One of Canada’s leading ocean research institutions says its partnership with OceanGate Expeditions did not reach the point 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 vetted the company if a plan had developed where students or staff were invited on the submersible. That never happened.
“With no plans for students or staff to be aboard the Titan, there was no rationale to vet OceanGate,” reads a statement from the Marine Institute.
There was one student on board the support vessel Polar Prince when the Titan imploded. The person had been hired by OceanGate 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 author a letter in 2018 warning OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush against his experimental approach to Titanic expeditions — says it’s unfortunate a student had to bear witness to the incident and its aftermath.
Where he sees a problem, however, is what the memorandum of understanding gave OceanGate aside from a storage facility.
“It absolutely did [give them legitimacy],” he said. “When you support something like that, the rest of society will imagine that somebody must have checked and therefore it’s good.”
Kohnen considers the lack of due diligence a “dereliction of duty,” and believes the public declaration of a partnership could have affected the informed consent of people considering a $250,000 seat on the submersible.
“There is a profound belief that advanced institutions understand the importance of knowledge and information — and therefore will be discerning, for they become the 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 amateurs who might not know what they were getting into. Titan was built with a carbon-fibre hull instead of the industry standard titanium. Its communications systems often failed. Its movements were governed by a PlayStation controller.
Given the specs of the sub, Kohnen says, any legitimacy was problematic.
“It is not proper nor fair to expect public citizens to do their own due diligence,” he said. “Maybe for buying a coffee maker or a bicycle, but surely not a submarine.”
Titan imploded while descending to the Titanic on June 18, killing all five people on board, including Rush.
The line changes when you invite students to participate on board the operating vessel.– Will Kohnen
The Marine Institute says one student accepted summer employment with OceanGate, outside the terms of the MOU. Their role was limited to the Polar Prince.
However, in an interview with CBC Newfoundland Morning in April, Joe Singleton, then interim head of ocean technology at the Marine Institute, said there could be a chance for students to get on board the Titan during work terms.
“I guess if maybe one of the expedition members got cold feet and they felt like didn’t want to go and there was an empty seat, then you never know. They might get an actual seat on the dive,” Singleton said.
When asked about his comments, a spokesperson for Marine Institute said Singleton was speaking hypothetically.
Documents reveal discussions leading up to MOU
CBC News obtained thousands of pages of documents showing conversations between Rush and leaders at Marine Institute leading up to the MOU being signed. The documents are heavily redacted, citing exemptions for advice provided to public institutions.
CBC News intends to appeal the redactions.
The first meeting between both sides was in July 2022 — a brief encounter as Rush popped in and out of media interviews and preparations before pushing off from St. John’s to continue the season’s expeditions.
Another company executive gave three senior leaders a tour, after which the Marine Institute’s then vice-president Rob Shea wrote to Rush and said the “proverbial doors” of the school were open to OceanGate.
Rush visited the school two weeks later, and both sides talked about a memorandum of understanding for the next several months. Rush often initiated the conversations, pushing the process along by checking in regularly. In December, the Marine Institute sent a draft agreement to Rush.
Along with storage space and the possibility for internships and research, Marine also agreed to promote “ocean literacy, technology exploration and the blue economy” by highlighting OceanGate’s submersible and expeditions.
The memorandum also said both sides would “trust and respect each other’s organizational values and integrity,” and “maintain accountability to each other.”
It was signed by Rush and acting Marine Institute vice-president Paul Brett.
Issues hard for layperson to grasp, says expert
Rob McCallum isn’t so quick to lay the blame on the Marine Institute.
The professional expedition leader and exploration consultant once collaborated with OceanGate as well, but bailed when Rush became set on using Titan to dive to the Titanic.
“My involvement ended when they started getting deeper and it became clear that they weren’t prepared to get a vehicle classed. And for me, it’s a binary decision. It’s either you’re classed and I’m in, or you’re not classed and I’m out.”
But McCallum says a layperson wouldn’t understand those issues, and he questions whether Marine Institute had the necessary expertise to understand the risks posed by the Titan submersible.
“It’s akin to you going on your next Air Canada flight and asking 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 surely must have been signed off by a government agency somewhere.”
McCallum hopes the OceanGate experience doesn’t dissuade the Marine Institute from other partnerships in the future, calling the company an outlier in the deep submersible industry.
“This is an incredibly important time for our ocean. There’s never been a more pressing need for ocean science,” he said. “I would hate for this tragedy, which is essentially a very isolated incident, to discourage anyone from getting involved in ocean science.”
Download our free CBC News app to sign up for push alerts for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador. Click here to visit our landing page.