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Picture: Handout / OceanGate Expeditions / AFP – This undated image courtesy of OceanGate Expeditions, shows their Titan submersible beginning a descent. News reports said the Titan was “lost at sea”. The tragic situation is a reminder that when humans invade exotic environments for which they are not adapted, there is minimal margin for error, the writer says.

Left to right from top:

1. Picture: Joël Saget via AFP – British aviator Hamish Harding, 59, is pictured before the RMS Titanic Expedition Mission 5 on June 18. Harding, was the founder and chairman of Action Aviation and a seasoned adventurer who had set several world records for deep-sea travel and circumnavigating the Earth by air. He was a passenger last year on the fifth human spaceflight of Blue Origin, the private space company founded by Jeff Bezos.

2. Picture: Oceangate Expeditions via AFP – Stockton Rush, 61, the pilot of the Titan, was the CEO and founder of OceanGate Expeditions, a private research and tourism company that has conducted more than a dozen underwater expeditions since 2010, including other dives to the Titanic wreck. He married Wendy Rush, the great, great grandaughter of the retailing magnate Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida, two of the wealthiest people who were on the Titanic in 1912, the New York Times reported.

3. Picture: AFP – Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77, was a retired French navy commander, submarine pilot, diver and the director of underwater research for a media and exhibition company whose affiliate, RMS Titanic, is the exclusive steward of the wreck. Nargeolet, nicknamed ‘PH’ and ‘Mr Titanic’ had ‘an unparalleled knowledge’ of the wreckage’. He ventured down to the Titanic for the first time in 1987 while working at the French marine science research institute IFREMER.

4. Picture: Dawood Hercules Corporation via AFP British Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, right, and his son Suleman, 19. Shahzada was vice-chairman of Karachibased conglomerate Engro. Dawood was also a director of his family’s Dawood Foundation and is a trustee of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) Institute, a US-based research organisation. Suleman, 19, was a science-fiction fan and a development and life coach who ran an organic agriculture business in Pakistan.

By Staff Reporter

The news reports said the submersible Titan was “lost at sea”. That does not capture the difficulty of a search-and rescue operation in the cold, darker than-dark depths of the Atlantic Ocean. The tragic situation is a reminder that when humans invade exotic environments for which they are not adapted, there is a minimal margin for error.

The submersible Titan, operated by the private company OceanGate Inc as a high-priced adventure travel opportunity, was supposed to visit the encrusted hulk of the Titanic ocean liner, which rests on the muddy seafloor kilometres below the surface of the Atlantic. On Sunday, the submersible endured some kind of malfunction or catastrophic incident and went silent 1 hour 45 minutes into its two-and-a-half-hour dive.

The very deep sea is a forbidding, almost alien environment, inhabited only by odd, eyeless creatures that have adapted to pressures that could instantly crush the most advanced Navy submarine. What’s more, the Titanic’s resting place is 595km from the Canadian coast, and farther than that from any port from which rescue vessels can be deployed.

These challenges made searching for the missing vessel and its occupants akin to an effort to rescue astronauts, Admiral Thad Allen, former commandant of the Coast Guard, told The Washington Post. “This is closer to Apollo 13 than a classic search-and-rescue mission,” Allen said. “Trying to extract a vessel from 12,000 feet (3.7km) is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.”

The Titanic sits beyond United States territorial waters, but the US Coast Guard, under a treaty governing ocean rescues, is leading the effort to find and retrieve the submersible. Before its fate was known, there was the possibility that it could be on the seafloor, bobbing on the surface somewhere or be in between, in the water column, where currents vary with depth. Coast Guard officials described their work as a search-and-rescue mission even as they warned that the occupants of the vessel, if still alive, were expected to run out of oxygen early on Thursday.

The water pressure where the Titanic wreck rests is about 6,000 pounds per square inch (413.685 bars). By comparison, atmospheric pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch. Pressure builds in a linear fashion as a submersible descends. At the time the Titan went silent it would have been dealing with pressures hundreds of times greater than at the surface. To offer one visual image: The average depth of the planet’s seafloor hydrothermal vents is 7,000 feet (about 2km).

Researchers studying these ecosystems – where life exists using chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis – have carried standard foam cups to such depths. The cups retain their form but are compressed to the size of a shot glass. “I think we all agree that going somewhere that has 400 times the pressure in the atmosphere is a dangerous thing to be doing,” said Jules Jaffe, research oceanographer emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California at San Diego. But he supports exploration of this kind, and points out that another private company, Triton Submarines, has successfully ferried tourists to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in any ocean, nearly 11km below the surface.

What went wrong this time? There are many possibilities, including an implosion of the vessel under pressure. “Obviously (the Titan submersible) worked for a while and they had some number of successful dives. But as they continued to use it, there is a chance that the mechanical properties became fatigued,” Jaffe said.

Lisa Levin is a veteran oceanographer and deep-sea biologist at Scripps who has plunged into that strange world many times. She studies the bizarre chemosynthetic organisms feeding off methane leaking from the seafloor along continental margins. She has made 53 dives on the famed Alvin submersible that has been in operation, with many upgrades and inspections, since the 1960s. She once was at 1,500m on an undersea mountain off the coast of Mexico when everything went dark. The pilot fiddled with electrical wiring and couldn’t get it lit up again, so they quickly resurfaced.

She said she does not like talking about things that can go wrong. But in the case of the Titan, she feared that something might have happened suddenly and catastrophically, such as an implosion. Had there been a gradual leak, the mission would have been quickly aborted. Getting snagged in a net or otherwise stuck somewhere should not have ended communication with the expedition ship at the surface, she said. “If anything’s not working properly, they abort the dive. It’s like an airplane – if something’s not quite right they’ll land at the nearest airport,” Levin said. “If anyone had seen a leak they would have dropped weights and come to the surface,” she said. “I’m guessing whatever happened, happened quickly.”

Many submersibles have ventured into the deepest parts of the sea. Canadian filmmaker and director of the Titanic, James Cameron, is among those who have managed a close-up look at the doomed ocean liner via submersible. Cameron has made that same dive dozens of times, as well as a 2012 dive to the Mariana Trench. But the risk does not evaporate with each successful venture.

Engineers know that risk builds like plaque, and complex technology deployed in harsh environments – like space, or the deep sea – can fail in many ways not easily envisioned. The Nasa space shuttle programme carried with it known risks of disaster. Challenger met a catastrophic end just minutes after launch when a component of a solid rocket booster failed, leading to the ignition of the external fuel tank. The shuttle Columbia was destroyed by the heat of atmospheric re-entry penetrating the leading edge of a wing damaged at launch.

Levin, the Scripps oceanographer, said finding a lost submersible on the seafloor would be a tremendous challenge. The deep sea remains a frontier. Scientists say it is less well mapped than the surface of the moon. “It’s like looking for a small plane that goes down in the middle of a giant rainforest. It’s just hard to see,” she said. “We don’t have easy ways to image the bottom and distinguish the wreck of a submarine from anything else on the bottom.”

The Titan submersible is a prototype craft, and the OceanGate journeys are a form of adventure travel that exists beyond the reach of government regulatory agencies, Admiral Allen said. This was not a situation where agencies have vessels standing by, ready to conduct rescue operations on choppy seas in hurricane season in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. “We’re dealing with the high seas and the depths of the ocean – they’re one of the few ungoverned places on Earth,” said Allen, who knows a thing or two about offshore disasters, having served as the no-nonsense national incident commander for the response to the 2010 BP oil spill.

Typically, the depths are reached with robotic ROVs – remotely operated vehicles. But ROVs are not like fire trucks with their noses facing the street down at the fire station. They are speciality hardware and not easily deployed on a moment’s notice to plunge into mid-oceanic waters to search for a missing 6.6m-long submersible.

The Coast Guard reported on Thursday morning that the Horizon Arctic, a Canadian vessel, had successfully deployed a ROV to the seafloor to begin its search for the missing submersible. Soon thereafter the French vessel L’Atalante also deployed another ROV. The depths of the Atlantic can’t be reached by human divers without specially designed submersibles. The creatures of the deep are adapted to the pressure, the cold, and sometimes other extreme conditions, such as low oxygen levels, or high levels of hydrogen sulfide.

Levin, the veteran deep ocean explorer, points out that humans never experience those conditions directly. “As a scientist, diving in a submarine, other than being a little bit cold, we don’t experience the high pressure and the other challenges in the water,” she said. “We build submarines to keep the internal environment comfortable for us.” And they trust the technology to work – knowing that there may come a moment when it doesn’t.

This article was first published in The Washington Post