Titanic site explorers lost after vessel implodes in North Atlantic

Sponsor OceanGate also did scientific and educational work

Today's expression: Off the coast
Explore more: Lesson #588
July 10, 2023:

Five people died after their submersible 'Titan' imploded deep in the Atlantic Ocean, hours after they left on an exploratory mission to the site of the Titanic shipwreck. On today's lesson, learn about what sponsor OceanGate did and how the Titan's mission was supposed to go. Plus, learn the English expression "off the coast."

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Another story about a rescue effort—this one does not have a happy ending

Lesson summary

Hi there, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English, where JR and I help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. Our lessons are specifically designed to help you, the intermediate English learner. We have the slower speed audio, which you hear now, but there’s a lot more on the website, too. There’s a full transcript, too. You can find everything by the lesson number. So today is 588, so go to PlainEnglish.com/588 and you’ll find everything JR and I have to offer about today’s topic right there.

Two weeks ago, we talked about the rescue of four children who survived over a month in the Amazon. When that episode came out, on June 26, the world was just getting over the shock of another search-and-rescue operation that did not have a happy ending: the Titan submersible that was lost on a mission to see the wreckage of the Titanic. All five people on board were killed. The vessel imploded on its descent. You’ve probably heard the basics of the story. So on today’s lesson, I’ll tell you more about the company behind the Titan and how the voyage was supposed to go.

On Thursday, we’ll continue the topic with some uncomfortable questions that are being raised about the company and the voyage.

The expression in the second half of today’s lesson is “off the coast” and we have a quote of the week. Let’s get going.

Titan company also did scientific and educational research

The Titanic was the world’s biggest and most powerful steamship when it set sail from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912. Five days later, it hit an iceberg in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. The ship, previously called “unsinkable” sank, killing 1,500 people. To this day, it’s the deadliest sinking of an oceangoing vessel in peacetime.

The Titan was considerably smaller. It held just five people. The Titan was a submersible. A submersible is an enclosed watercraft that can navigate underwater, but it doesn’t have the same power as a submarine or even a normal boat. It doesn’t leave from a port; it has to be carried by a bigger ship.

A submersible’s job is to explore a limited area. Many are used for scientific research, for observation, or even to collect material from deep underwater. On a typical voyage, a ship carries the submersible to a specific area in the open ocean. The ship lowers the submersible into the water.

The submersible then uses its limited power to descend, move about, and return to the surface. They often have cameras on the outside. They can be controlled by passengers inside or from the ship on the surface.

Submersibles have been used to learn more about sea creatures, to map the ocean floor, to study plate tectonics, and to visit sites of famous shipwrecks, including the Titanic.

OceanGate is a small private company based in Washington state, on the western coast of the United States. It had two principal activities: research and tourism. In 2016, the company produced a full map of the Andrea Doria, an Italian ship that sank in the Atlantic in 1956. The map included full 3-D scans, still photographs, and videos.

OceanGate helped researchers study sea urchins near British Columbia. It created a 3-D model of a steamship that sank in a Canadian lake. It helped the Discovery Channel produce an educational film about sixgill sharks.

But exploring the deep sea is expensive and the scientific and education research didn’t pay the bills . So the company also turned to another, much more profitable source of business: adventure tourism.

A $45,000 per person trip in the Bahamas promised views of sharks, whales, shipwrecks and other marine creatures. A $250,000 trip off the coast of Portugal promised views of hydrothermal vents—those are openings in the sea floor that release hot water from deep inside the earth’s surface.

OceanGate had a fleet of three submersibles, including the Titan. The Titan was a five-person vessel that was designed to reach a depth of 4,000 meters, the company said. The Titanic is 3,800 meters below sea level.

It’s not unusual to send a submersible that deep in the ocean. But it is unusual to send one that holds commercial passengers. The Titan was one of only a few submersibles that could bring passengers that deep.

The Titan visited the Titanic shipwreck twice, once in 2021 and once in 2022. Each time, it performed multiple dives, carrying five people on each dive. The dives included a captain, a subject matter expert, and two or three paying passengers. The commercial passengers paid $250,000 each. The 2023 voyage had the same price tag.

The plan was this. A ship would take the submersible to the surface, above the Titanic wreck. The ship would release the Titan into the water. The Titan would then take a two-hour trip to the ocean floor.

From there, the captain would communicate with the ship on the surface via slow text messages. Those messages would tell the Titan’s captain where to steer to find the wreckage. Passengers could see everything through a glass observation portal and through exterior cameras. After a few hours exploring the Titanic, the Titan would ascend to the surface. The whole thing would take about seven hours.

That was the plan. Instead, the Titan lost communication with its ship after just an hour and forty-five minutes. It never came to the surface. The U.S. Navy says it heard the sound of an implosion right around the time the Titan lost communication. However, the U.S., Canada, and France all sent search and rescue teams to the area. Finally, four days after the Titan went missing, rescue crews found debris on the ocean floor. That debris matched the design of the Titan.

That led to an unmistakable conclusion: the Titan had imploded, killing everyone on board. The story had captured the attention of the media and the world for almost a week. Families, rescuers, and others held out hope that the crew would be discovered alive; the Titan had four days of oxygen onboard. But the most likely scenario is that they were killed just hours into their voyage.

A quick note about who was on board. The founder and CEO of OceanGate, the company that owned the Titan, was driving it. His name was Stockton Rush. There were four passengers. They included a leading scholar of the Titanic, Paul-Henri Nargeolet. He was on his 38th dive to the Titanic site of his career. A British businessman was on board. A Pakistani businessman and his 19-year-old son were also killed in the implosion. The son told his aunt he was terrified of going, but only went on the trip to make his adventure-loving dad happy on Fathers’ Day.

Questions about OceanGate and adventure tourism

This was a terrible tragedy, but there were a lot of warning signs that something could go wrong—we’ll talk about that on Thursday.

It’s just really sad overall—but the saddest thing to me was the teenager from Pakistan. He didn’t want to go. He told his aunt that he was afraid. But he went just to make his dad happy, since the trip was on Fathers’ Day weekend.

But there’s almost a mirror image of that tragedy. A father-son pair from the United States was supposed to go on that trip, but they cancelled. The other son, the American one, was just 20 years old. He had doubts about the safety of the trip, and that American kid—his name is Sean Bloom—he convinced his dad to cancel. Stockton Rush, the OceanGate founder, called Sean “uninformed” because he was worried about the Titan’s design.

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Expression: Off the coast