“There are other wrecks that, arguably, are more important. There are wrecks that are more striking to see or that have their own incredible stories. There are others – a few, not many – whose sinking led to a greater loss of life. But,” says Stockton Rush, “there is only one Titanic.”
It’s to that famed ship – which began its build 110 years ago – that Rush will be paying a visit this summer, in the first manned submersible to survey the wreck in over a decade. And this time Rush, CEO of submersible operative OceanGate and the pilot of the vessel, will be taking nine passengers in several dives. Each of them will have paid in the region of AED 400,000 for their ticket.
But it could be money well spent, not least because opportunities to see the Titanic are increasingly rare. For one, OceanGate operates one of only four submersibles capable of diving the necessary 12,500ft that isn’t government-owned. Visits by those submersibles have tended to be strictly for research purposes. Secondly, there are limitations to visiting what is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, following the organisation’s efforts to limit attempts to salvage from the wreck, given that it lies in international waters off of Newfoundland. And then there may just not be much of the wreck to see soon.
“The big issue is how quickly the wreck is decaying, and some say it will be more or less gone in 20 years’ time,” says Rush. Indeed, the coming dives’ planned 4K scanning of the wreck may prove invaluable to assessing the urgency with which Second World War wrecks full of toxic chemicals will have to be addressed to prevent environmental disasters.
Visiting the site of the Titanic will not
be easy, especially for the passengers. Although OceanGate operates a state- of-the-art submersible, it’s run off a
working support ship, which is reached
by a long helicopter flight. Weather in
the North Atlantic can quickly become inhospitable. “So, while it’s safe, there’s a
sense of taking this vehicle down to places
where one might just have a sense that we shouldn’t really be,” says Henry Cookson,
head of Henry Cookson Adventures, the company that arranged this year’s Titanic dive. “Just going down to the seafloor, surrounded by thousands of tons of pressure, would be adventure enough. But, you know, the Titanic is the big one.”
Indeed, as Rush concedes, that fact alone is likely to trump any of the discomforts, primal fears, or urgent reasons for paying passengers to visit the site. And small wonder, given a global, almost cultish fascination with the ship. This is the liner – built in Belfast with a revolutionary new compartmental structure said to make it impossible to sink – that, on April 15, 1912, sank during its maiden voyage, after hitting an iceberg. More than 1,500 of the 2,224 passengers on board died, making it one of the deadliest commercial peacetime maritime disasters in history.
Questions abounded. Did the captain ignore iceberg warnings in a bid to win the Blue Riband for
the fastest Atlantic crossing? Why were there only enough lifeboats for half of the passengers? What caused the missteps in wireless communication with possible rescue ships? Why did the nearby ship SS Californian ignore distress flares? Is there really a cache of gold and priceless jewels still somewhere on the wreck?
The story goes on. Only in the last couple of years has new analysis been done suggesting that the ship did not break up on the surface but much closer to the sea floor, leading to the compact debris field, while, more controversially, evidence has been uncovered supporting a theory that the Titanic had a fire in one of its coal bunkers before it even left port in Southampton, a fire that fatally weakened its super-structure.
Other, more extreme notions, have posited that the ship was deliberately sank in a plot to murder several influential men opposed to the founding of the Federal Reserve Bank. There’s even a story that it wasn’t the Titanic that went down at all, but her sister ship the Olympic, disguised as the Titanic, and allowed to sink in an insurance scam.
“The facts of the story of the Titanic are, in themselves, amazing: the massive loss of life, the fact that the ship was described as ‘unsinkable’, all the other things that went wrong,” says Rush. “Add on the media interest and the Titanic’s place in popular culture – there have been something like 18 films made about the ship – and, as a draw, the wreck is hard to challenge. After all, more people reach the top of Everest every day than have ever visited the wreck of the Titanic.”
Indeed, this perhaps explains why the world’s largest Titanic attraction, based in a half-scale model of the ship, is found in Branson, Missouri, of all places, a long way from the sea. And why it receives more than 700,000 visitors a year.
“The interest is not really about the ship, but the human stories it contains. What would I do in that situation? How would I react?” argues Mary Kellogg, whose husband founded the Missouri museum after bringing some 1,800 artefacts back from the wreck in 1985 -–the year the wreck was discovered – including the lifejacket worn by survivor Madeleine Astor. She was wife to John Astor, one of the richest men in the world, and one of the many to die in the sinking.
“The ship took two hours and 40 minutes to go down, the same kind of length of a play perhaps,” adds Kellogg. “It had rich and poor on board. It had all the makings of a drama. Remarkably, most of our visitors are young, and with children, the Titanic continues to fascinate each generation.”
But is such a fascination ghoulish? After all, some 300 descendants of those who lost their lives have visited the Branson museum. The fact that a lot of people drowned or froze to death in sub-zero waters needs to be remembered. “But I don’t think the interest in the Titanic is morbid,” argues Rush. “For some it’s a romantic story, sure, but for others it’s equally one of man’s hubris. And with anyone visiting the wreck there’s a deep respect for those who died. When you explore the debris field, while the bodies have long gone, there remain bracelets, watches, glasses, luggage and other personal effects. As you can imagine, seeing that is very eerie. You can’t forget the human element.”