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After the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed that the five passengers aboard the Titan died after the vessel imploded earlier this week, questions remain about the timeline of the implosion and the “banging” noises rescue teams heard days after the search operation began.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the U.S. Navy immediately began listening for the Titan once it learned that it had gone dark and detected an implosion a short time later, which means the submersible likely imploded on Sunday. But on Tuesday and Wednesday, a Canadian airplane detected “banging” noises in 30-minute intervals in the area near the Titanic wreckage, causing people to speculate that those aboard the Titan were alive and signaling for help.
So what were the underwater noises picked up by search teams days after officials said they heard the Titan’s implosion? Experts have some theories.
The area surrounding the Titanic wreck was being searched by multiple ships, sonobuoys, and remote operated vehicles (ROVs) when the underwater noises were picked up. Experts began analyzing the recordings immediately after sounds were detected by sonobuoys that had been deployed by search aircraft. From the beginning, authorities said they were unsure of what was causing the banging, but according to some experts, it wouldn’t take them long to determine if the sounds came from humans, machines, or animals.
“I think it would be pretty straightforward to determine whether something is an Earth signal or a biological signal or a machine signal,” said Dr. Simone Baumann-Pickering, an acoustic ecologist at the University of California San Diego, according to The New York Times.
Matthew Schanck, the founder of maritime search and rescue organization Marsar International, told The Daily Mail that the noises could have come from multiple sources, but he said there is a high probability they were caused by search vessels.
“Our understanding is the noise could have a number of sources,” he said. “The subsurface of the ocean is a noisy environment. But given the high density of vessels in the area operating their propulsion systems and heavy machinery/equipment in the area, this may have been picked up by sonobuoys.”
As the search continued earlier this week, Jeff Karson, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Syracuse University, warned that focusing on the banging sounds as evidence that the five passengers could still be alive was “wishful thinking.” Karson said that the sound likely just came from junk in the ocean and possibly Titanic wreckage, which is constantly decaying and falling to the ocean floor.
The professor also explained that sounds coming from the ocean, especially from an area near a shipwreck, could be complicated by echoes.
“One possibility is that the sounds [are] bouncing around the debris. And so it’s a more complicated echo. It’s just not bouncing off of one thing. It’s bouncing off a bunch of things. And it’s like, you know, dropping up a marble into a tin can. It’s rattling around and that would confuse the location,” Karson said.
“Is it really banging or just some unidentified sound? I think that is a more accurate description right now,” he added. “There’s no telling where the sound is coming from or how far away it is.”
Dr. Jamie Pringle, reader in Forensic Geosciences at Keele University, was skeptical that the noises picked up by the sonobuoys came from the Titanic, however.
“Noise from the Titanic wreck at that water depth would also be unlikely to travel to the surface,” he said.
Another possibility is that the underwater noises picked up came from the variety of sea creatures living in the Atlantic, such as whales.
Dolphins usually make high-frequency sounds like whistles that are used for echolocation, but whales can make noises that are lower frequency. While the recordings picked up what sounds like something clanking against metal in 30-minute intervals, pointing to a man-made source, Carl Hartsfield, a laboratory director at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said it’s a little more complicated than that.
“From my experience with acoustics, there are sounds by biologics that sound man-made to the untrained ear,” he said. “But I can assure you that the people listening to these tapes are trained.”
The U.S. Coast Guard is still investigating the circumstances surrounding the Titan implosion as questions are likely to swirl for weeks.
“This was an incredibly complex case and we’re still working to develop details for the timeline involved with this casualty and the response,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Mauger said.
Two ROVs, one from France and one from Canada, will continue mapping debris fields at the site of the disaster. The admiral said the Coast Guard, along with the French and Canadian governments, will continue to seek answers on “how, why, and when this happened.”
OceanGate CEO and founder Stockton Rush was piloting the submersible and was joined by billionaire explorer Hamish Harding, British businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, and Paul-Henri Nargeolet, an esteemed French maritime expert with decades of experience diving to the Titanic wreckage.