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Titanic: We’re all equal under the sea

It was a saga that gripped the world in its icy clutches – not unlike the frigid North Atlantic where it took place.

Anyone with access to a news channel will know what I mean. On June 18, a submersible carrying five wealthy passengers was due to resurface after exploring the wreck of the famed RMS Titanic. When the submersible, christened “the Titan”, failed to emerge, it launched a rescue effort involving four countries and an eye-watering price tag.

Eventually, debris from the Titan was found on the ocean floor, not far from its ill-fated namesake. Hyped up on the tragic irony, the internet went wild. “Over a century later, and Titanic keeps adding to her body count,” people mused. “James Cameron will make a movie about this one day.”

As a shipwreck nerd, and someone who probably spends too much time in cyberspace … I have a lot of thoughts.

Firstly, the social media commentary has been a mixed bag. The tourists on board paid a small fortune to dive 4000m beneath a notoriously inhospitable ocean in an “experimental” vessel steered by a PlayStation controller? Stupid games, stupid prizes. The men’s net-worth made their demise doubly satisfying. “Five fewer billionaires – fine by me.”

Could their wealth have been put to better use than a shipwreck tour? Absolutely. And yet, these men [one of whom was a teenager] were sons, fathers, brothers and friends. Two truths can exist simultaneously — and we can’t fix inequality by turning Facebook into a Roman amphitheatre of witty epithets.

That being said, the Titan has a few truths to impart – specifically about hubris in the face of Mother Nature.

It appears OceanGate, the company responsible for the sub, was more concerned with “innovation” than safety protocols. The Titan, which had several design quirks, was not certified to operate. CEO Stockton Rush had received multiple warnings from both staff and the submariner community that his vessel was not seaworthy and needed further inspection.

This bears eerie similarities to Titanic’s fate – hence the morbid fascination. James Cameron said it himself: “[Titanic’s] captain was repeatedly warned about ice ahead of his ship, and yet, he steamed full speed into an ice field on a moonless night. We now have another wreck – based on the same principles of not heeding warnings.”

The Titanic disaster spurred massive reforms in maritime law – and it remains to be seen if the submergence industry and regulatory space will be held under the same microscope. Presently, however, there have been multiple calls from the scientific and heritage communities to cease tourism to Titanic altogether.

The Titanic is a mass grave. When she foundered, she took 1500 souls, hundreds of whom were still on board when she disappeared beneath the waves. These were real people – victims and heroes. From the steerage passengers who couldn’t reach the lifeboats, to the engineers and firemen who stayed at their posts until the bitter end, battling to keep the lights on. Titanic is their final resting place – so to charge a pretty penny [and put further lives in danger] to gawk at an underwater burial ground is, frankly, ghoulish.

Scientist Michael Guillen, whose own sub almost met with disaster at the wreck, put it plainly: “The Titanic is not a recreational destination. Have respect for the ocean. It’s merciless; it’s unforgiving. Treat this site as sacred ground – as cemetery, where people lost their lives. This isn’t a Disneyland ride.”

The deaths on board the Titan were a tragedy. But if there was ever a lesson to be learned about humans’ obsession with glory, invincibility and profit, this would be it. Rich or poor, the ocean is a great equaliser. It’s time to leave deep sea exploration to the experts – and let Titanic rest. And if you’re reading this, Mr Cameron – we don’t need another movie.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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