About the New MH370 Search — UPDATED

The Economist has just published an article about Ocean Infinity with the headline: “A fantastical ship has set out to seek Malaysian Airlines flight 370.” The piece reports that “Contracts have yet to be signed, but Oliver Plunkett, Ocean Infinity’s boss, has decided to go ahead anyway…”

I was emailing earlier today with Mark Antelme of Celicourt Communications, who handles public relations for Ocean Infinity, and he says that “without a contract we’re not going to conduct a search. That said, we are very hopeful of the contract being awarded soon (which is why the vessel is where it is).”

UPDATE 1/12: I don’t like to substantially change a piece after I put it up, and don’t think I have done so before, because it feels like rewriting history, but in this case I have heavily revised this piece to reflect the fact that most of my concerns about the Economist piece were either fixed or were rendered moot by subsequent events, and leaving it up in its original form was causing psychic trauma for the author of the Economist piece, Hal Hodson. Whether or not Ocean Infinity was sincere about its claim that it would carry out the search without a contract, the contract has been signed, and so the road to a second seabed search is open.

I still take issue with the with this final sentence:

“As the oceans are watched with ever closer scrutiny, from space and the depths, it is increasingly difficult for anything to get lost in the first place.”

It’s important that the world not overlook the fact  that things are vanishing without a trace at an accelerating pace. In 2016, an Antonov An-32 belonging to the Indian Air Force disappeared over the Bay of Bengal; less than two months ago, the Argentinian sub San Juan went missing during a training exercise. We should perhaps try to figure out what made these things happen before getting too smug about them not happening again.

UPDATE 1/2: Shortly after I posted the above, the ship headed out to sea and  is currently (21:49 GMT, 2 Jan 2018) on a heading of 147. I’ll seek clarification from Mark Antelme about the discrepancy between what he told me and what Plunkett apparently told the Economist.

I’d like to add that I also take exception to this statement:

“Seabed Constructor is the most advanced civilian survey vessel on the planet today. If its array of technology cannot find MH370, then it is likely that nothing will, and that the mystery of MH370 may never be solved.”

If Seabed Constructor looks for the plane in the designated search area and fails to find it, that will be due to the fact that the plane is not in the designated search area, not because the technology is lacking in some way. Indeed, as I’ve written in earlier posts, there are many good reasons to doubt that the designated search area is correct.

UPDATE 2: I’ve just heard back from Mark Antelme. Regarding the Economist quote, “Contracts have yet to be signed, but Oliver Plunkett, Ocean Infinity’s boss, has decided to go ahead anyway…” he writes, “…in getting the vessel in position… is how it should be read. I think that’s consistent with our exchange.”

In other words, the company is clearly signaling that it will NOT conduct the seabed search until it has the contract nailed down with Malaysia. However, it apparently is going to position the ship so that it can be in place in the event that that happens.

This makes sense from the perspective of wanting to make the most of a limited search season, but it would seem a rather terrible strategy from a negotiating perspective. Leasing the ship and crew and getting it into position means an outlay of a significant amount of money, so by the time they arrive on station the company will have a strong incentive not to walk away from the table, no matter what terms Malaysia offers.

Of course, all of this is academic if the airplane is not in the search area, since in that case Ocean Infinity would not get paid anyway. An analysis conducted by Australian scientists during the official seabed search calculated that there was effectively a zero percent chance that the plane could have come to rest where the planned search is going to focus.

UPDATE 3: [3 Jan 2018, 10:00 GMT] The Economist’s story has escaped into the broader media ecosystem, with a number of mainstream publications, including The Guardian, picking up a story by the Australian Associated Press which states that “the search for MH370 is back on with the ship Seabed Constructor sailing from Durban today for the search area.” Perth Now has its own story. Both seem to be repeating the Economist’s claim without having done any additional reporting.

A check of Marine Traffic shows that Seabed Constructor has spent the last nine hours holding position 30 nautical miles off the coast of South Africa.

Since I’ve identified a number of inaccuracies in the original article, let me restate what is the core issue here. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for Ocean Infinity to sign the contract with Malaysia and officially restart the search. The Economist is reporting that both of these things have happened. Ocean Infinity’s spokesman tells me that they have not.

Indeed, I find it hard to believe that either of these things could have happened without either Ocean Infinity or the Malaysian government releasing a statement.

Thus, the Economist has reported a major development that appears not to have occurred.