Submarine trip to the Titanic booking soon — for those with deep pockets | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 09.01.2019
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Submarine trip to the Titanic booking soon — for those with deep pockets

US company OceanGate is offering commercial diving expeditions down to the Titanic. Tourists will share a submarine with marine researchers. But the tickets don't come cheap.

She is the most famous ship in the world — and the most famous shipwreck, as well. You'd be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn't heard the tragic story of how the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg the night of April 14, 1912, and sank less than three hours later.

Only the most wealthy passengers could afford tickets for first-class cabins on the ocean liner's first — and final — trip.

In 2019, those with vast coffers can roam the decks of the Titanic once again. A US company called OceanGate is planning several trips down to the Titanic this summer, with seats in its deep-sea submarine going for $105,129 dollars (92,000 euros) a piece.

That's the equivalent of a first class ticket on the ship's maiden voyage, adjusted for inflation.

The long-term mission, spread out over several years, is conceived as a "longitudinal survey to collect images, video and sonar data" and will "provide an objective basis to assess the decay of the wreck over time and help document and preserve its submerged history," according to OceanGate.

Stockton Rush, founder and CEO of OceanGate started the business nine years ago when he wanted to go on a deep-sea dive and realized he couldn't rent a manned submersible.

He decided to connect the idea of underwater tourism with important scientific research.

"The future of our planet lies in the ocean," Rush told DW. "So I looked at it from a business perspective. What will people want to do that has value? There are wrecks that are more important and less surveyed than the Titanic. But there's nothing that comes even close in terms of awareness."

Characters Jack and Rose, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, onboard the Titanic in a still from the 1997 film (AP/Paramount Pictures)

The 1997 movie blockbuster with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet is one reason why so many people know about the Titanic's tragic fate

A long way down

The wreck of the Titanic lies on the bottom of the Atlantic, roughly 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) below the ocean's surface, around 600 kilometers (370 miles) off the coast of Newfoundland. It was discovered in 1985.

To reach a depth that great, OceanGate will send scientists and paying guests down in a small submarine mission, appropriately called Titan.

The submersible, which is made of carbon fiber and titanium, instead of more commonly used metals, will carry a pilot, three tourists and one expert on dives lasting between 10 and 12 hours.

Those travelers who pay the $105,000 fare will have the trip of a lifetime getting a close-up of the Titanic.

Meanwhile deep-sea marine biologists will be doing hard work, like survey the several hundred species that are unique to the Titanic and her surroundings.

Marine archaeologists will scan the debris field with lasers and special cameras and learn about the things that ordinary people traveled with, or what materials survive the years of decay.

Decay is the operative word when it comes to the shipwreck itself, too. No one has been down to the Titanic in around nine years, so it will be interesting to see what she looks like now.

By going on multiple dives every year, Rush plans to get exact information on how fast the decay of the ship is progressing. It's hoped lasers will be able to measure shrinkage in millimeters from year to year.

In 2010, researchers from Dalhousie University in Canada discovered a new type of bacteria on the Titanic called Halomonas titanicae.

Halomonas titanicae can survive in conditions inhospitable to most other lifeforms — and it loves to eat iron. It's one reason why some experts say the Titanic will completely decay within the next 20 years.

Watch video 04:30

A huge panoramic image of the Titanic

Recovery of the Titanic 'logistically impossible'

Not everyone shares this professional opinion, however. Jon Adams, director of the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of South Hampton, UK, doesn't support the "Go see the Titanic quickly, while you still can!"-philosophy. He says there are ways to significantly slow down degradation today.

One of those methods is active galvanic protection, which involves coating steel with zinc to prevent corrosion.

Still, with interest in the Titanic as high as it is, wouldn't it make sense to recover her and put her up in a museum for all to see? Perhaps. But raising the Titanic is logistically impossible, says Adams.

"You'd have to raise something that's the size of several town blocks and made of steel," he pointed out when we spoke.

Adams says there are three major obstacles to recovering the Titanic.

Aside from its size and weight, it would have to be dragged up several kilometers before it reached the surface. And it is way out in the open ocean. The operation would cost millions, if it was doable at all.

Adams knows what he's talking about. In the 1980s, he was part of the recovery of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flagship vessel. That whole process, including planning, took 11 years and cost 4 million pounds (4.4 million euro).

And the Mary Rose was a wooden ship and a fraction of the size of the Titanic.

Another issue: "Raising a wreck is not a one-time operation," Adams says.

If the Titanic was ever to be taken out of the water, she would have to be kept in a highly controlled environment to prevent her from disintegrating. Keeping this up would likely cost millions more every year.   

Lifeboat crane on the Titanic wreck (RMS Titanic Inc./dapd)

Passengers on OceanGate's Titan submarine will be able to see details like this lifeboat crane for themselves

When nature calls

So the Titanic will never see the light of day, as it were. But you can always join OceanGate's dive expeditions to visit her — if you have a 100 grand to spare.

"Shipwrecks hold a special allure," especially the Titanic, says Adams. "And these days, people aspire to collect special experiences. If you already have the house in New York and the house in Paris, you do something like this. There are a lot of people with a lot of money in the world."

It would certainly be an experience, perhaps matched only by space tourism. And the queues of potential passengers are building up, with people happy to put up with the cramped conditions and bare-bones "in flight" catering.

But even those who can afford such far-out experiences would prefer they came with a few of their usual "dry land" creature comforts.

Such as toilets.

"The most common concern is 'I'm terrified that I might have to go to the bathroom,'" says OceanGate's Stockton Rush.

"Because the way you go to the bathroom in other small subs is they give you a cup and a skirt to wrap around your waist and that's it. But our sub is lighter and bigger. It actually has a bathroom where you can put up a curtain and have some privacy."

So now all that's standing between you and the submarine trip of a lifetime is the small issue of 105,000 dollars. 

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