Editor’s note, June 22, 4:40 pm ET: The Titan submersible suffered a “catastrophic implosion,” the US Coast Guard announced on Thursday afternoon. OceanGate, the company that operates the Titan submersible, said that the crew of the sub is dead. The company said in a statement, “We now believe that our CEO Stockton Rush, Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman Dawood, Hamish Harding, and Paul-Henri Nargeolet, have sadly been lost.”
The story that follows was originally published on June 21 and has been updated throughout.
The US Coast Guard delivered some difficult news at a Thursday afternoon press conference: Pieces of the submersible vessel that had been lost for nearly five days had been found about 1,600 feet from the bow of the Titanic. The sub had suffered a “catastrophic implosion.” All five crew members are believed to be dead.
The craft, called the Titan, went missing in the North Atlantic Ocean on Sunday morning less than two hours after being deployed by a former Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker called the Polar Prince. On board were five passengers, including a French maritime expert, a billionaire British explorer, a British Pakistani tycoon and his teenage son, as well as Stockton Rush, the founder and CEO of OceanGate, the company leading the expedition to the Titanic. A massive search and rescue effort swiftly ramped up as the submersible only had approximately 96 hours of oxygen reserves on board.
For the first couple of days, the international team of rescuers offered few updates on the progress of the search, which eventually spanned an area twice the size of Connecticut, or more than 10,000 square miles. There were reports of banging noises in the search area on Wednesday, and the Coast Guard announced midday Thursday that a debris field had been discovered near the Titanic shipwreck. The Coast Guard confirmed a few hours later that the field of debris was “consistent with the catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber.” The Titan had imploded, although the exact timing of the event was not yet known.
The story of the lost submersible touched on more than just the search and rescue effort. Following news of the missing submersible has become a global media obsession as it touched on everything from the difficulties of underwater exploration to the rise of risky chartered expeditions for the ultrarich. (A trip on the Titan submersible cost $250,000 per passenger.) It also raised questions about the attention we pay to a wealthy person’s hobby gone wrong versus to the near-daily reality of maritime disasters affecting the less fortunate.
Here are nine questions about the Titan, the effort to find it, and its tragic conclusion. This is a developing story, and we’ll be updating this post as new information becomes available.
1. When and where did the Titanic submersible disappear?
After departing from St. John’s on the eastern edge of Newfoundland on June 16, the Polar Prince dropped anchor roughly 900 miles east of Cape Cod and was scheduled to deploy the Titan at 3 am ET the morning of June 18, although the Coast Guard said it didn’t begin its descent until around 7 am ET. The sub was supposed to send out a ping every 15 minutes during its descent down to the Titanic shipwreck, nearly 13,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. The entire voyage was supposed to take just two and a half hours, but the Polar Prince lost contact with the Titan approximately an hour and 45 minutes into the trip, triggering a desperate search for the missing sub. —Adam Clark Estes
2. Who was on board?
There were five people aboard the Titan submersible, including Stockton Rush, the 61-year-old pilot. He’s the founder and CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, which organized the expedition that the submersible embarked on to see the wreckage of the Titanic. Rush was an aerospace engineer with a well-documented love of deep-sea exploration and designing experimental aircraft and modded submersibles (there’s been a lot of talk of how the Titan was maneuvered by a modified video game controller). Though OceanGate was founded in 2009, tours to the Titanic weren’t available to paying customers until 2021. As of April 2020, the company had raised almost $37 million in total funding, according to data from PitchBook, including a new $18 million investment that year to help fund the nascent Titanic expeditions.
Also on board was Hamish Harding, a 58-year-old British billionaire with a penchant for adventuring to the extremes of the Earth. In 2016, he visited the South Pole with astronaut Buzz Aldrin; he holds three Guinness world records, including one for a more than four-hour dive in the deepest part of the Mariana Trench. Last summer, he joined the six-person crew of a suborbital flight with Blue Origin, the space exploration company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He also flew planes and was a skydiver; in 2022, he was inducted into the Living Legends of Aviation, an award recognizing people who have made significant contributions to aviation — other honorees include space billionaires Elon Musk, Bezos, Richard Branson, and actors Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford.
Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a 77-year-old former commander of the French Navy, was a deep-sea search expert who completed at least 35 dives to the wreck of the Titanic. An authority on the famous shipwreck, Nargeolet was also the director of underwater research at RMS Titanic Inc., which has exclusive rights to salvage artifacts from the wreck. Nargeolet was part of the Air France Flight 447 search efforts, helping to find the plane that had disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean.
Shahzada Dawood, a 48-year-old Pakistani British businessman and philanthropist, had joined the Titan crew with his 19-year-old son Suleman. He was the head of the Engro Corporation, one of the largest conglomerates in Pakistan, which operates in the food and agriculture, energy, and telecommunications sectors. He sat on the board of trustees of his family foundation, which focuses on education in the sciences and technology. Dawood was also on the board of the SETI Institute, a renowned scientific research organization that, in part, searches for extraterrestrial life.
The five passengers aboard the submersible were connected by an interest — and some experience and bona fides — in exploring air, space, and sea, as well as the financial means to pursue these passions. Again, OceanGate’s Titanic expeditions to the wreckage site cost as much as $250,000 per passenger. The company has claimed that its aim is to increase access to the deep sea for tourists and to contribute research on the wreck and its surrounding debris. —Whizy Kim
3. How exactly did the sub work?
The Titan was not a big submersible, nor was it designed for extended periods underwater, or capable of traveling to a port without help from another vessel, as naval submarines are. The teardrop-shaped vessel was 22 feet long, could carry five people, and was equipped with one small porthole window on the front of the vessel, where there was also a small toilet. The cylindrical, all-metal interior otherwise lacked seats and was approximately the size of a minivan, according to David Pogue, a CBS reporter and former passenger. Mike Reiss, a producer and writer for The Simpsons, traveled on the Titan in 2022 and said passengers were given sandwiches and water on board his voyage, which lasted 10 hours, during which the vessel’s compass was “acting very weird” and the passengers only had about 20 minutes to view the Titanic wreckage.
Because it traveled so deep in the ocean, the Titan could not use GPS and communicated with the Polar Prince through a text messaging system. It was piloted with a video game controller, which is not as weird as it sounds. Even the US Navy uses Xbox controllers to operate the photonic scopes that replaced periscopes on submarines.
Critically, the Titan submersible only had 96 hours of oxygen reserves on board. That means that as soon as the vessel went missing, the clock started ticking on remaining life support. It’s not clear if the sub imploded before the oxygen supply ran out. But even if the sub had been able to resurface on its own, the passengers would have been stuck inside until help arrived, since the hatch was closed from the outside and sealed shut with 17 bolts. —ACE
4. Who owns and operates the Titan sub?
The Titan was operated by OceanGate Expeditions, a Washington-based private company that offers chartered deep-sea exploration for commercial and scientific purposes. The company has also become known for leading deep-sea tourism trips. Its first trips to the Titanic were in 2021 and 2022, and OceanGate has said it would return to the shipwreck annually to survey its decay.
OceanGate has led more than a dozen underwater trips, including to shipwrecks like the Andrea Doria, which lies up to 240 feet underwater near Nantucket. In addition to the Titan, it operates two other five-person submersibles in its fleet: Antipodes and Cyclops 1. While Antipodes and Cyclops 1 can travel just 1,000 and 1,640 feet below the surface, respectively, OceanGate says the Titan was designed to go 4,000 meters, or 13,123 feet deep — just enough to reach the Titanic wreckage, which lies about 12,500 feet down. That seems uncomfortably close to the vessel’s maximum depth.
OceanGate has for years faced criticism from experts about Titan’s safety. David Lochridge, who was an OceanGate employee from 2016 to 2018, warned about the thickness of the Titan’s hull and “the potential dangers to passengers of the Titan as the submersible reached extreme depths” in a 2018 report. Lochridge later said in a court filing that he was wrongly terminated after raising these concerns. More than three dozen experts subsequently sent a letter to OceanGate’s CEO Rush saying that the “‘experimental’ approach adopted by [the company] could result in negative outcomes (from minor to catastrophic).” OceanGate offered a response of sorts in a 2019 blog post that explained why the company had decided not to class the Titan — that is, get an independent group to evaluate whether a series of standards, including on safety, have been met, which is the industry norm. OceanGate argued that “innovation often falls outside of the existing industry paradigm” and that “by itself, classing is not sufficient to ensure safety.”
Rush seemed quite cavalier in his own right. “I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed, don’t get in your car, don’t do anything,” Rush told CBS’s Pogue in 2022. “At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk-reward question.” He added that safety is a “pure waste.” —ACE
5. What do we know about the search and rescue process?
OceanGate contacted the Coast Guard after it lost touch with the Titan on Sunday afternoon. This kicked off what has become an international rescue effort on the water and in the air. The search yielded few updates until early Wednesday, when several maritime surveillance planes detected underwater noises, described as “banging noises,” in the area where the Titan went missing. The US Coast Guard said during a Thursday press conference that there didn’t appear to be any connection between the noises and the location of the Titan’s debris.
The search and rescue effort initially included two American C-130 aircraft and two Canadian P-3 aircraft that can deploy sonar probes into the water as well as a British C-17 to transport equipment. On the surface, the Polar Prince and Deep Energy, a Bahamas-flagged pipe-laying ship with two remotely operated vehicles that can dive nearly 10,000 feet, assisted with the search. The Atalante, a French research vessel, arrived on Wednesday before deploying an underwater exploration robot, called the Victor 6000. A Canadian ship, the Horizon Arctic, also arrived and deployed a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that reached the ocean floor on Thursday morning. A third ROV capable of reaching the ocean floor, owned by the seabed-mapping company Magellan, is expected to arrive on Thursday.
These ROVs were ultimately critical in discovering what remained of the Titan submersible. Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Mauger said that one of the ROVs spotted debris about 1,600 feet from the Titanic’s bow on Thursday morning. After it was determined that the debris was the nose cone of the Titan, the Coast Guard contacted the families of the lost crew members. The ROV ended up finding five total pieces of debris in two debris fields on Thursday, according to Paul Hankins, director of salvage operations and ocean engineering for the US Navy, who said this was “the totality of the vessel.” When asked about the likelihood of recovering the remains of the crew, Rear Adm. Mauger said, “This is an incredibly unforgiving environment down there.” —ACE
6. Why is it so difficult to explore the deepest parts of the ocean?
You’re probably familiar with how 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is ocean, but its depths are a much bigger mystery. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, less than 10 percent of the world’s ocean depths are mapped with sonar.
Think of the ocean floor not as flat and even, but with geological features just like land on the surface. There are canyons, plateaus, mountains, and submarine volcanoes, among other types of formations. Crucially, the technology we have to map above ground doesn’t work as well underwater. Water is a very good shield. It’s excellent at attenuating light, radiation, electromagnetism — all of our conventional tools for studying stuff. Terrain mapping can include satellite imagery and GPS, both of which can’t operate beyond rather shallow depths. So beyond 50 meters of depth, you really can’t know what’s going on unless you’re physically there.
To identify objects in the very deep parts of the ocean, researchers are left to use sound waves, which can travel through water much more accurately, via sonar. We can use echo sounding to map the ocean floor in a practice called bathymetry. There’s also geodesy, a satellite technology that’s increasingly being used to map by measuring tiny changes in gravity, which in turn illustrate the bottom of the ocean.
A part of the struggle comes through relying on sound waves, which physically have to be deployed. It’s expensive to make vessels that can withstand the pressures of the depths, and even more expensive to get people in said vessels. The farther down you go, the higher and more deadly the pressure is. In 2016, scientists estimated it would cost more than $3 billion to map the ocean floor. OceanGate claims to provide submersibles for scientific projects as well.
“In some ways, it’s a lot easier to send people into space than it is to send people to the bottom of the ocean,” oceanographer Gene Carl Feldman told Oceana, an ocean conservation group. “The intense pressures in the deep ocean make it an extremely difficult environment to explore.”
So while we know where the oceans are, and their surface is mapped with satellites, the depths are still just roughly estimated. We have a better understanding of Mars’s geography than we do of the ocean’s.
As for the rescue, the OceanGate submersible only had sonar to rely on — and that’s if their technology was working. (The New York Times reported that it’s unclear whether the Titan even had an acoustic homing beacon.) According to Rear Adm. Mauger, the implosion of the Titan “would have generated significant broadband sound down there that the sonar buoys would have picked up.” Listening devices that were dropped in the general area Monday allegedly did not catch any implosion sounds, the US Coast Guard said. However, the Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday evening that the US Navy had heard what could have been an implosion sound in the hours soon after the Titan went out of contact. —Izzie Ramirez
7. How dangerous is deep sea tourism?
In most cases, folks who aren’t experts in deep-sea exploration aren’t ending up down near the sea floor. And if they are, usually they’re accompanied or trained by people who know how to operate deep-sea machinery and what to do in emergency situations. That’s what made this particular incident with OceanGate precarious — generally, deep-sea equipment has several redundant failsafes to protect the people inside.
Because deep-sea exploration trips are so expensive, there are limited ways to get on one. You can be conducting government-funded research, have extremely wealthy benefactors (or be wealthy yourself), or be contracted as an employee of an industry that’s operating in the depths. In the research arena, that’s improved loads. Just earlier this month, a Florida scientist — nicknamed “Dr. Deep Sea” — broke the world record for living underwater the longest. He stayed in a subaquatic compound for 100 days.
But it hasn’t always been so safe. And safety, of course, is dependent on the infrastructure and systems around an individual. In 1983, a team of saturation divers for Byford Dolphin, a semi-submersible oil rig in the North Sea, experienced a terrible accident. The diving bell, or the structure that maintains pressure to keep divers safe, released before a connecting chamber’s doors were entirely closed, instantaneously decompressing the area. Three of the divers died instantly, with the nitrogen in their bodies erupting, “boiling” into gas. Another was sucked through an opening — his internal organs scattered onto the deck after being torn from his body.
The danger of pressure underwater will likely never go away, but we’ve gotten better at building vessels and ships that have backup plans for their backup plans. That, and we don’t send as many crewed vessels into the deep. —IR
8. How does deep-sea tourism compare to space tourism?
Rush, in an interview with the New York Times last year, argued that OceanGate’s private explorations served a public good. “No public entity is going to fund going back to the Titanic,” he said. It’s an argument not dissimilar to the one spacefaring billionaires make about the societal value their multibillion-dollar ventures provide. They, too, point to a diminishment of interest and funding for space exploration — so thank the heavens they’re magnanimously picking up the slack. In a 2017 interview with Fast Company, Rush noted that as a teenager he dreamed of being the first person on Mars, only later turning his eye to the ocean.
He also said that the cost of OceanGate’s expeditions were a “fraction” of going to space. That’s true more broadly — setting up an aerospace company and building reusable rockets probably requires a lot more capital than sending submersibles into the depths of the ocean. But a ticket on a Virgin Galactic spaceflight also cost around $250,000 in 2021, though it has since upped the price to a cool $450,000. This February, Rush was sued for fraud by a Florida couple alleging that the Titanic voyage they paid a hefty sum for had never happened.
In recent years, space exploration — often with dreams of colonizing Mars — has become the billionaire pet project du jour. But there have been plenty of other trendy, expensive fascinations, too. In fact, the elite fascination with the deep sea appeared to be having a moment in the early 2010s. Richard Branson spent an estimated $17 million on a submarine in 2011, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen also revealed in 2011 that he had a megayacht big enough to house a personal submarine. Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt founded the Schmidt Ocean Institute in 2009, which aims to advance oceanographic research. To date, Schmidt and his wife Wendy have contributed over $360 million to the institute.
While the degree of danger associated with the hobbies of the ultrarich varies greatly, there’s a surfeit of adventurous pastimes enjoyed by the wealthy, whether it’s yacht racing — done by the likes of Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and Wendy Schmidt — or flying private planes, an infamously perilous activity that nonetheless remains a favorite hobby of rich people. —WK
9. Why does the media care so much about this story?
The quick answer to that question is that it’s pretty hard to imagine people spending $250,000 to voluntarily go to an extremely dangerous place in a claustrophobic tube with no additional safety. Rich people doing something astonishingly baffling and risky is always a point of curiosity. It’s a story, in the classic sense of the word.
The more complex — and arguably interesting — answer is that such a search endeavor reveals how little we know about the ocean. The hurdles with sonar, the physical challenges, the fact there’s so much science and guessing involved (When did they die? What caused the implosion?) can lead to a lot of important development in the future. This might be the impetus for governments to invest more in ocean exploration.
And, yes, migrants unfortunately do go missing in oceans regularly in arduous, treacherous journeys for a better life. At least 78 migrants died and hundreds of others are missing after a boat capsized in the Mediterranean earlier this week, for instance. Outlets could do more to cover this painful issue with justice and accountability. As local and national outlets continue to cover immigration, human rights, and poverty, it’s a dual responsibility from news organizations and readers alike to decide what really matters. —IR
Update, June 22, 7:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on June 21 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to include the discovery of the remains of the Titan submersible, the deaths of the crew members, and the possibility that the implosion was detected by the US Navy.