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Deep Knowledge

Expert warned of submersible risk years ago

By Rob Smith September 6, 2023

Rob McCallum, founder of EYOS Expeditions

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Rob McCallum has been on seven expeditions to the Titanic. He’s dived 35,000-plus feet to Challenger Deep, the deepest known point of the seabed. He was test manager for Jim Cameron’s Deep Sea Challenge 3D documentary.

McCallum is the founder of EYOS Expeditions, widely considered the world’s foremost provider of marine-based private expeditions. The company is headquartered in Delaware, but its top executives are in Seattle. EYOS has managed and led more than 1,200 expeditions to points across the globe since its founding in 2008. Clients include adventurers, government agencies, filmmakers, and science entities.

Like everyone else, McCallum was horrified when Everett-based OceanGate’s Titan submersible went missing in the Atlantic Ocean last June while visiting the wreckage of the Titanic, which sank in 1912 on its trip from England to New York. McCallum says the tragedy could have been avoided, and hopes the outcome will lead to greater scrutiny for similar types of adventurous travel.

“We as a company declined involvement (with OceanGate) in 2016 because we thought that carbon fiber was not an appropriate tool,” McCallum says, referring to the unusual construction of the submersible. “We didn’t go through the whole process that everyone went through (regarding the disappearance of the vessel). We knew it had imploded. It was inevitable from a technical standpoint.”

McCallum even said as much in a series of emails to OceanGate founder Stockton Rush — one of five who perished in the accident — in 2018. One read, in part: “You are wanting to use a prototype un-classed technology in a very hostile place. As much as I appreciate entrepreneurship and innovation, you are potentially putting an entire industry at risk.”

Read another: “I think you are potentially placing yourself and your clients in a dangerous dynamic. Ironically, in your race to the Titanic, you are mirroring that famous catch cry, ‘she is unsinkable.’ Having dived the Titanic, and having stood in a Coroners Court as a technical expert, it would be remiss of me not to bring this to your attention.”

McCallum doesn’t want to be seen as piling on a horrific tragedy. He hopes the Titan’s implosion will serve as a warning to others who might consider skirting safety regulations in the name of innovation. He notes that the Titan avoided U.S. regulations by launching the trip in international waters.

OceanGate has since suspended operations. An investigation expected to take more than a year is ongoing.

“What this has done is serve as a grotesque case study to what happens if you don’t stick to industry standards,” says McCallum, who knew three of the five on board the Titan. “The first reaction is just one of profound sadness. This is something we’ve been predicting for a long time.”

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