When OceanGate’s Titan lost contact with the surface on June 18, the missing sub created a global media frenzy as rescuers rushed to locate and save its five passengers before their oxygen ran out. It was eventually determined that the sub had imploded, prompting widespread criticism of not only Titan’s unorthodox—and uncertified—construction, but also of the very notion of sending tourists 12,500 feet down to the remains of the RMS Titanic at $250,000 per head. Months after the accident, two questions remain: How will the tragedy impact the personal-submersible industry? And what kind of regulations will result?
There are approximately 100 such submersibles in use today, with models ranging from U-Boat Worx’s $500,000 Nemo to deep-diving specialty subs costing tens of millions of dollars and users running the gamut from UHNW adventurers to ocean researchers to superyacht owners. Despite the Titan disaster, those in the know say levels of interest have remained the same, and even increased in some cases, while acknowledging no clear rationale as to why.
“We haven’t seen any cancellations, either with sub sales or the tourist dives we run in Curaçao,” says Erik Hasselman, commercial director of U-Boat Worx. Some charter providers are even reporting upticks in inquiries. “After Titan, we received calls asking about doing a submarine trip on its own rather than just an add-on to the end of a charter—that’s very rare,” says the head of one outfit, who requested anonymity. “I guess interest was piqued by the news coverage.”
Patrick Lahey, CEO and cofounder of Triton Submarines, says that “influential individuals” have approached him to “discuss the build of deep-diving submersibles, purely to counteract any negative impact recent events could have had.” He also predicts that, despite the widespread coverage of the incident, “the legacy will be further investment in deep-ocean submersibles,” not less.
Of course, they would say that. Such chatter of a post-Titan resurgence could well be little more than a case of the industry circling its wagons. “The thing that’s important to remember is that in 40 years there hasn’t been a significant injury, let alone a death, on a commercial submersible,” says Victor Vescovo, who safely descended 35,853 feet in his sub, DSSV Limiting Factor, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the planet. Obviously, Titan has made that argument not only obsolete, but tone deaf.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Board, along with authorities from the United Kingdom, France, and Canada, are investigating the calamity in an attempt to uncover what happened, as well as ascertain whether there was any “misconduct, incompetence, negligence, unskillfulness, or willful violation of law” by Oceangate. And many insiders wonder if more stringent standards will follow.
U-Boat Worx and Triton already build their submersibles to industry-leading DNV certification that includes codes on pressure testing, metal thickness, and welding, plus requirements for redundancies in food, air, and safety measures. “The way Oceangate got around U.S. regulations is they went to Canada,” says Carl Allen, founder of Allen Exploration, whose fleet includes a Triton sub. “I’m not a big believer in regulations, but I do believe there needs to be some action, and I think hull integrity will be a big issue going forward.”
The real issue will be policy—and policing. “In terms of regulations, we know how to make subs safe,” says William Kohnen, chairman of the Marine Technology Society’s committee on manned submersibles. “We need to sit down with the Coast Guard, who has jurisdiction, and say, ‘We have all these good rules, let’s see how to enforce them.’ ” The challenge then becomes how to persuade other countries to sign the same protocols. “It’s going to be a conversation at the United Nations level,” Kohnen says.
Forrest Booth, an attorney with San Francisco–based Kennedys Law, has identified mineral rights as a likely sticking point, telling the Associated Press that strict regulations “will be resisted by some countries that want to do deep-sea mining.” As far as future action, his outlook is similarly pessimistic: “I do not think much of substance will happen after the media attention of this event dies.”
Yet in the close-knit submersible community, June’s catastrophic implosion has little chance of being forgotten. “I haven’t gone on a sub since Oceangate,” says Allen. “But I will. And when I close that hatch, I’ll be thinking of the people that were on Titan.”