Tech and Science

James Cameron calls Titan sub tragedy ‘extreme outlier’ after half-century of safe dives


James Cameron described the Titan submersible tragedy as an “extreme outlier” after more than 50 years of safe deep sea exploration.

“I think it’s really important for people to remember that we have over a half-century of a perfect safety record,” the Canadian filmmaker and explorer told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday ahead of a CTV News worldwide exclusive event. “This is an extreme outlier of a data point that that in a sense proves the rule, and the rule is we’ve been safe for half a century… Half a century is a long time to not have killed anybody.”

Cameron was in Ottawa to launch a Canadian Geographic exhibit about his feats of deep-sea exploration, which have included 33 dives to the Titanic wreck on three expeditions. The first involved shooting footage for his Oscar-winning 1997 film about the infamous ship, which sunk in 1912.

“I wasn’t worried about the engineering,” Cameron said of his undersea expeditions. “I certainly wasn’t worried about imploding because we had tested everything. That’s how it should be.”

Cameron says he uses the safety testing at NASA as his model.

“NASA knows how to manage risk, and they also know that there will be failures,” Cameron explained. “It’s our responsibility as engineers to test, test, test: don’t just guess that it’s going to work. The ocean is a very, very unforgiving environment.”

Operated by OceanGate, the Titan submersible lost contact with the surface less than two hours after it plunged into the ocean on the morning of June 18. Following an international air and sea search effort, the sub’s imploded remnants were discovered near the Titanic on June 22 by a remotely operated underwater vehicle.

Experts say the Titan’s experimental design and carbon-fibre hull made it unable to withstand the immense pressure of the deep ocean where the Titanic rests at 3,800 metres below sea level. All five people aboard the Titan were killed in the “catastrophic implosion,” including French explorer and Titanic expert Paul-Henri “P.H.” Nargeolet, who Cameron described as a “good friend” and a “legendary submersible pilot.”

Cameron said news of the deep-sea disaster was like a “gut punch.”

“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,” Cameron recalled. “But they obviously didn’t do that. They didn’t approach it with that same rigour and discipline, unfortunately.”

While Cameron expects the Titan tragedy will result in new regulatory efforts, he hopes they treat deep-sea submersibles like other passenger vessels.

“People could easily go out and spend more sitting around talking about a bunch of rules that we don’t need, spend more money doing that than we actually have as funding to explore the deep ocean,” he said. “This is not the most dangerous thing for the human race to be worried about right now.”

The incident also hasn’t dampened Cameron’s passion for exploration, which has seen him pilot a submersible to Challenger Deep, the deepest known point on earth at nearly 11,000 metres.

“Curiosity is not a bucket list: you’re born with it, I had it as a little kid,” Cameron said. “I think it’s absolutely critical for explorers to be the sort of tip of the spear for all of humanity, and to bring that singular experience back and share it the best way they know how… Otherwise, send a robot.”


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