel News Asia take a closer look at the Titan submersible, owned by OceanGate, which has gone missing with five people aboard. (Image Credit: CNA)

What initially started as an adventure has turned into a desperate rescue mission. American, Canadian, and French crews are searching the sea for any sign of the vessel. “This is a search and rescue mission, 100%,” said Captain Jamie Frederick of the First Coast Guard District. “We are smack dab in the middle of search and rescue and we’ll continue to put every available asset that we have in an effort to find the Titan and the crew members.”

Weather, darkness, sea conditions, and water temperature are factors that impact search-and-rescue operations at sea. Underwater rescue missions are particularly challenging compared to surface operations. Despite some hope, the mission faces numerous obstacles including locating the vessel, reaching it with rescue equipment, and bringing it to the surface before the passengers’ oxygen supply depletes.

Searchers said they are “very aware of the time sensitivity around this mission”. One of the vessels, the John Cabot, has “side scanning sonar capabilities” and joins the Skandi Vinland and the Atlantic Merlin on the search, USCG said. Side scan sonar is a system used for “detecting and imaging objects on the seafloor,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Where is the Titanic wreckage?

The 22-foot carbon-fiber and titanium craft Titan was deployed by a Canadian expedition ship, Polar Prince, to travel nearly 13,000 feet (3,800 meters) down to the shipwreck site, about 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Titanic, the biggest steamship in the world at that time, hit an iceberg four days into its first trans-Atlantic voyage in 1912. More than 1,500 people died as the ship sank to the bottom of the ocean.

Who are the Passengers?

Those aboard the vessel are pilot Stockton Rush, the CEO of the company leading the expedition, a British adventurer, two members of a Pakistani business family, and a Titanic expert.

Shahzada and Suleman Dawood: British-Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his 19-year-old son Suleman Dawood are adventure lovers. The father-and-son duo belongs to one of Pakistan’s prominent families. Shahzada Dawood is the vice chairman of Engro Corporation, the largest diversified conglomerate in Pakistan.

Hamish Harding: A 58-year-old British billionaire and explorer residing in Dubai is also on board. In 2021, he set a Guinness World Record for the longest time spent traversing the deepest part of the ocean on a single dive. He is also the founder and chairman of Dubai-based Action Aviation. He flew to space last summer on a mission by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket company.

Paul-Henry Nargeolet: Also on board is the former French navy officer and Titanic expert. Nargeolet has been on over 35 dives to the Titanic and participated in the recovery of 5,000 artifacts. He is the director of underwater research for RMS Titanic, Inc., the company that owns the salvage rights to the famous wreck and displays many of the artifacts in Titanic exhibitions.

Stockton Rush: The founder and chief executive of OceanGate Expeditions, which operates the vessel, was the pilot of the submersible. He has been described as a “nature lover, adventurer and visionary”. Rush, a Princeton graduate with a degree in aerospace engineering, founded OceanGate in 2009, with a stated mission of “increasing access to the deep ocean through innovation.”

What is a submersible?

A submersible is a type of underwater vehicle or vessel designed for scientific research, exploration, or underwater activities. Submersibles are typically built to withstand the high pressures of deep water and are equipped with various life support systems and scientific instruments. They can be manned or unmanned, depending on the specific purpose and design. Submersibles have played a crucial role in exploring the depths of the ocean and conducting research in underwater environments.

Titan in rough seas. (Image Credit: OceanGate)

OceanGate Expeditions 

OceanGate Expeditions, a privately owned company based in Everett, Washington, was established in 2009 with the goal of expanding access to deep-ocean exploration. The company is known for its involvement in organizing expeditions to shipwrecks such as the Titanic and underwater canyons. In addition to offering submersible tours to paying tourists, OceanGate also supplies crewed submersibles for commercial ventures and scientific research. The company’s website highlights its team of skilled pilots, expedition leaders, mission professionals, and client-service staff prioritize safety, proactive communication, and client satisfaction throughout the entire mission and expedition process.

OceanGate currently owns and operates three five-person submersibles. The first submersible acquired by OceanGate, Antipodes, could travel to a depth of 1,000 feet.

According to GeekWire, OceanGate initially planned a voyage to the Titanic in 2018, but their submersible, the Titan, suffered electronic damage from lightning. The trip was further delayed in 2019 due to compliance issues with Canadian maritime laws for foreign flag vessels. Before the successful 2021 expedition to the Titanic, the Titan underwent reconstruction to address “cyclic fatigue” detected during tests, reducing its depth rating to 3,000 meters.

In 2020, OceanGate collaborated with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to ensure the submersible’s strength for deep-sea survival. As per OceanGate’s website, the company has completed over 14 expeditions and conducted more than 200 dives in the Pacific, Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Safety concerns raised

Years before OceanGate’s Titan craft went missing during the Titanic shipwreck tour, experts inside and outside the company voiced safety issues about the company that designed and operated the vessel. 

In 2018, the company’s former director of marine operations, David Lochridge, claimed in a court filing he was wrongfully terminated for raising concerns about the safety and testing of the Titan submersible.

Two months later, OceanGate faced similarly dire calls from the Marine Technology Society, who warned in a letter to OceanGate’s chief executive that the company’s “experimental” approach. The industry members, deep-sea explorers, and oceanographers flagged the company’s marketing materials advertised that the Titan’s design would meet or exceed a certification called DNV, which is considered the gold standard for marine equipment, but noted that “it does not appear that OceanGate has the intention of following DNV-GL class rules.”

UPDATE on June 23 – All five aboard the submersible were presumed dead on Thursday after the U.S. Coast Guard found debris from the vessel and said that the craft faced a “catastrophic implosion.”