Why we’re all pulled in by Titanic’s ‘toxic’ allure

The world’s ceaseless fascination with the Titanic disaster resulted in fresh tragedy this week when five people were killed by the “catastrophic implosion” of a submersible bound for the ship’s final resting place.

Titanic is just one of many wrecks lying in the deep and hostile waters of the Atlantic. The roiling ocean lays claim to many more maritime calamities than the iceberg collision that sank Titanic and resulted in the deaths of 1,517 people on the ship’s maiden voyage in 1912.

Yet it is to Titanic that people are often drawn, time and again. The historic tragedy has inspired novels, movies and a thriving tourism industry in the shape of museums and exhibitions that pull in hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

And, of course, inevitably, for those with the budget to spend, there have been the trips to see the wreck site itself. The expense and the extreme risk apparently worth it for some just to spend a few moments peering through black waters at a decaying nautical hulk.

So why does Titanic exert such a powerful allure? The heartbreaking plight of the five lost on board the submersible was doubtless all the more captivating for news audiences around the planet because of the destination of their ill-fated trip.

Much of Titanic’s magnetism comes from the hubris and glamor involved in the original tragedy, says Brent McKenzie, a professor at Canada’s University of Guelph and author of upcoming book “Dark Tourism: Is the Medium Still the Message.”

“The fact that so many lives were lost, and that the ship was ‘unsinkable’ and the famous people on board seems to ensure ongoing interest,” says McKenzie.

“Also the fact that it was over a century ago means no longer can new first-hand accounts be made, and the true tragedy of horrific events becomes more difficult for future generations to understand or even to care about.”

Titanic tourism is one of the more established industries in what’s become known as “dark tourism.”

“Rightly or wrongly, more and more tourists are drawn to sites and attractions related to death, tragedy, and suffering,” says McKenzie.

“There are a number of reasons. One being the increased choice and opportunities to visit these sites due to greater travel options. There has also been influence from increased numbers of media that focus on dark tourism,” he says.

The war in Ukraine might recharge interest in Chernobyl, or “sadly new sites of death and tragedy,” speculates McKenzie, but also “it will be interesting to see how dark tourism may be affected by the Covid pandemic as people will want more traditional rest and relaxation.”

Booming industry

For most ordinary people interested in exploring Titanic’s history, there are standard tourism options: Titanic museums in Belfast, where the ship was built;  in Liverpool, where it was registered; in Southampton, where passengers set sail; and in Cobh, the last port of call.

At Halifax in Nova Scotia, the cemeteries where the victims are buried are a tourist draw and at Cape Race in Newfoundland the story of the rescue effort is told at The Myrick Wireless Interpretation Centre.

McKenzie points to Titanic-related attractions in places with no clear relation to the tragedy – such as Florida and Tennessee – and cruise vacations that retraced the original route.

There’s the long-delayed project by Australian businessman Clive Palmer to build a full-size replica “Titanic II,” about which there are occasional fresh bursts of news.

And then there are the expeditions. A couple of hours’ drive north of the Titanic cemeteries, St. John’s, Newfoundland, has been the launch point for OceanGate Expeditions’ eight-day trips with a $250,000 price tag, including a 12,500-foot descent to the Titanic wreck itself.

OceanGate began operating trips to Titanic in 2021. At least 28 people visited the wreck with the company last year, according to court documents, despite legal accusations over unseaworthiness and doubts over the OceanGate submersible’s unusual design.

The fact that there is such an appetite that people have been willing to risk the dangerous depths for a glimpse of the wreckage has helped create an unhealthy demand for Titanic experiences, says Titanic expert Dik Barton.

“This Titanic world is toxic,” says Barton, who has completed 22 expeditions to the Titanic shipwreck and is the former vice president of operations for RMS Titanic, Inc., the US company with sole salvaging rights to the Titanic shipwreck. (Paul-Henri Nargeolet – the French Navy veteran who died on board the Titan submersible – served as director of underwater research for the operation.)

Barton says it’s “a privilege” to visit the wreck, and points out, with distaste, the occasion in 2001 when a couple controversially got married in a submersible floating on the bow of the wrecked ship.

“Let’s face it, if somebody built a travelator to the top of Everest,” people would go up it, says Barton. “If there’s a way, there’s an opportunity to go, then somehow, someone will go because they can afford it or it’s available.”

But now, following the inevitable investigation into this recent tragedy, “people are going to have to rethink it. The risk factors, the legislative and regulatory aspects of it. I think it also could even extend into tourist trips to the moon and to space and all the other things.”

The loss of the Titan submersible “is a game changer,” says Barton. “This is going to significantly force a review of two things. One is deep sea operations, the compliance and the complexity and the obligation to make sure we are not only safe, but we’re also legal, regulatory-wise.”

The question of artifacts

Appetite for Titanic experiences has also helped drive a thriving if controversial industry around the recovery of items from onboard the ship.

Through his work with RMS Titanic, Inc, Barton was involved in the recovery of artifacts, of which he estimates there are now nearly 10,000 in existence. In the wake of this week’s tragedy, there’s a question mark over whether there will be any more such salvage operations in future.

All the artifacts will have been carefully cleaned, preserved and painstakingly itemized; Barton says it was “one of the mandates of the company” when he worked there to take the utmost care in guardianship and treating the artifacts with respect.

More than half of the artifacts – some 5,500 – are owned by RMS Titanic, Inc and exhibited everywhere from Las Vegas to Paris. They’ve even, contentiously, branched out into the digital world of NFTs.

The dissolving wreck

The Titanic Museum in Belfast, which – supported by Robert Ballard, discoverer of the shipwreck – was part of a failed bid in 2018 to purchase the 5,500 artifacts that make up the RMS Titanic, Inc collection. Its website states that “to date, we have decided not to include artifacts from the Titanic Wreck Site and Debris Field for ethical reasons.”

The “Titanic is a very disparate and very fractious and very emotive subject and the Titanic fraternities even more so,” says Barton, pointing to the broad range of positions on the ethical issues involved. There are those who view the site as a mass grave, others who see it as merely a maritime wreck;  those who think the site should be left alone and that visits are only speeding its decay, others who think it’s important that we document the site and the wreck’s content as much as we’re able.

What cannot be argued with, however, is that the shipwreck will one day disappear, along with all the artifacts that remain at the bottom of the ocean.

The estimates of how long it will take for metal-eating bacteria to erode the remains completely vary from seven years to 50, but “nobody knows,” says Barton.

“The structural strength of her, in the bow section principally, is going to fall in on itself” and once that structural integrity has been undermined, it will “literally fall into a huge great pile of rust.”

The land-based industry that surrounds the disaster, however, with interest further revived by the tragic developments this week, is set to long outlive the wreck’s last physical traces.

This post appeared first on cnn.com