Why some people will risk their lives to see the Titanic in real life

A missing submersible raises questions about risk takers and their enduring fascination with the Titanic

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published June 22, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

An undated photo shows tourist submersible belongs to OceanGate begins to descent at a sea. Search and rescue operations continue by US Coast Guard in Boston after a tourist submarine bound for the Titanic's wreckage site went missing off the southeastern coast of Canada. (Ocean Gate / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
An undated photo shows tourist submersible belongs to OceanGate begins to descent at a sea. Search and rescue operations continue by US Coast Guard in Boston after a tourist submarine bound for the Titanic's wreckage site went missing off the southeastern coast of Canada. (Ocean Gate / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Ranked among the deadliest sinkings of an ocean liner, the RMS Titanic is one legendary boat. It lies in wreckage at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, about 12,500 feet (3810 meters) beneath the waves. While Titanic enthusiasts can easily view artifacts in museums and related exhibits (safely, on land), some fanatics are determined to make the voyage below the ocean to see what remains in real life.

But the trip is extremely dangerous and potentially fatal, as the world is unfortunately witnessing in real-time, following news of a submersible called Titan that went missing Sunday on a journey to the wreckage, sparking an international search-and-rescue effort.

Thanks to the operations of a private diving company called OceanGate Expeditions, anyone with the cash can visit the Titanic, if they embark on a eight-day trip. It's only a quarter of a million dollars per ticket. Founded in 2009 by CEO Stockton Rush — also one of five passengers aboard the missing sub — OceanGate's 23,000-pound vessel known as the Titan was the cornerstone of his initiative to make sea exploration more accessible to scientists and tourists.

"Dreams don't have a price. Some people want a Ferrari, some people want a house, I want to go to Titanic."

Despite the $250,000 price tag, accommodations are far from first class. Passengers stay on a working vessel when they set sail from St. John's Newfoundland, Canada, to the wreckage site 460 miles away. Descending to see the Titanic itself, the customers still have to board a five-person submersible made out of carbon-fiber and titanium that is only 22 feet long. In the cramped conditions, where passengers sit cross-legged, the hope is to reach the wreckage after a two-and-a-half hour descent. (As the company notes on their website, there is a bathroom on the vessel, but they actually advise passengers to restrict their diets before the trip to reduce the likelihood of using it.)

A previous CBS report on the Titan by reporter David Pogue shed light on the risks of the trip. As he said in the segment, the waiver that Pogue had to sign warned about the risk of death. People might be wondering, who would risk their life to see the Titanic in person, if they aren't scientists or experienced divers — especially when you can see artifacts above ground?

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In the CBS report, Rush explained that they usually have three different types of clientele.

"We have clients that are Titanic enthusiasts, which we refer to as 'Titaniacs,' we have people who have mortgaged their home to come and do the trip and we have people who don't think twice about a trip of this cost," Rush said. "We had one gentleman who had won the lottery."

In the report, Pogue interviewed a woman named Renata Rojas who had been saving up to see the Titanic for thirty years.

"Dreams don't have a price," Rojas said in the interview. "Some people want a Ferrari, some people want a house, I want to go to Titanic."

Rojas had been aboard multiple trips that, for a variety of reasons, failed to make it to the wreck site. In an interview with Reuters six years ago, before she finally ended up seeing the Titanic on the trip with Pogue, Rojas elaborated that she had made a lot of "sacrifices" over time.

"I don't own an apartment. I don't own a car. I haven't gone to Everest yet. All of my savings have been going towards my dream, which is going to the Titanic," she told Reuters in 2017.

"The Titanic just has all the makings for a great drama and subsequent disasters wouldn't have all these elements to make this fabulous story."

As Rush alluded, Titaniacs will do anything to see the Titanic in real life. In fact, it was Canadian filmmaker James Cameron's obsession with seeing the infamous passenger liner in person that led to the creation of his 1997 hit movie "Titanic." While the "Terminator" and "Avatar" director has not commented publicly on the missing submersible, Cameron personally knows what it's like to make the harrowing trip, as he should — he's only done it 33 times. Many of the underwater shots in the film are actual footage. In an interview with Playboy in 2009, Cameron described the Titanic as "the Mount Everest of shipwrecks, and as a diver I wanted to do it right."

In fact, Cameron claimed he got the idea to make a Hollywood movie in part to pay for an expedition to the wreck site. "I made 'Titanic' because I wanted to dive to the shipwreck, not because I particularly wanted to make the movie," he said.

In an article I wrote in April about how misinformation about the Titanic was swirling around TikTok — influencing how a generation of young people learn about the tragedy — Don Lynch, historian of the Titanic Historical Society, told Salon why he believes the public obsession with the Titanic lives on over a century later.

"It is the ultimate story: it's unsinkable, supposedly, and you've got it full of all these key people, like the president of the company that owns it, and the president of the company that built it, and as well as all these famous people . . . and then on its maiden voyage, it hits an iceberg and then sinks so slowly," Lynch said. "And then there's all this time for all this drama to be acted out, like the band playing — that just doesn't get duplicated."

Lynch added there are other shipwrecks that he personally finds fascinating, but for some reason, the Titanic continues to be particularly captivating to people.

Titanic historian Parks Stephenson and executive director of USS Kidd Veterans Museum told Salon the fascination is interesting, especially as there are worse maritime disasters in history and greater losses of life. For example, in late 1987, a passenger ferry known as MV Doña Paz collided with the oil tanker Vector, triggering an explosion that sank both vessels and left more than 4,300 people dead. In contrast, the death toll on the Titanic was around 1,500 people.

"It just happened at a time when the world was fairly sure of itself, and at that point, it was the top headline," Stephenson said. "The Titanic just has all the makings for a great drama, I think, and subsequent disasters wouldn't have such a collection of all these dramatic elements to make this fabulous story."

As Rush said in the CBS interview, it's not just "Titaniacs" who will spend the money and risk their lives to see the Titanic. Akin to space tourism, there is also a psychological element to the reasoning why extremely wealthy people will spend so much money to embark on such risky adventures.

"When people get used to a certain level of wealth or comfort or possessions and so on, they quickly get used to it and then they want the next level up," Suniya Luthar, professor emerita Columbia University's Teachers College, told Salon in 2021 about the desire to go to space among wealthy people. "You have an individual who's basically bought all that money can buy, or has had all that money can buy, then, what's next?"

Television producer Mike Reiss, best known for his work on "The Simpsons," who took an OceanGate trip 11 months ago, even compared the experience to being shot into space. "It sounds a little grand," Reiss told CNN this week. "But in every way, it felt like being a Mercury astronaut. This wasn't a vacation, it wasn't tourism. It was exploration." Reiss also described "constant trepidation, constantly knowing this could be the end."

As search and rescue crews attempt to find the missing submersible, it's likely the public's fascination that is contributing to the widespread interest in this mission. But as James Cameron noted in the retrospective documentary "Titanic: 25 Years Later," it's easy to get caught up in details of the wreck — but that undermines the real tragedy of the disaster. "You get so into the forensics of how the wreck happened that you forget the people," he said.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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