Modern in-person tourism at the Titanic is still in its infancy.
The submersible that disappeared Sunday near the Titanic wreckage was on only its third trip since the company OceanGate Expeditions began offering them in 2021.
OceanGate had been promoting the third dive for months on its website and in Facebook posts, offering the chance to “follow in Jacques Cousteau’s footsteps and become an underwater explorer” — for the price of $250,000.
“Become one of the few to see the Titanic with your own eyes,” the tour company said on its website. The ticket comes with a title: “mission specialist.”
Participants have included a chef, an actor, a videographer and someone who worked in banking, the company said on Facebook.
One of the customers said on Instagram last year that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that lived up to her expectations.
“My lifelong dream of seeing the Titanic has come true!” Chelsea Kellogg, a chef, wrote. “I am still trying to process the whole experience. I’m still crying. Still overwhelmed by all the emotions.”
Kellogg, who did not respond to an interview request Monday, said she saw the ship’s bow, crow’s-nest and grand staircase.
OceanGate seems to be the only company offering dive tours to the Titanic wreckage, underscoring the practical difficulty of reaching the site 12,500 feet down in the cold North Atlantic where the ship sank in 1912. About 1,500 people died.
The resting place of the Titanic was unknown for decades, eluding several groups of researchers racing to find it, until a team led by the explorer Robert Ballard succeeded in 1985. Visits — some of them by artifact hunters — continued off and on for two decades.
Don Lynch, the Titanic Historical Society’s historian, said there was some tourism in the 1990s and early this century, when there were both artifacts to find and Russian-made submersibles capable of reaching the site’s depth. A Los Angeles artist went down in 2000 and produced watercolors from the experience.
Lynch, who went down in 2001, said that eventually, the visits trickled off as Russian-made submersibles were retired and fewer artifacts remained.
“There was a lot of salvage going on prior to that, and I think it reached the point where they weren’t bringing up anything that was increasing the museum visits,” he said.
Until now, no submersible at the Titanic site had ever gone missing, he said.
Beginning in 2005, there was a 14-year dry spell with no human visits. Then, in 2019, another group visited the wreckage site and reported its rapid deterioration. The pace of visits has picked up since.
RMS Titanic Inc., the company that owns the ship’s salvage rights, once tried to stop tourist visits, hoping to use pictures and tourism operations of its own to raise money for salvage operations, but in 1999 a federal appeals court ruled that tourists could visit, The Washington Post reported.
Lynch said he thinks the site should have been treated as an archaeological site with careful documentation of all artifacts. He said he has no objection, though, to tourist visits, especially if they help to pay for research.
“Go down. Take a look. That’s great. It doesn’t damage the ship,” he said.
Past participants praise the experience in a video OceanGate posted on YouTube in October. The video does not give their names.
“This is a remarkable event in my life,” one person in the video says.
“Not many people have done it, and that’s part of the appeal, too, right?” another says.
Customers travel to the Titanic area from St. John’s, Newfoundland, aboard a ship — this year, the research vessel Polar Prince.
On dive days, five people can fit into the submersible, named Titan, and the descent takes a couple of hours, OceanGate’s website says.
“You may assist the pilot with coms and tracking, take notes for the science team about what you see outside of the viewport, watch a movie or eat lunch,” it says.
There is a small toilet in Titan’s front dome, the website continues. It “doubles as the best seat in the house. When the toilet is in use, we install a privacy curtain between the dome and the main compartment and turn the music up loud.”
OceanGate’s website promises “hours of exploring” before a two-hour ascent.
There is required safety training for everyone on the research vessel, the website says. Beyond that, training depends on how much customers want to do, such as assisting with navigation.
Stockton Rush, the founder of OceanGate, told the travel website Frommer’s in 2020 that about half of his customer pool were Titanic obsessives, while the other half were big-spending travelers also drawn to space tourism and other big-budget ideas. The original price back then was $125,000, or half this year’s price.
“You couldn’t write a better story,” Rush told the website. “You have the rich and the poor. You have opulence. You have hubris. You have tragedy. You have death.”
The company initially planned to have six expeditions in 2021, Frommer’s reported, but it ended up running one that year and one last year.
Before then, getting a close-up view of the Titanic’s wreckage meant visiting one of several museums where there are artifacts — including one at the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas — or perhaps visiting one of the replicas in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, or Branson, Missouri.
OceanGate’s website laid out various details of this year’s expedition, including a minimum age of 18. The price included training, gear and meals on the ship but not airfare, hotels before departure or insurance.
Lynch, the historian, said the tours demonstrate the lasting curiosity about the Titanic.
“The movie really brought it to a younger audience and created a lot of new Titanic enthusiasts,” he said, referring to director James Cameron’s 1997 film. “Every couple decades, something happens that puts it back in the public eye.”