James Cameron says the Titan disaster is a ‘gut punch’ that shows why tourist subs should be regulated

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Film director and deep-sea explorer James Cameron said the fatal implosion of the Titan submersible should prompt regulations for vessels carrying passengers to the ocean’s depths, just as the Titanic disaster spurred new maritime-safety rules a century ago.

Cameron, who directed a blockbuster about the shipwreck and has traveled to the site 33 times, told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday that rules should be targeted toward tourist craft, not scientific or solo missions. He stressed that the deep-ocean exploration community has a half-century record of perfect safety.

“No fatalities, no incidents, no deaths, no implosions until today,” he said. “This is an extreme outlier of a data point that, in a sense, proves the rule. And the rule is we’ve been safe for half a century.”

Cameron made the comments while standing in front of a 24-foot, lime-green experimental submersible that he piloted to the deepest part of the ocean in 2012. The vessel, the Deepsea Challenger, is in Ottawa for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s summer exhibition, titled “Pressure: James Cameron into the Abyss.”

The Titanic disaster led to the establishment of an international safety convention that still governs merchant ships today, requiring them to have adequate lifeboats and map out voyages to avoid hazards such as icebergs, Cameron said. 

The Canadian director said it’s challenging to determine who should lead new regulations because no single government or authority controls the international waters where many submersible voyages take place. Potentially, every government where submersibles operate would have to pass their own rules.

Previous Criticism

Cameron had criticized OceanGate and its chief executive, Stockton Rush — who was among those killed when the Titan imploded last month — for ignoring experts’ calls to have a third-party maritime safety organization certify the vessel. Rush had brushed off the process as impeding innovation.

The director’s own Deepsea Challenger also wasn’t certified, but Cameron was alone in the cramped chamber. He has also panned OceanGate’s use of a carbon-fiber hull, saying that pressure hulls should be made of materials like steel, titanium, ceramic or acrylic.

He and an Australian team spent seven years designing the 26,000-pound, cylindrical submersible made of a specialized substance, called syntactic foam, that’s capable of withstanding intense underwater pressure.

“I was pretty concerned about implosion risk and other hazards over a seven-year period,” Cameron said. “We did test after test after test and scenario after scenario.”

Cameron performed 10- to 12-hour simulated dives inside a large freezer, where his team would “throw failures at him,” such as mock fires and battery disasters. After all that, he entered the vessel with great confidence, he said.

Cameron was joined on Tuesday by his mentor, Canadian ocean explorer and physician Joe MacInnis, underscoring the film director’s longtime roots in the deep-sea exploration community. A lifelong friendship between the two formed when 14-year-old Cameron wrote to MacInnis about submersibles in 1968.

The director lamented the loss of legendary submersible pilot Paul-Henri Nargeolet in the Titan implosion last month. The pair had a friendly competition to see who had dived the most, Cameron said.

“It’s an emotional shock. It’s like a gut punch,” he said. “You don’t expect it because you don’t expect an implosion to happen, because that’s what you spend all your time and all your finite-element analysis and your computer simulations and everything else to prevent.”

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