WA researchers remember red flags and discoveries on OceanGate submersible

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via seattletimes.com

H. Gary Greene has taken hundreds of dives in underwater submersibles, including to depths greater than the north Atlantic Ocean floor where the Titanic — and now, the doomed Titan craft  rests. Among Greene’s excursions was a 2018 dive near San Juan Island that left him with some “qualms.”

For his research about the habitats of forage fish, the marine geology professor had won passage in Cyclops 1, the Everett-based OceanGate’s predecessor to Titan, which caught the world’s attention last week when it vanished and apparently imploded. The Cyclops, which was built with assistance from the University of Washington, struggled below water with propulsion, communication and navigation, according to Greene and other participants who took part in dives that September.

“This was a bit different,” Greene said of the San Juan dive. “This was definitely a sort of experimental type of thing.”

At the time, Cyclops’ deployment off Friday Harbor — with OceanGate founder Stockton Rush as the pilot — was heralded as an exciting moment for scientific exploration. Its dives produced useful discoveries, including that red urchin can live in much deeper waters than previously thought. For several participants, the operation felt safe and well run; one person enjoyed his trip so much he asked for a free ride on Titan.

To others, the expeditions raised red flags. The first dive was delayed because of issues with the propulsion system, a recurring problem that forced one crew to resurface, researchers aboard said this week. Communication cut out at least once. Greene said the navigation system, which was based on direct communication to the mothership above, didn’t work on his first dive. On another occasion, the ship bumped into an underwater wall in the strong San Juan currents.

The sub, like Titan, was uncertified, meaning it had not gone through a series of voluntary inspections, which worried Greene at the time.

The issues were so concerning that one experienced underwater researcher who was scheduled for a dive refused to go.

In the end, the expeditions were viewed as a success, leading to the publication of several scientific papers. But the Titan’s disappearance has spurred some of its participants to reflect on that experience and question the intersection of scientific research with for-profit ventures.

“If you’re honest with yourself,” said Dr. Aaron Galloway, one of the divers that day, “you can say that was a bad decision I made.”

Brief UW collaboration

Rush, who also piloted Titan, founded OceanGate in 2009 when he bought a submersible, Antipodes, from a private owner. He soon formed collaborations with some of the region’s preeminent scientific organizations, which burnished the company’s reputation.

From 2013 to 2020, the University of Washington’s applied physics lab lent engineering expertise to help design OceanGate’s own vessel, the shallow-diving Cyclops ship – a steel-hulled submersible designed to travel as deep as 1,640 feet.

The lab initially signed a $5 million research collaborative agreement with OceanGate, but only $65,000 worth of work was completed before the two organizations “parted ways,” UW spokesperson Victor Balta said in a statement Thursday. That work resulted in Cyclops.

The university did not work on the Titan submersible because its “expertise involved only shallow water implementation,” lab executive director Kevin Williams said.

OceanGate also worked with Boeing as part of the 2013 UW collaboration. At the time, a Boeing executive said in a news release the aerospace company would work on the “development of the pressure hull of OceanGate’s next-generation manned submersible.”

The university’s School of Oceanography’s also contracted with OceanGate to perform nine tests between 2015 and 2021, according to Balta. UW researchers and personnel did not provide any verification or validation of OceanGate equipment as part of those tests, he added.

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