An Sunday, June 18, 2023, five people board a mini submarine, six meters long, 2.80 meters high, and the interior is about the size of an elevator. They want to embark on a journey into the deep sea and see the wreck of the Titanic that has been lying on the sea floor 12,000 feet below them for 111 years.
The five passengers are researcher Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77, known as “Monsieur Titanic” and considered one of the leading experts on the wreck of the luxury liner. British adventurer Hamish Harding, 58, holds several Guinness World Records, including that for the longest dive in the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on earth in March 2021. British-Pakistani business consultant Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his 19-year-old son Suleman, Student at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland. Suleman, his aunt later says, was afraid and only went with him to please his father.
The fifth inmate is the boss of the operating company Oceangate, Stockton Rush, 61, who steers the boat. His wife is the descendant of a couple who died when the Titanic sank in 1912. Wendy Rush is the great-great-granddaughter of Isidor and Ida Straus, the New York Times reported on Thursday, citing archive documents. Straus was a retail magnate and co-owner of the New York department store Macy’s.
The position is 41 degrees, 43 minutes north and 49 degrees, 56 minutes and 45 seconds west. This is where the “Titanic” sank, 700 kilometers south of St. Johns, Newfoundland. It’s six o’clock in the morning when the submersible glides into the freezing cold waters of the North Atlantic.
With every meter that the underwater vehicle sinks, the light fades. Soon it’s pitch black, the water has a temperature of zero to four degrees. And the pressure on the shell increases continuously. On the sea floor, the forces of 380 kilograms per square centimeter act on the outer skin, which consists of titanium and carbon fibre. Overall, the sea presses like a vice with a load of several tons on the boat, which is a kind of submersible nutshell. It is one of the most hostile environments on the planet, along with the layer of atmosphere in which airliners operate.
Less than two hours after the start of the expedition, the connection to the mother ship is lost
But the occupants don’t notice anything. There’s light, it’s warm, and they have oxygen for 96 hours. In 2021 and 2022, the company Ocean Gate successfully submerged at least 46 people to the remains of the Titanic. What should happen?
Conventional radios and GPS receivers do not work underwater. The “Titan” keeps in touch with its mothership “Polar Prince” via a sonar connection. The connection was lost less than two hours after the expedition began.
Shortly thereafter, one of the largest and most complex rescue missions the last few years. The search area covers an area about the size of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, i.e. around 26,000 square kilometers. The coast guard, military and private salvage companies quickly move additional ships, aircraft and equipment, including diving robots, to the scene of the accident.
The assignment is carried out under immense time pressure. According to previous estimates, the “Titan” crew would have had enough oxygen until 2 p.m. German time on Thursday. The dramatic search triggers great sympathy worldwide. Media houses from all over the world set up live tickers with news, the Saudi broadcaster Al-Arabiya shows a clock with a countdown to the time when it was initially expected that the “Titan” occupants would run out of oxygen. Some media speak of the “submarine thriller” as if it were a prime-time blockbuster, as if it were just a game.
Underwater noise briefly raises hopes of the mission’s success, but then news comes Thursday evening that an underwater robot has discovered a debris field on the seabed 480 meters from Titanic’s bow. Some parts can be clearly assigned to the “Titan”. All five people on board are dead. The Coast Guard announces that they will search the seabed for further clues as to the fate of the “Titan” and its crew.
They will probably never be found, because the “Titan” seems to have imploded. It is still unclear whether there was a weak point or whether the boat hit an object on the seabed. The hull, however, gave way in a split second to the pressure that constantly surrounded it. At the same moment, the masses of water rushed in, destroying the “Titan” and everything that was inside her.
The passengers did not suffer, said the American Navy doctor Dale Molé at a press conference. They wouldn’t even have known they were in danger. The five died within a millisecond. Now another field of rubble lies next to the iron remains of the world’s most famous ocean liner.
Director Cameron also went to the “Titanic” – 33 times
And just as the “Titanic” still stimulates people’s imaginations more than a century after its sinking and is considered a symbol of infatuation with technology, presumption or tragedy, the whole world is discussing the sense and nonsense of the fatal excursion – and many are wondering why they touched by the fate of the “Titan” occupants who paid $250,000 to see a wreck.
Hollywood director and deep-sea explorer James Cameron complained about the expedition. “The megalomania, the arrogance. It’s all back,” Cameron told the BBC in an interview aired on Friday. There had been “rather loud warnings” from experts who had been thrown into the wind. “It is profoundly ironic that there is now another wreck next to the Titanic for the same reason” – because the warnings were ignored, Cameron said.
Yachts, dinghies or rowing boats have to go through complex approval procedures and tests before they are launched. There was no official seal of any kind on the self-made mini-submarine. Nobody ever seemed to care whether the device even met the standards that have to be set for deep-sea vehicles.
But Cameron, who celebrated great success in 1997 with his Hollywood film about the fate of the luxury liner “Titanic”, seems to have fallen for the myth of the sunken ocean liner. He dived 33 times to the wreck of the Titanic. Not once, not twice. 33 times.
It is possible that the question of why such adventure excursions make sense cannot be answered. There are people who let themselves be transported 39 kilometers into the atmosphere and then jump down from a pressure capsule with a parachute, like Felix Baumgartner in 2012. Reinhold Messner climbed all 14 eight-thousanders on earth without an oxygen bottle. And Arved Fuchs walked to the North Pole in 1989 and completed a similar trek a year later when he hiked thousands of kilometers through Antarctica to the South Pole. In a 2014 post, he says he was “obsessed.” But he didn’t even touch on the question of why he did this to himself, probably because it hadn’t crossed his mind. “The North Pole – that’s the way there,” says Fuchs.
Man strives for higher things – he even has to
So is it part of human nature to overwhelm oneself? To overcome borders that, from a purely practical point of view, are not necessary to overcome? Is there an adventure gene?
The record search is not new. “Man should always strive for the better; and as we can see, he is always striving for something higher, at least he is looking for something new”, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe already knew – and thus made crossing borders almost a duty. And the Roman philosopher Seneca put the word “Per aspera ad astra” into the world, on difficult paths to the stars. Little did he know that in 1969 the time had actually come and that a human being would set foot on a celestial body, the moon.
The human quirk of flying into space, wanting to cross the Atlantic in a rowing boat in 53 days in the “Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge” (after all, 5200 kilometers), or seeing the “Titanic”, this memorial to a lack of humility, with your own eyes see is therefore more of a kind of primal human longing to achieve or experience something special. Wanting to be a hero, at least a little bit.
And those who cheer on the screens and devour every report, who hope for a happy ending and are then shocked that the last dive trip of the “Titan” ended so horribly: They are perhaps so touched because they feel that the in the boat, who didn’t make it, probably did something deeply crazy, insane – but also something very human.