One of Canada’s leading ocean research institutions says its partnership with OceanGate Expeditions fell short of conducting due diligence before the company’s Titan submersible imploded in June, killing five people.
The Marine Institute, a post-secondary institution in St. John’s, says it would have examined the company if a plan had been developed in which students or staff were invited to board the submersible. That never happened.
“With no plans for students or staff to be aboard the Titan, there was no reason to examine OceanGate,” read a statement from the Marine Institute.
There was a student aboard the support ship Polar Prince when the Titan imploded. OceanGate had hired the person for the summer.
The company and the institution signed a memorandum of understanding in early 2023. OceanGate would save space on the support vessel Polar Prince for students and researchers, while the Marine Institute would save space at its Holyrood facility to store the Titan.
Submersible industry veteran Will Kohnen, who helped draft a letter in 2018 warning OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush against his experimental approach to the Titanic expeditions, says it’s unfortunate that a student had to witness the incident and its consequences.
Where he sees a problem, however, is what the MOU gave OceanGate other than a storage facility.
“He absolutely did. [give them legitimacy]” he said. “When you support something like that, the rest of society will imagine that someone must have checked it and therefore it’s good.”
Kohnen considers the lack of due diligence a “dereliction of duty” and believes that an association’s public statement could have affected the informed consent of people who were considering a $250,000 seat on the submersible.
“There is a deep belief that advanced institutions understand the importance of knowledge and information and will therefore be insightful as they become willing or hapless ambassadors.”
Submersible experts had problems with Rush’s approach to innovation and believed he was putting lives at risk by selling seats to fans who may not have known what they were getting into. Titan was built with a carbon fiber hull instead of the industry standard titanium. Their communications systems failed frequently. Their movements were governed by a PlayStation controller.
Given the specifications of the submarine, Kohnen says, any legitimacy was problematic.
“It is neither appropriate nor fair to expect citizens to do their own due diligence,” he said. “Maybe to buy a coffee maker or a bicycle, but certainly not a submarine.”
Titan imploded while descending toward the Titanic on June 18, killing all five people on board, including Rush.
The line changes when you invite students to participate aboard the operating ship.-Will Kohnen
The Marine Institute says the agreement only resulted in one student accepting a summer job at OceanGate, and his role was limited to the Polar Prince.
However, in an interview with CBC Newfoundland Tomorrow In April, Joe Singleton, then acting director of ocean technology at the Marine Institute, said there might be a possibility for students to board the Titan.
“I guess if maybe one of the expedition members got cold feet and felt like they didn’t want to go and there was an empty seat, then you never know. They might get a real seat on the dive,” Singleton said.
When asked about his comments, a Marine Institute spokesperson said Singleton was speaking hypothetically.
Documents reveal discussions prior to the MOU
Breaking: obtained thousands of pages of documents showing conversations between Rush and Marine Institute leaders before the MOU was signed. The documents are heavily redacted, citing exemptions for advice provided to public institutions.
Breaking: intends to appeal the redactions.
The first meeting between the two sides was in July 2022, a brief meeting that saw Rush go in and out of media interviews and preparations before departing St. John’s to continue the season’s expeditions.
Another company executive gave a tour of three senior managers, after which then-Marine Institute vice president Rob Shea wrote to Rush and told him that the school’s “proverbial doors” were open to OceanGate.
Rush visited the school two weeks later and both sides discussed a memorandum of understanding for the coming months. Rush often initiated conversations, driving the process through regular check-ins. In December, the Marine Institute sent a draft agreement to Rush.
In addition to storage space and the possibility of internships and research, Marine also agreed to promote “ocean literacy, technological exploration and the blue economy” by highlighting OceanGate’s submersibles and expeditions.
The memo also said that both sides would “trust and respect each other’s organizational integrity and values” and “maintain mutual accountability.”
It was signed by Rush and Marine Institute acting vice president Paul Brett.
Issues difficult to understand for the layman, says an expert
Rob McCallum is not quick to blame the Marine Institute.
The professional expedition leader and exploration consultant also once collaborated with OceanGate, but left when Rush decided to use Titan to dive the Titanic.
“My participation ended when they started to dig deeper and it became clear that they were not prepared to classify a vehicle. And for me, it’s a binary decision. Either you are classified and I’m in, or you’re classified I have no class and I’m out.”
But McCallum says a layman wouldn’t understand those issues and questions whether the Marine Institute had the expertise to understand the risks posed by the Titan submersible.
“It’s like you go on your next Air Canada flight and ask technical questions,” he said. “I mean, you just don’t do that. You just accept in good faith that this is an established operator and they must surely have been licensed by a government agency somewhere.”
McCallum hopes OceanGate’s experience won’t deter the Marine Institute from other partnerships in the future, calling the company an outlier in the deep submersible industry.
“This is an incredibly important moment for our ocean. There has never been a more pressing need for ocean sciences,” he said. “I would hate for this tragedy, which is essentially a very isolated incident, to discourage anyone from getting involved in ocean sciences.”
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