Skepticism

Uh Oh, Another Billionaire is Heading to the Titanic Wreck

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Hey, did you see what the billionaires are up to now? “Ohio man plans to take a 2-person submersible to Titanic depths to show the industry is safe after the OceanGate tragedy.” 

CUE THE JOKES

So, I was surprised to learn that it has been less than a year since five billionaires killed themselves in the Oceangate Titan submersible, which I covered at the time to debunk the idea that the sub imploded due to “diversity.” In case you missed it, the quick recap is that Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, was wildly incompetent and refused to take basic safety precautions, leading to the tragedy.

And now, ANOTHER billionaire is going back there! The folly of man! The ego! The obvious failure to learn from history! We can’t wait for THIS guy to die, huh?

Okay look, this is going to surprise some of you, who are aware of my hatred of billionaires and my love of schadenfreude, but in fact, in this video, I am sad to report that I will be defending the billionaire. That’s right: this new mission to the wreck of the Titanic is good and we should support it.

Excuse me while I take a quick shower.

As I mentioned in that previous video, everyone in deep sea exploration was critical of Oceangate. Industry experts sent letters begging Stockton Rush to stop offering rides on his little death machine, literally telling him he was going to get someone killed. He ignored those experts and the inevitable happened.

One of those experts was Patrick Lahey, co-founder of Triton Submarines, who called Oceangate’s submersible a “monstrosity” and begged his friend Paul-Henri Nargeolet not to go aboard. Nargeolet ignored him and was killed in the implosion.

Triton builds bespoke submersibles for billionaires who want to explore the ocean’s depths, and so they are the company that this news is about: Larry Connor, a real estate magnate and adventurer who has been to the space station, contracted them to build him a new submersible called the Abyssal Explorer to get to the Titanic wreck.

Let me be blunt: this is not a ridiculous undertaking. This is a perfectly doable trip for anyone with $20 million to spare. 

You see, the wreck of the Titanic lies at a depth of approximately 3,700 meters, or 12,000 feet. That’s quite deep! But it’s not nearly as deep as the Challenger Deep, which is the deepest depression in Earth’s seabed. In 2019, Triton Submarines built a vessel known as the Limiting Factor, which billionaire Victor Veskovo piloted into the Challenger Deep at a lowest depth of 35,843 feet, or 10,925 meters. That’s about three times the depth of the Titanic wreckage, done five years ago. And guess what? He wasn’t the first. That would be another billionaire: filmmaker James Cameron made it down there all the way back in 2012. That’s not to say it’s easy to take a vehicle to those depths–in fact, it’s an engineering marvel. But it’s been done, many times now, with zero fatalities.

The Oceangate Titan didn’t implode because it tried to go deeper than anyone has gone before. It imploded because the CEO cut corners and skipped basic safety standards. It was piloted by a video game controller. It was oblong instead of spherical to squeeze more people in to make more money. It was doomed from the start. Being scared to take any submersible to that depth again would be like seeing a Tesla almost fling a guy into the path of a freight train and deciding cars are too dangerous to ever be on roads. Which is faulty logic but honestly the conclusion is valid. But let’s get back to subs.

I learned all this about submersibles just a few months ago, thanks to Susan Casey’s excellent book The Underworld: JOURNEYS TO THE DEPTHS OF THE OCEAN. I actually avoid reading nonfiction books because I read nonfiction all day long to make these videos for you, but I just couldn’t resist that one for two reasons: one, I love the ocean. And two, I had just signed up to get certified for SCUBA diving.

If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend doing these two things at the same time. Because Casey’s writing is incredible, and she does a fantastic job of bringing the deep ocean to life. Those descriptions of the beauty and importance of the ocean really helped carry me through the freezing cold pool sessions I did in 45-degree Fahrenheit to eventually get to the actual ocean. And once I was in the ocean, my mind was absolutely blown.

But in the meanwhile, I’ll try to give you a quick overview of the book and the experience. Casey points out that the deep ocean, defined as the water below 600 feet or 183 meters, is huge–in fact, it’s the largest ecosystem on the planet and makes up about 95% of all habitable space on Earth. Despite that, we know so very little about it. For millennia, humans thought that it was a dead space: frozen solid, or too dark and high pressure for any life to survive let alone thrive. But slowly, over the course of the past few centuries, we’ve ventured further and further down into the deep, discovering a shocking amount of life along with a diversity of minerals. And everything that happens down there affects us up here. The deep ocean is integral to our food systems, our climate, our knowledge of how extraterrestrial creatures might evolve without sunlight or oxygen, and our ability to respond to threats like earthquakes and tsunamis.

And the reason why we have a small fleet of billionaires contracting engineers to build them submersibles to explore the deep ocean is in part because our governments are not funding the absolutely necessary research. It’s very similar to space travel in that regard, where we’re starting to rely more on these private corporations to do the work that NASA and other government agencies used to be able to do themselves.

It’s so bad that after Victor Veskovo was done exploring all the deepest parts of the sea with The Limiting Factor, he wanted to sell the submersible but no government agency was interested or able to buy it and afford to run it on research missions. It was destined to sit in a warehouse somewhere, until another billionaire stepped up to keep it running: Gabe Newell, the Valve video game guy. He also rehired the chief scientist of the ship to continue using it for research. That is fucking awesome, but also that is something that the US government should have done.

Because not only is the deep sea incredibly important for the future of humanity, but funding this research SAVES US MONEY. You know I personally hate the economics arguments because if it cost $20 billion to stop the Pacific Northwest from being completely wiped out by an inevitable deep sea 9.9 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami, I think that would be a good deal even if we didn’t make up the money later. Because money is fake and people are real.

But as former chief of staff for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Scott Rayder wrote just last month, that research institution actually saves the US billions of dollars each year just thanks to climate change-related disaster preparedness, and “as acting chief scientist Craig McLean said to Congress three years ago —”NOAA is a $12 billion agency trapped in a $5-and-a-half billion budget.””

All of which brings me back to the latest billionaire to order a new submersible to go down to the Titanic. The Oceangate implosion was an even bigger disaster than just five people losing their lives, in that it has become the touchstone for lay people thinking about ocean exploration: “oh, that’s just a stupid and dangerous thing billionaires do instead of ending homelessness or giving everyone healthcare.” It’s not, and frankly I’m glad that Larry Connor and Triton Submarines are making this attempt to change the narrative. Honestly, their biggest challenge will be a public relations one: when this submersible does NOT implode, will the mainstream press still care? Will they interview the scientists and engineers doing important work on these vessels? I certainly hope so.

Which also brings me back to SCUBA. This is not an ad but I need to shout out Aaron Potash of Original Oaktown Divers, who I contacted on a whim about the idea of gifting my husband diving lessons. He convinced me to join in, and let me tell you, diving in a freezing cold pool in the RAIN was not fun! And being in the Bay Area, I knew that we would need to do our open water dives in Monterey, which I thought was less than ideal. After all, wouldn’t it be better to get certified in a warm, tropical location with colorful reefs and fish and endless visibility? I surf out here so I figured it would be very cold, with poor visibility, and a few boring rockfish. No offense, rockfish, but you can’t compete with Nemo. He got a whole movie!

But Aaron was PUMPED to dive Monterey. He’s gone on dives all over the world but ranks Monterey as one of the best, and goes out there whenever he can. So he started to actually get me excited about going there. And so, after a few pool sessions and a surprisingly math-heavy online course, we finally suited up and walked into Monterey Bay. And friends, it was fucking incredible. The sunlight filtering through towering kelp forests, the starfish spawning, the waving anemones, the completely alien nudibranchs, the adorable otters, and even the sea lions. I’ve seen sea lions thousands of times now, basking on piers and rocks or popping up next to me on my surfboard, but seeing one zoom right past us so close but so quickly that I was the only one who saw it? It was incredible.

And I genuinely think it’s important for more people to experience the ocean like that, or similarly. If you can get into the ocean and have a direct and positive experience with the life there, whether by SCUBA or snorkel or surf or submersible…maybe not a luxury yacht…but any other way, you will develop a connection with the ocean and you will care more about keeping it safe. You will value it, and you will influence other people to value it, and that will make the world a better place.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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