How The Titan Submersible Went Missing, And What This Means For Future Expeditions

The Titan submersible offered a chance to explore the world's most famous shipwreck, but things don't always go as planned. Exploring the fathomless depths of the ocean surface, the vessel suffered a catastrophic accident that raises concern beyond the simple act of "extreme tourism."

Jun 26, 2023 | To The Depths

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The tragic accident of the Titan submersible connects to a deep-rooted fear of humanity, one we may have even evolved with over thousands of years. 

The catastrophic implosion that occurred with the Titan submersible exploring the wreckage of the Titanic struck the innate fear of deep waters among millions, bringing to light a sobering reality: extravagant tourism opportunities need some sort of regulation.

The carbon-fiber composite and titanium submersible — called the Titan, planned to dive 3,800 meters below the Atlantic’s surface, where the world’s most famous shipwreck rested. However, the submersible experienced a catastrophic loss of pressure somewhere along its descent, causing an instantaneous implosion that killed all five passengers aboard.

The Titan submersible: What you should know.

Operated by the private company OceanGate, the Titan presented an opportunity to experience “extreme tourism,” akin to commercial space flights offered by Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic, but downwards.

  • The submersible had some number of successful dives and was supposed to make another visit to the Titan’s resting place some 370 miles off the Canadian coast.
  • Departing from Newfoundland, Canada on Friday, it wasn’t until Sunday that the Titan began its descent. However, the submersible experienced some kind of malfunction, going silent an hour and 45 minutes into what was supposed to be a 2½-hour dive — with 96 hours of air supply at the time it was sealed.
  • It was midday Monday when the U.S. Coast Guard first tweeted that it had begun searching for the vessels — with the operation involving undersea drones, surveillance aircrafts, and research vessels.

The Coast Guard announced Thursday morning that an ROV had found a “debris field” near the wreckage of the Titanic containing pieces of the Titan submersible, confirming the implosion of the vessel later that day.

What went wrong?

Submersibles are manned vessels that function in a fashion similar to submarines but are often used for explorative purposes. However, a vessel that needs to carry passengers has an added layer of complexities compared to a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

The Titan, 22-foot long and 23,000 pounds in weight, was a cylindrical vessel made of a carbon-fiber hull that connected two domes made of composite titanium, a departure from the “more conventional” spherical titanium submersibles considered to be the “perfect shape” for withstanding the immense pressures involved in these deep dives.

  • At nearly 3,800 meters below sea level, the Titan would have experienced atmospheric pressures nearly 380 times greater than what we experience on the Earth’s surface.
  • While titanium is expected to withstand a range of pressure without permanent strain, the same isn’t observed with a carbon-fiber composite, which experts suggest may have been the reason that the Titan’s pressure chamber suffered the “catastrophic implosion.”
  • The Navy analyzed acoustic data from a network of underwater sensors meant to track hostile submarines when the submersible was first reported lost and found an anomaly “consistent with an implosion or explosion in the general vicinity of where the Titan submersible was operating when communications were lost.”

The implosion of the vessel would have killed the passengers within a fraction of a second, speeds at which the human brain isn’t capable of processing information, which at least reassures that their end wasn’t one drawn out in misery.

The Titan incident has brought to light a major issue with companies offering extreme tourism opportunities for the wealthy — the lack of regulations governing companies like OceanGate, allowing the deployment of such vessels based solely on their word.

  • James Cameron, who has made over 33 dives to the Titanic wreck himself, told BBC that he had known that the submersible was lost since the beginning of the four-day search.
  • OceanGate’s previous director of marine operations, David Lockridge, said in a 2018 lawsuit that the company would “subject passengers to potential extreme danger in an experimental submersible” due to the lack of extensive testing and certification.

Beyond the concern of a lack of regulations, the Titan accident may have triggered one of the most innate human fears — one we may have inherited over millennia.

The Titan submersible incident fuels fear of deep waters.

The tragedy of the Titan submersible strokes the flames of a lack of regulation governing such companies. Experts suggest that just as too much government regulation may kill the industry, the lack thereof may lead to unsafe practices that may kill the industry, but at the cost of collateral damage.

Image by Unsplash

The Titan incident fuels deeper fears of oceans.

The likelihood of someone paying $250,000 for a trip to be in a cramped vessel visiting the Titanic is a hyper-specific one, but our minds work wonders when it comes to imagining these horrifying scenarios.

Being trapped in a claustrophobic tube traveling to the depths of an almost alien environment, with impending doom literally floating above your head isn’t an idea one could easily set aside. But scientists blame what is the lack of public interest in deep-sea science that causes our collective fear.

The term ‘Thalassophobia,’ meaning an ‘intense fear of deep water,’ may be one of the most understandable phobias there is — considering it involves an environment uninhabited by your kind but flourishing with creatures you may have never witnessed before.

“When humans are placed into, or are imagining environments beyond those in which they have evolved, the imagination often takes over, especially where physical evidence (science) is lacking.”

With the Kappa of Japanese folklore or the urban legend that is the Loch Ness monster, the stories of these creatures that inhabit these deep waters may explain the common occurrence of this fear throughout human history.

Scientists suggest for this fear, or rather the lack of adoration toward the deep sea is primal rather than irrational, one with which humans may have evolved. And this recent accident does not help in making a strong case.