Many vessels that descend into the sunless depths of the sea for scientific exploration are sturdy behemoths with proven engineering and track records for safety.
But Titan, the lost submersible from the company OceanGate, is a technological maverick based on novel concepts that differ from standard designs. Moreover, unlike most deep-sea craft, Titan has undergone no certification by a reputable marine group that does such licensing work for other craft, including one built by OceanGate that dives to shallower depths.
“It suggests they were cutting corners,” said Bruce H. Robison, a senior marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, who has explored the ocean’s depths with more than a dozen different kinds of submersibles.
Alfred S. McLaren, a retired Navy submariner and president emeritus of the Explorers Club of New York City, agreed. “I’ve had three people ask me about making a dive on it,” he said in reference to the lost submersible. “And I said, ‘Don’t do it.’ I wouldn’t do it in a million years.”
When asked to respond to questions about the certification of Titan, a spokesman for OceanGate said in an email, “We are unable to provide any additional information at this time.”
As a class, submersibles go down for hours, not days or months, and rely on a mother ship for support, communications, sustenance for the crew, as well as sleeping bunks and proper toilets.
Whether dependable old designs or innovative newer models, all the craft face the crushing pressures of the abyss — at the level of the Titanic’s resting place, three tons per square inch. They thus face strict requirements for risk avoidance, if not the flat-out assurance of crew and equipment safety.
Private vessels — those used on superyachts, exploratory craft, tourists jaunts — are not formally regulated by any governmental or intergovernmental agency. Nor do they meet the rigorous standards that are applied to deep-sea craft used by the United States Navy and other government agencies.
Even so, the best of the private submersible class undergo extensive testing, certification and ratings for particular depths by such organizations as Lloyd’s Register, a British company that specializes in assessing the quality of oceangoing equipment for the maritime industry. In the industry this is known as classing.
Titan — the 22-foot long submersible that disappeared on Sunday while diving to the Titanic — is unlike most submersibles in that its passenger hull is made of two very different materials. It’s composed of a mix of carbon fiber and titanium, producing a craft significantly lighter than submersibles made primarily of steel or titanium, a lightweight, high-strength metal.
The dissimilar types of materials used in the craft’s hull construction “raise structural concerns,” said Dr. McLaren, who has twice dived on submersibles to the Titanic. “They have different coefficients of expansion and compression, and that works against keeping a watertight bond.”
On its website, the submersible’s owner, OceanGate, a private company in Everett, Wash., says the vessel’s light weight and its launch and recovery platform significantly cut transport and operating costs, making Titan “a more financially viable option for individuals interested in exploring the deep.” Even so, the passenger cost on the current Titanic dive was $250,000.
Titan’s novel construction features also make it incapable of being certified, according to the company. OceanGate explains the craft’s unlicensed (what the industry calls unclassed or uncertified) status on its website as reflecting the vessel’s cutting-edge technologies, rather than a sign of shortcuts or inadequacies that could jeopardize safety.
“The vast majority of marine (and aviation) accidents are a result of operator error, not mechanical failure,” the company said on its website. “As a result, simply focusing on classing the vessel does not address the operational risks. Maintaining high-level operational safety requires constant, committed effort and a focused corporate culture — two things that OceanGate takes very seriously and that are not assessed during classification.”
The company did, however, say that one of its other submersibles has completed a safety certification. Antipodes goes down 1,000 feet, a tiny fraction of the Titanic’s depth, which is some two and a half miles. Like Titan, it has been used for tourist dives. Its certification was performed by the American Bureau of Shipping, a marine industry giant based in Houston.
In an interview, Jennifer Mire, a spokesperson for the American Bureau of Shipping, said the company had done no evaluation of the larger submersible. “We don’t have any connection to the Titan,” she said.
OceanGate, in explaining Titan’s lack of certification on its website, said that groups like Lloyd’s Register and the American Bureau of Shipping “often have a multi-year approval cycle due to a lack of pre-existing standards, especially, for example, in the case of many of OceanGate’s innovations, such as carbon-fiber pressure vessels and a real-time hull health monitoring system.”
Dr. McLaren said the company’s line of reasoning was unpersuasive and that the innovative nature of the craft made certification even more important. Knowing that it was uncertified, he said, was enough to make him “run in the opposite direction.”
Triton Submarines, an American company that makes innovative submersibles with transparent hulls to give passengers a panoramic view of the abyss, calls vehicle certification one of the company’s founding principles.
“We are proud that every submersible delivered remains in active service and certified to its original design depth,” it says on the company’s website. “Every Triton ever completed has passed certification.”