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What does the Titan disaster mean for deep-sea tourism? Explorers weigh in

The catastrophic implosion of the Titan submersible near the site of the Titanic wreckage this week may serve as a grim lesson for any company aiming to take amateur adventurers to extreme depths without heeding industry expertise, long-time undersea explorers have warned.

No major accident involving an underwater tourist vehicle before Titan, say industry veterans

A submersible is seen diving

The catastrophic implosion of the Titan submersible near the site of the Titanic wreckage this week may serve as a grim lesson for any company aiming to take amateur adventurers to extreme depths without heeding industry expertise, long-time undersea explorers have warned.

Privately owned and operated by U.S.-based OceanGate, the safety of the Titan has been a source of concern for many in the undersea exploration community for years.

Deep-sea tourism isn't a huge industry. There are a handful of companies that take paying customers deep into the ocean. But OceanGate was an outlier because of the Titan's experimental construction — with domes made of titanium, which is common in deep-water submersibles, and a hull made of a carbon fiber, which is not.

OceanGate co-founder and CEO Stockton Rush, who was among the five victims, also refused to have the Titan classed by and independent group such as the American Bureau of Shipping or Lloyd's Register as meeting industry standards.

"Despite all the safety measures, all the experience coming from other people, all the certification process, everything we know about safety, there are still people who are taking inconsiderate risks," said Swiss explorer Bertrand Piccard.

Piccard and others who have spent their careers exploring the world far below the ocean's surface said the Titan's implosion was the first major accident involving a civilian submarine or submersible. But they say it was a disaster that could have been avoided by prioritizing safety and standards over experimental excursions for profit.

Watch | Explaining what happened to the Titan and how it was destroyed:

TSB investigation into loss of Titan submersible 'a major undertaking'

11 hours ago

Duration 2:19

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is launching an investigation into the operation of the Titan submersible by the Canadian-flagged Polar Prince support vessel, which towed the submersible out to sea prior to the fatal incident that claimed the lives of all five Titan passengers. Marc-Andre Poisson, former TSB director of marine investigations, says it's a 'major undertaking' that will look at everything from how the vessel was built to the rescue operation itself.

Going deep

Piccard's father was a pioneer in deep-sea exploration. Engineer and oceanographer Jacques Piccard travelled to the floor of the Mariana Trench, in the Pacific Ocean, along with U.S. oceanographer Don Walsh, in 1960. They were the first to dive that deep — more than 10,900 metres below the surface. The elder Piccard passed away in 2008.

The late engineer also built the very first touristic submarine, in 1964, which Piccard said could dive to a depth of 300 metres for a price of $40 US per ticket, which would be just under $400 when adjusted for inflation.

The cost of a trip to the Titanic wreck on the Titan was $250,000 US per person, something Piccard said reserves the wonders of the underwater world to a limited few.

"It's a great experience for rich people, but for humankind, it's not interesting," he said in an interview from his home in Lausanne, Switzerland.

A black and white photo of a man in a suit standing in front of a crowd of people with a white submarine resting on a platform behind him.

Risk assessment

The allure to explore the deepest parts of our oceans is attractive to elite amateur explorers like those aboard the Titan, said Paul Johnstone, a member of the Smithsonian Scientific Diving Control Board, a U.S.-based research institute.

"I think it's wealthy people who are able to afford to say, 'I've done something unique that no one else can do,'" Johnstone told CBC News this week from Washington, D.C., describing it as a "brand of risk or frontier tourism."

Despite the waivers each passenger had to sign, they likely wouldn't have known just how risky a trip on the Titan might be, said Capt. Alfred McLaren, a former submarine commander and veteran of deep-sea exploration.

LISTEN | Will the Titan accident affect Titanic exploration:

The Current9:15Could the Titan disaster stall future Titanic research?

Titanic historian Craig Sopin was friends with Paul-Henri Nargeolet, one of five people lost aboard the Titan submersible. He tells Matt Galloway about what Nargeolet was like and what the disaster could mean for future exploration of the Titanic shipwreck.

McLaren said he has a combined total of nearly six years spent underwater, including visiting the Titanic site twice and venturing even deeper to the wreck of the Nazi warship the Bismark, which lies at a depth of 4,572 metres.

Speaking from his home in Chapel Hill, N.C., he said he doesn't have a problem with civilians being taken to great depths, so long as the vehicle carrying them is constructed properly, tested and classified, and he's unaware of any other operator who hasn't done so.

In a 2019 blog post on OceanGate's website, the company's CEO explained why the Titan wasn't classified by industry agencies. He said bringing in an outside entity to assess it was "anathema to rapid innovation" and would hinder "real-world testing."

The fact that OceanGate carried out tests on the Titan, along with multiple missions over the past three years, doesn't mean it was safe, said McLaren.

Given the extreme pressure at the depth the Titan was at when it was lost, he explained, it would only take a leak the width of a hair to cause the submersible to implode.

On Friday, Canada's Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the operation of the Titan by the Polar Prince support vessel off the coast of Newfoundland.

Exploring in the 'grey area'

OceanGate did not break any rules or regulations, per se, but it was in "grey area," because the Titan was operating in international waters, beyond Canada's 12-nautical mile limit, according Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C.

WATCH | Federal agency launches investation after Titan disaster:

Titanic tourist submersible destroyed: How it happened | About That

1 day ago

Duration 6:49

Wreckage from the missing Titan submersible has been found near the site of the Titanic. All those who were on board are lost at sea. Andrew Chang explains what happened and how the Titan was destroyed.

He thinks there will be changes to laws and standards for submersibles in the aftermath of the disaster and believes Canada will have to reexamine what laws it has on the books for submersible vehicles that originate from and return to Canadian ports.

But Mercogliano has faith in the industry. He thinks there will be a time when people regularly travel to great depths in the ocean "without thinking about it," just like we now fly at extreme heights on airplanes.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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