You’re probably familiar with the RMS Titanic: in 1912, the world’s largest ocean liner of the day embarked on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, during which she struck an iceberg, sank, and ultimately took more than 1,500 lives. The Titanic’s final resting place remained a mystery until 1985, when American marine geologist Robert Ballard and French oceanographer Jean-Louis Michel discovered the wreck in the crushing depths of the frigid North Atlantic, nearly 2.5 miles beneath the surface of the sea.
Rather unsurprisingly, visiting the Titanic has become a bucket-list trip for maritime historians, oceanographers, and, well, anyone who has deep enough pockets to go. However, expeditions are rare: only one team has visited the site in-person in the last 15 years. But all that’s about to change.
OceanGate Expeditions, a company that provides well-heeled clients with once-in-a-lifetime underwater experiences, has announced a series of six trips to the Titanic via submersible in 2021. Each has space for nine paying tourists, whose $125,000 tickets will help offset the cost of the expeditions (and put a pretty penny in the pocket of OceanGate owner Stockton Rush).
OceanGate’s expeditions will each run for 10 days out of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Nine tourists, who are actually dubbed “mission specialists” on this expedition, will join the expedition crew on each sailing, and they’ll be expected to participate in the research efforts—this isn’t just a sightseeing affair. OceanGate’s goal is to extensively document the Titanic wreck before it disintegrates entirely due to a deep-sea bacteria that eats iron, which researchers are concerned might happen within the next few decades. As this is a scientific project, mission specialists will have to meet certain physical criteria to ensure their compatibility with the expedition, not to mention training, which includes a test dive.
On each expedition, each mission specialist will be able to partake in a single six- to eight-hour dive to the Titanic via the private Titan submarine, which includes the 90-minute descent and 90-minute ascent. The sub seats five—a pilot, a scientist or researcher, and three mission specialists—and it does have a small, semi-private bathroom for emergencies, in case you were wondering.
Now, it should be known that this isn’t OceanGate’s first attempt to visit the iconic wreck: two previous expeditions had to be scrubbed. (In 2018, the sub was hit by lightning, and its electrical systems were fried, and in 2019, there were issues with sourcing a ship for the expedition.) But hey, perhaps the third time's the charm!
Several international treaties protect the Titanic—the wreck sits in international waters—but their primary goal is to prevent looters and illegal salvage operations from damaging and disrespecting the wreck. However, in terms of tourism, it’s actually perfectly legal to visit the wreck, so long as the expedition doesn’t intrude upon it (i.e., land on the deck or enter the hull.)
“A review of the International Agreement on Titanic, as well as the 2001 UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage, would reveal that non-intrusive visits do not even require a permit or authorization,” said Ole Varmer, a retired legal advisor to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who was instrumental in negotiating the legal protection of the wreck. “The scope of the prohibition against commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage is to prevent unauthorized salvage and looting; it does not include non-intrusive visits regardless of whether they are for-profit or not.”
In terms of OceanGate Expeditions, the company is working with NOAA, the federal agency in charge of implementing the International Agreement on Titanic for U.S.-based Titanic activities, to ensure it follows all protocols set down by that agreement.
There are two major factors to consider regarding ethically visiting the Titanic. First, it’s a memorial site to the lives lost during the disaster, so the wreck should be treated with respect. But that, of course, is true of all memorial sites around the world.
“Speaking as one who visited Titanic’s wreck twice during RMS Titanic, Inc.'s 1993 and 1996 Research and Recovery expeditions, I see nothing unethical about visiting the wreck, nor about helping to defray the significant expense of bringing a visitor to the wreck,” explained Charles Haas, president of the Titanic International Society. “People around the world learn by seeing and visiting. They pay for access to museums, cathedrals, monuments, exhibitions, and, yes, final resting places.”
But second, it’s a fragile piece of cultural heritage. It should be protected—the expedition organizer must take appropriate steps to ensure that it won’t disturb the wreck.
“In the past, submersibles visiting the site by RMS Titanic, Inc. [the only company legally allowed to salvage the wreck], and others have rested on the deck of the hull portions,” says Varmer. “That practice has likely caused some harm and exacerbated the deterioration of the site. Hopefully, that will no longer be practiced or permitted.”
Per OceanGate’s description of its expeditions, the company’s submersible won’t disturb the wreck, so if you have $125,000 lying around, fee; free to spring for the bucket-list trip of 2021!