(CNN) –Crews searching for a missing submersible that lost contact while touring the wreckage of the Titanic with five people aboard are keeping a nervous eye on the craft’s dwindling oxygen supply as they navigate choppy, remote waters in low visibility.
The Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Air Force are deploying more aircraft and vessels to aid in the search for the 21-foot vessel, which began its descent Sunday morning – and has just four days of emergency capability.
The search zone covers a remote area some 900 miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and 13,000 feet deep, US Coast Guard District 1 Rear Admiral John Mauger said Monday afternoon. Crews are also dealing with foggy conditions and waves of 3 to 6 feet.
“It is a challenge to conduct a search in that remote area,” Mauger said during a news briefing. “But we are deploying all available assets to make sure that we can locate the craft and rescue the people onboard.”
The submersible – roughly the size of a minivan – was carrying one pilot and four “mission specialists” when its mother ship lost contact with it about 1 hour and 45 minutes into its descent to explore the Titanic wreckage, authorities said.
The vessel has between 70 and 96 hours of life support, Mauger said.
It could be on or below the surface, and crews have been using sonar buoys and ship sonar to listen for “any sounds that we can detect in the water column,” said the Coast Guard, which also is searching with aerial and water surface vessels, with more assets expected to fan out in coming days.
There were no underwater searches involved as of Monday, Mauger said.
“We have to make sure that we’re looking on both the surface using aerial and surface vessels but then expanding into underwater search as well,” Mauger said. “Right now, our capability is limited to sonar buoys and listening for sounds.”
The Canadian Armed Forces is also deploying an aircraft to assist in the search, a spokesperson told CNN.
The group conducting the Titanic expedition, OceanGate Expeditions, is also helping in the search and said it is “exploring and mobilizing all options to bring the crew back safely.” And Canadian research vessel Polar Prince, which took the submersible to Titanic wreckage site, is assisting search and rescue efforts, a spokesperson for its co-owner Horizon Maritime told CNN.
Search and rescue operations at sea are like “searching for a needle in a haystack,” former US Navy diver, retired Capt. Bobbie Scholley, told CNN Monday.
“In this case, they knew exactly the location that they were starting with this submersible so they have good data for where to start the search,” Scholley said. The submersible also is going to make sounds with systems on board that sonar buoys should be able to pick up, she said.
Among those on the submersible is British businessman Hamish Harding, according to a social media post by his company, Action Aviation. The day before the vessel went missing, Harding wrote of the Titanic mission: “I am proud to finally announce that I joined OceanGate Expeditions for their RMS TITANIC Mission as a mission specialist on the sub going down to the Titanic.”
Diver PH Nargeolet was scheduled to be on Sunday’s dive with him, Harding said Saturday in a Facebook post: “The team on the sub has a couple of legendary explorers, some of which have done over 30 dives to the RMS Titanic since the 1980s including PH Nargeolet,” Harding wrote, according to CNN news partner CTV News
And a St. John’s-based diver knows one of the people on the expedition – French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet – that diver, Larry Daley, told CBC News; Daley reportedly made the trip to the Titanic two decades ago
CNN hasn’t been able to reach Nargeolet, and it is not clear if he was among those who boarded the vessel. Nargeolet is a Titanic expert who has taken the trip every year, completing more than 37 dives to the wreck, according to an archived version of OceanGate Expeditions’ website accessible via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
Meanwhile, Shahzada Dawood and his son Sulaiman Dawood, of Pakistan, also had “embarked on a journey to visit the remnants of the Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean,” their family said Tuesday in a statement. “As of now, contact has been lost with their submersible craft and there is limited information available,” the family said, adding they’re praying for their loved ones’ safe return.
The US Coast Guard has not released the names of the five people onboard as it works to notify their relatives, an official said Monday.
What we know about the vessel and expedition
The expedition began with a 400-nautical-mile journey to the Titanic wreck site, then the submersible started its descent Sunday morning, eventually losing contact with the Polar Prince, a converted ice breaker.
The last communication between the vessel and OceanGate staff at the surface came in at 11:47 a.m. Authorities were notified at 6:35 p.m., after the 6:10 p.m. resurface time of the vessel passed with no sign of the submersible, according to Polar Prince co-owner Miawpukek Maritime Horizon Services.
Chief Mi’sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation, the expedition’s support vessel, got a call Sunday alerting him that the submersible was two hours overdue and still hadn’t surfaced and communication with it was lost, he said. At that point, requests for search and rescue had gone out, he said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of concern,” Joe said. “I have anguish that people are going through this. I wish there was more I can do.”
Unlike a submarine, a submersible needs a mother ship to launch it, has fewer power reserves and can’t stay underwater as long.
A mother ship can communicate with a submersible “via text messages which are exchanged via a USBL (ultra-short baseline) acoustic system,” according to OceanGate Expeditions’ archived website. The submersible is required to communicate with the ship every 15 minutes or more frequently, if needed, the site says. That USBL system is the only communications link between the submersible and the surface, it adds.
OceanGate Expeditions operates a trip taking passengers to the Titanic’s wreckage at the bottom of the ocean for prices starting at $250,000, the archived website states, describing its “mission support fee” for a 2023 expedition. The company’s Titanic expeditions include a series of eight-day missions to the famous shipwreck, with trips beginning and ending in St. John’s, Newfoundland, according to the archived site.
The company advertised the experience as a way “to step outside of everyday life and discover something truly extraordinary.” The vessel, named “Titan,” is a 23,000-pound submersible made of carbon fiber and titanium, according to OceanGate.
A Titanic dive takes about 10 hours from start to finish, including the two and a half hours it takes to reach the bottom, the website says. The company calls its clients “mission specialists,” who are trained as crew members in a variety of different roles, including communicating with the topside tracking team, taking sonar scans and opening and closing the vessel’s dome, the archived site says.
Clients do not need previous maritime experience to join as mission specialists, it adds.
In case of an emergency, the submersible is equipped with basic emergency medical supplies and pilots have basic first aid training, according to OceanGate Expeditions’ website.
Mother ship crew ‘focused onboard here for our friends’
“We have a situation that is now the part of a major Search and Rescue effort, being undertaken by major agencies,” Rory Golden said on Facebook after CNN contacted him. “That is where our focus is right now.”
Online and internet options were being restricted “to keep bandwidth available for the coordinated effort that is taking place,” Golden said. “The reaction and offers of help globally is truly astonishing, and only goes to show the real goodness in people at a time like this.”
Golden thanked everyone and ended the post: “Think positive. We are.”
Ninety-six hours of life support on the vessel is “a short amount of time,” said Scholley, the former US Navy diver, though effective resources are being used in the search.
“The hard part is finding the submersible. And once they find the submersible, there are all sorts of situations of how to get that submersible to the surface, and rescue the crew,” Scholley said.
The Coast Guard’s focus is on locating the vessel, Mauger said.
“If we find this vessel in the water, then we will have to affect some sort of rescue or reaching out to different partners within the US Navy, within the Canadian Armed Forces and within private industry to understand what underwater rescue capability might be available,” he added.