When OceanGate’s submersible, known as Titan, imploded beneath the sea sometime last week, it took the lives of a billionaire and his son; two other wealthy passengers who each paid $250,000; and the company’s CEO, Stockton Rush, as they attempted a voyage to view the remains of the Titanic.
Joe Gaydos, science director for SeaDoc Society, a marine wildlife organization based in Friday Harbor, Wash., recalled Rush as an ocean lover and a professional who, along with his wife, Wendy, cared deeply about local research projects.
“In their hearts, they were scientists,” Gaydos told The Washington Post. “Stockton wanted to make a difference. … He wanted to do things that actually made the ocean better.”
OceanGate partnered with SeaDoc Society in 2018 for three projects to study a local species of sea urchin and its kelp-filled ecosystem. As part of that effort, OceanGate lent its Cyclops 1 vessel to researchers from the University of Washington, University of Oregon and University of California at Davis, and Rush piloted many of the dives.
Karly Cohen, who was a graduate student at the University of Washington when she went on one of the 2018 expeditions with Rush, called the trip “the defining moment of her career.” Rush also was part of a group that gave an educational presentation about the submersibles to local residents of Friday Harbor between dives, Cohen said.
For these projects, the company’s submersible traveled to depths of around 290 meters, significantly less deep than when it attempted to reach the Titanic wreck, at 3,800 meters deep.
“It was still quite a big operation with a lot of moving parts, and it was really well done. And it couldn’t have been done without the Cyclops,” Gaydos said. “These were the types of projects that people needed to see with their own eyes, not a remote device.”
The trip produced three studies published in ScienceDirect, a database of academic journals, according to documents reviewed by The Post.
Gary Greene, a marine geologist for Moss Landing Marine Labs, said Stockton and Wendy Rush would let him stay at their home in Seattle before and after expeditions. They wanted to use the Titan craft to help with Greene’s research on submarine canyons, he said.
“We would have long conversations about the ways that Titan and the other submersibles could be used for exploration,” Greene said. “Stockton was interested in the engineering, and Wendy was interested in the science.”
In 2014, OceanGate partnered with the Discovery Channel to film an educational episode about sixgill sharks in Seattle’s Elliott Bay, where the local rapper Macklemore went on a dive with Rush — a portion of which was posted to the company’s YouTube channel. OceanGate had also been partnered with the University of Washington’s physics lab around that time, according to another video on the channel.
Along with scientific expeditions in the Pacific Northwest, OceanGate vessels were used in archaeological missions around North America, according to an archive of its website. In 2010, its submersible explored Catalina Island in California and filmed Cold War-era chambers and marine life. That same year, it partnered with BlueView Technologies to create a 3D model of a sunken 100-year-old steamboat in Canada’s Lake Laberge.
In an October 2022 interview with GeekWire, Rush said that OceanGate’s high-end tourism helped subsidize its deep-sea research, which wasn’t financially sustainable on its own. At the time of the Titan submersible’s final voyage, the company was offering spots on an expedition in New York’s Hudson Canyon to train oceanography researchers.
The scientific accomplishments of OceanGate have so far been overshadowed by the conditions surrounding its latest voyage. The Post has reported the company operated in a regulatory gray area, and that Rush may have purchased “discount” parts for the vessel’s construction.
Aaron Galloway, a professor at the University of Oregon who also did an expedition with Rush in 2018, recalls the Cyclops briefly losing communication on his 284-meter dive.
That lapse “was terrifying,” he said. “I don’t think I could ever go back in a vessel like that again, even one that was up to safety standards.”
“More than anything, I hope [OceanGate’s] carelessness on the Titanic expedition doesn’t set back the science community’s use of these kinds of submersibles,” he added.
The last quote was amended from the original to clarify that Galloway meant to refer to the carelessness of OceanGate, not Rush.