Always wanted to visit the underwater wreck site of Titanic? Well, now you can. Next spring, for the first time since 2012, eight-day dives will take willing tourists to see the infamous shipwreck. But, as it turns out, you’ll need to act fast, as deadly bacteria is quickly destroying what remains of the iconic ship.
Since Titanic’s sinking after the fateful night of April 14, 1912 (in which more than 1,500 people lost their lives), it’s estimated that fewer than 200 people have visited its final resting place. The last crewed mission was in 2005, while a remote-operated vehicle explored the site in 2010. For the sinking’s centennial in 2012, Deep Ocean Expeditions led a series of 12-day dives where groups of 20 tourists, paying $59,000 each, explored the famous watery grave. Those trips were originally intended to be the last time tourists would ever visit the site—turns out, that was wrong.
Now, for $105,129 per person, those who were worried they missed their chance can embark on an eight-day tour with Blue Marble Private (who is working with OceanGate Expeditions.). As part of a seven-week expedition starting in May 2018 that will also include specialists, submersible pilots and an operations crew, groups of nine tourists (who will become “mission specialists”) can accompany expert divers to the site for a week at a time. These specialists will not only get to glide over the picturesque grand staircase, but will be assisting with the research and helping to underwrite the mission itself with their fees. Don’t worry, the groups will closely follow the guidelines established by UNESCO and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to ensure they don’t damage the site.
Along with experts from the Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the team hopes to preserve the history before it’s too late, capturing images from OceanGate’s Cyclops 2 submersible (currently under construction) and creating a 3-D photographic model of the wreck. They will also assess the damage to the wreck. Due to the size of the infamous ship, the team anticipates that documenting the site will take years, and plan to make these dives an annual occurrence.
If you always wanted to visit Titanic but aren’t sure whether to jump on this not-so-cheap opportunity, keep in mind that the site might only be around for another 20 years. When oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered Titanic in 1985 (400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland and 3.8km below the ocean’s surface), he was actually on a secret mission commissioned by the U.S. Navy to locate two submarines that sunk during the Cold War. The lack of light and intense pressure at the wreckage site seemed like it would make the area inhospitable to lifeforms, helping to preserve the ship.
But nobody accounted for a rare, rust-eating bacteria called Halomonas titanicae (named for the wreck it is currently feasting on). Insight into this never-before-seen phenomena came in 1991, when a team of Canadian and Spanish researchers collected samples of “rusticles”—icicle-like rust formations—from the wreck. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that a group of scientists led by Henrietta Mann studied the samples and discovered it was brand-new bacteria. Their findings appeared in the December 2010 issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.
This iron-loving bacteria can survive where most life forms can’t, making the dark, highly pressured home of Titanic a perfect place for it to grow. H. titanicae is nimble, evolving to survive in the ever-changing conditions at the site. Among its most remarkable adaptations is the use of a molecule, known as ectoine, that helps it balance out salt fluctuations at the site.
Along with other corrosive microorganisms, H. titanicae gobbles up the iron in the ship’s metal exterior, forming the rusticles, which over time dissolve into fine powder. It is no surprise, then, that Titanic has been rapidly deteriorating since its discovery, alarming both scientists and enthusiasts who hope to uncover more secrets through further exploration of the wreck. Bacteria on ships is not uncommon, sometimes they serve to protect the wrecks, but that is not the case with H. titanicae. These tiny microbes’ voracious appetites already have experts scrambling to preserve a site that is quite literally vanishing into thin air—or, more accurately, water.
While H. titanicae threatens Titanic, it also has the potential to help eliminate unwanted waste from the ocean floor in a natural, eco-friendly way. “We believe H. titanicae plays a part in the recycling of iron structures at certain depths,” Mann explained. “This could be useful in the disposal of old naval and merchant ships and oil rigs that have been cleaned of toxins and oil-based products and then sunk in the deep ocean.”
The bottom line? If you have some extra cash laying around and have always dreamed of swimming over the infamous, opulent ship’s deck, now is the time to sign up—or start saving. Hopefully, more secrets will be revealed before H. titanicae completely devours its namesake.